Strawberry Peak and San Gabriels’ High Country from Josephine Peak

Strawberry Peak and the San Gabriel Mountains high country

A hazy view of Strawberry Peak (6164′) and the high country of the San Gabriel Mountains from Josephine Peak.

Here’s a zoomed view of the high country with the peaks identified.

Front Range Duo: San Gabriel Peak and Strawberry Peak

Bigcone Douglas-fir on San Gabriel Peak
Bigcone Douglas-fir on San Gabriel Peak

The two highest peaks in the front range of the San Gabriels, Strawberry Peak (6164′) and San Gabriel Peak (6161′) are about three miles apart as the raven flies and about 6 miles apart by trail. If you don’t mind running/hiking a third of a mile on Mt. Wilson Road, you can do both of them from Red Box as a 12 mile run/hike with a total gain of about 3000′.

Strawberry Peak and Mt. Lawlor from San Gabriel Peak.
Strawberry Peak and Mt. Lawlor from San Gabriel Peak.

Earlier this morning, I’d done San Gabriel Peak. It’s the shorter of the two ascents — from Red Box it’s about 2.4 miles to the summit. While the elevation gain is nearly the same as climbing Strawberry, it is a less strenuous and more straightforward peak. Except for a short stint on the service road below Mt. Disappointment, the grade of the San Gabriel Peak Trail is relatively constant — and the trail goes all the way to the summit.

Josephine Peak (5558') and Mt. Lukens (5074') from the summit of Strawberry Peak.
Josephine Peak and Mt. Lukens from the summit of Strawberry Peak.

The route up Strawberry Peak is distinctly different. The initial 2.5 miles follows the Strawberry Peak Trail to Lawlor Saddle, gaining a moderate 500′ along the way. From there a steep, rough and sometimes rocky use trail ascends 950′ in a little over a mile to Strawberry’s summit.

That’s where I was now — nearly at the end of that brutal mile-long climb. My heart was racing and my legs felt like Jello. Reaching the crest of Strawberry’s final false summit, I jogged across the shoulder of the peak and on uncooperative legs climbed the final few feet to the summit.

To the southeast, San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Disappointment stood across the canyon and further to the east, indistinct in the morning haze was snow-capped Mt. Baldy. To the west, the view extended past Josephine Peak and Mt. Lukins to the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Susana Mountains.

The southwest side of San Gabriel Peak was burned in the 2009 Station Fire.
The southwest side of San Gabriel Peak was burned in the 2009 Station Fire.

Recovery from the devastating 2009 Station Fire continues on both peaks. The amount, extent and size of Poodle-dog bush (Eriodictyon parryi) in the burn area is slowly diminishing. Some plants have died, but there are still viable plants of which to be wary. These plants were on the San Gabriel Peak Trail, above the notch, on the final climb to the summit of the peak. I don’t recall seeing any Poodle-dog bush on the ascent of Strawberry from Red Box, but it is still present on the west side of the peak.

Some related posts: Strawberry Peak, Switzer’s and the Old Colby Trail, Bear Canyon Loop Plus Strawberry Peak, After the Station Fire: Ten Miles – Four Peaks

Two Sides of Strawberry Peak – Spring 2021 Update

Josephine Peak and Mt. Lukens from the northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak

The photo above — of Josephine Peak — is the reciprocal view of this photo of Strawberry Peak. The photo of Strawberry from Josephine shows the dogleg approach along the ridge that connects Josephine Saddle to the northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.

Strawberry has always been popular, but because of the Pandemic and fire closures, there has been an increase in the number of people doing the peak. Not having done the peak for a couple of years, I was curious to see if the condition of the use trail on Strawberry’s northwest ridge had changed.

Google Earth image of Strawberry Peak from Josephine Peak, with GPS track of route from Josephine Saddle to summit
Google Earth image of Strawberry Peak from Josephine Peak, with GPS track

Given my early start, I was surprised to find the small parking area for the Colby Canyon Trail nearly full. I don’t know where all those people went, because I passed only one small group on the way to Josephine Saddle, and I didn’t see anyone between Josephine Saddle and the summit. There was a group on the summit, but they had hiked the trail from Red Box.

The last time I did the loop over Strawberry was April 2019. At that time sections of the use trail along the ridge leading to the upper northwest ridge of Strawberry were badly overgrown. This time around, increased usage has generally improved the path along the approach ridge. Plus, there has been some work done on the section of trail that was the most overgrown. However, to benefit, you have to stay on the trail. It wanders all over the place, and if you get impatient, you’ll be fighting your way through thick, thorny brush.

Upper northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.
Upper northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.

There was a little patchy snow on the steep, deeply shaded, north face of the peak. The snow was generally left of the normal rock climbing route up the northwest ridge. The patch or two on the route were easily avoided. Early or late season, this more technical section can be like a deep freezer. Today, it was cool, but comfortable. As mentioned in other posts, the steep, upper part of Strawberry’s northwest ridge requires good route-finding and some rock climbing skill. It is important to stay on route.

The steep section of the ridge ends a little below the top of Strawberry. I paused there for a moment to enjoy the view… Was that music I heard coming from the summit?

It was. The group that was on the summit was kind of encamped there. It looked like they might be a while, so I just said hi, and started down the east side of the peak.

I expected a lot of people to be on the trail up Strawberry from Red Box. It was busy, but seemed about normal for a Sunday in Spring with idyllic weather. There were fewer large groups coming up from Red Box than in April 2019.

Upper West Fork near Red Box following the Bobcat Fire
Upper West Fork near Red Box from the Strawberry Trail. Mt. Wilson is in the distance.

At Red Box I stopped to take a look at how the 2020 Bobcat Fire had impacted the upper part of the West Fork drainage. There was a substantial fire scar on the left side of the canyon, but the right side of the canyon looked better than I expected. An upcoming post will include an interactive 3D visualization of the Soil Burn Severity in the Bobcat Fire area, along with the GPS tracks of some popular trails.

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t encounter any mountain bikers on the Gabrielino Trail between Red Box and Switzer’s. There were plenty of tire tracks, so I must have been between groups. I did encounter two misplaced hikers. They stopped me and asked how much farther it was to the falls. Unfortunately, they had gone the wrong direction on the trail from Switzer’s, and were several miles from Switzer Falls.

At Switzer’s, I chugged up the access road to Hwy 2, and then ran on the verge next to road back to the Colby Trailhead. Somehow, more cars were packed into the small parking area.

Starting and ending at the Colby Trailhead, the loop is a little over 12 miles with about 3200′ of elevation gain/loss. Starting at Clear Creek adds about a mile to the loop. Some prefer to do it as keyhole loop, returning to Josephine Saddle from Lawlor Saddle using the Strawberry and Colby Trails. I haven’t done it that way, but the mileage looks to be only slightly less than the full loop through Red Box.

Some related posts: Strawberry Peak

Two Sides of Strawberry Peak

Strawberry Peak's Northwest Ridge
Northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.

Update March 28, 2021. The use trail between Josephine Saddle and the rock climbing segment of the northwest ridge is in somewhat better condition this Spring.

Where did the trail go? Rejuvenated by substantial Winter rains, the whitethorn on Strawberry Peak was not only impinging on the trail, but also my arms. I took my running sleeves out of a pocket of my pack and pulled them on. That helped, and I was able to push through some thorny limbs to the next clear section of the path.

Chaparral whitethorn blocking the use trail along Strawberry Peak's northwest ridge.
Chaparral whitethorn blocking the use trail along Strawberry Peak’s northwest ridge. Click for larger image.

When following an overgrown trail I’ve learned to trust the “sense” of the trail. Even if it doesn’t look like there is a route forward, if you just take a few steps a seemingly impassible trail often becomes passable. I sometimes look at the trail behind me to confirm I’ve really been following a trail, and am continuing its path. If it doesn’t open up, I backtrack to see where I went wrong.

Winding through the thick brush along Strawberry Peak’s northwest ridge, I was happy to see that all of the Poodle-dog bush along the route had finally withered and died. Poodle-dog bush is fire-follower that causes dermatitis in many people. It became very widespread in the San Gabriel Mountains following the 2009 Station Fire. Reported reactions varied from a very mild rash to a severe rash with blistering. The troublesome plant must serve some role in the fire recovery process, but I’m glad its cycle is near its end.

It seemed like it was going to be a quiet day on Strawberry. The loop I was doing began at the Colby Canyon trailhead and I’d been the first to park there. The few tracks on the trail were old and the only people I’d seen were a group of mountain bikers at Josephine Saddle. The view from the mountain was spectacular. A sea of low clouds lapped at the mountain slopes and washed into the canyons, bringing with it a feeling of wanderlust and vitality.

Colby Canyon from near the top of Strawberry Peak's northwest ridge.
Colby Canyon from near the top of Strawberry Peak’s northwest ridge. Click for larger image.

Finally reaching the steeper part of Strawberry’s fragmented northwest ridge I climbed up the initial sandy ledges to an area of somewhat better rock, taking care not to slip on the ball-bearing grains of decomposing granite. Generally, the rock improves somewhat with height. Higher on the ridge, I enjoyed doing a couple of optional boulder moves that were a little more technical. (I’d done these before and knew they were not a dead-end.)

Reaching the top of the ridge, I could hear conversation and laughter above me. From the summit ridge I could see there were people on and near the summit. I threaded my way to the summit, greeting the hikers along the way. On the summit, a small dog said hi, and I treated my new friend to an obligatory neck scratch.

In nearly five decades of doing the peak, I’d never seen so many people on the peak. I had forgotten that Angeles Crest Highway was closed at Red Box due to a rock slide. With snow in the high country and the great Spring weather, Strawberry Peak was a very popular place.

Running down to Red Box I’d encountered many more hikers, some smiling, some not, but most were enjoying being on the trail. That’s the thing about the outdoors, it just feels good to be out there.

Related post: Strawberry Peak, Switzer’s and the Old Colby Trail

After the Station Fire: Strawberry Peak Summit Regrowth

Chaparral regrowth near the summit of Strawberry Peak

Did the Colby Canyon – Strawberry Peak – Red Box loop again over the Thanksgiving holidays. While taking some photos near Strawberry’s summit I was struck by the regrowth that has occurred since the 2009 Station Fire. What caught my eye were the bare limbs of the old growth, burned in the fire, projecting from the new, dense, green growth.

The growth of the chaparral over the seven years since the fire does not appear to have been noticeably impaired by the 2011-2015 drought in Southern California. (In the photograph above note the height of the regrowth compared to my friend near the summit.)

This conclusion is based in part on the observation of chaparral regrowth following other fires, such as the 2005 Topanga Fire, but is also supported by comparing the amount of new growth to the pre-Station Fire growth. This can be inferred by the length of the burned limbs and the approximate age of the chaparral when burned by the Station Fire.

According to the FRAP California geodatabase of fire perimeters, the last fire to burn the summit of Strawberry Peak was the 1979 Sage Fire, which burned approximately 30,000 acres. Before that you have to go back to 1896 to find another fire in the database that burned Strawberry’s summit.

In the absence of fire, it appears that in another 23 years the chaparral in the title photo could reach a similar height and extent to the old growth.

Strawberry Peak, Switzer’s and the Old Colby Trail

Strawberry Peak and Colby Canyon
Strawberry Peak and Colby Canyon

The Colby Canyon Trail is one of the historic trails of the San Gabriel Mountains. When Switzer Camp was established in 1884, Colby Canyon was an irresistible gateway leading deeper into the wilderness. The compelling and sometimes snow-covered peak at its head was one of Switzer’s many attractions.

Jason and Owen Brown (1884). Photo: Los Angeles Public LIbrary
Jason and Owen Brown (1884). Photo: Los Angeles Public LIbrary

In the History of Pasadena Hiram A. Reid recounts the story of how the peak was named in 1886 “by some wags at Switzer’s camp” because of its resemblance to a strawberry. He goes on to describe how one of them irreverently added, “We called it Strawberry peak because there weren‘t any strawberries on it.”

While Strawberry may have been climbed previously, the establishment of Switzer’s made it possible to climb the peak recreationally. In Early Mountain Ascents in the San Gabriels (100 PEAKS Lookout, Jul-Aug 1971) John Robinson notes an 1887 ascent of Strawberry Peak by Owen and Jason Brown — sons of abolitionist John Brown. Robinson describes the “Brown Boys” as the first local “peak baggers.”

Colby Canyon and Arroyo Seco from high on Strawberry Peak.
Colby Canyon and Arroyo Seco from Strawberry Peak.

Climbing Strawberry via Colby Canyon has been a long-time favorite. Last Saturday I’d done Strawberry via Colby Canyon as part of loop — ascending the Colby Canyon Trail to Josephine Saddle, climbing over Strawberry Peak, running down to Red Box and then down the Gabrieleno Trail to Switzer’s. A 0.3 mile connection along Angeles Crest Highway completed the route.

Today I did a variation of the same loop, this time bypassing Josephine Saddle and following (more or less) the route of the old Colby Trail up the ridge at the head of Colby Canyon to Strawberry’s main west ridge.

Overview of the route of the old Colby Trail from Strawberry Peak
Overview of the route of the old Colby Trail

As shown on this USGS Tujunga topo map from 1900, a century ago the Colby Trail was much more direct. It linked Switzer’s Camp in upper Arroyo Seco to the Colby Ranch and other ranches and holdings in Big Tujunga Canyon. It was a much shorter alternative to the roundabout route that ascended to the head of Arroyo Seco (then Long Canyon), and then continued past present day Red Box to Barley Flats and down to Wickiup Canyon. More on the history of Colby Ranch and Big Tujunga Canyon can be found in the Winter 1938 edition of Trails Magazine (12.6 MB PDF).

Ridge that was the route of the old Colby Trail.
Ridge that was the route of the old Colby Trail.

A well-used game trail wanders up “Colby” ridge, but the path is far from ideal and not always distinct. Our four-legged friends don’t necessarily follow one path, especially where the route is steep and loose. Deer are well-suited to this kind of terrain, their long, skinny legs being perfect for following an overgrown path lined with thorny buck brush. In a couple of places there were short segments of trail that look like they might be remnants of the trail indicated on the 1900 topo.

Bear tracks on the west side of Strawberry Peak.
Bear tracks on the west side of Strawberry Peak.

It’s easy to understand why the old route on the ridge was abandoned; the route to Josephine Saddle is far better and MUCH faster!

These sections of the 1934 Mt. Lowe Quadrangle advance sheet and 1939 Mt. Lowe Quadrangle shows the dramatic changes in the area with the construction of Angeles Crest Highway (LRN 61) between La Canada and Colby Canyon. The 1934 sheet shows the reroute of the Colby Canyon Trail to Josephine Saddle and then contouring around Strawberry, as well as the trails along the west and east ridges of Strawberry and connecting from Lawlor Saddle to Colby Ranch. The updated 1939 sheet includes the Josephine Fire Lookout and the Josephine Fire Road.