I took a few tentative steps into the dense brush and stopped. It was just too overgrown. I backtracked a few feet to the overlook at the top of Lake Vista Trail and reconsidered. If it was this overgrown all along the ridge, it was going to take a long time to get to the summit.
I was trying to get to the top of “Lake Vista Butte,” a high point along a prominent ridge of volcanic rock that stands between Reagan Ranch and Malibu Creek. The ridgeline and summit provide a unique perspective of Malibu Creek, Century Lake, Goat Buttes, Malibou Lake, and much of Malibu Creek State Park.
I dove back in, walking on top of a dense mat of dried deerweed and then working around a thicket of laurel sumac. Even if it was buried in a tangle of chaparral, it helped to know there was a path along the ridge. As I worked east along the ridgeline, the path would briefly emerge, only to disappear under another mass of scrub and brush.
In places, enterprising orb-weaver spiders had constructed intricate webs across remnants of trail. Their artwork was easy to spot in the morning sun, and even though their webs blocked the trail, they could not be disturbed. At least the spiders were out in the open. A rattlesnake could be anywhere in the rocks and brush and might not be kind enough to give a warning.
The route along the ridge wasn’t technically challenging, but like the spider’s web, required patience to complete. Low in the sky, the morning sun complicated the route-finding, making it more difficult to see sections of the trail and link them together. Far outweighing these inconsequential difficulties were the exceptional views of Malibu Creek State Park’s crags, canyons and mountains while traversing the ridge.
As often happens, the return to the Lake Vista Trail took less time than the ascent. Back at the overlook, I began retracing my steps down the Lake Vista and Deer Leg Trails and over to the top of the Cage Creek Trail. I was headed down to Malibu Creek to check the condition of the Forest Trail.
The Forest Trail is the “Walden Pond” of Malibu Creek State Park. Bordered by Century Lake on one side and the steep slopes of a rocky butte on the other, it is a contemplative place and one-of-a-kind habitat. It is home to towering coast redwoods, sprawling live oaks, sweet-smelling California bay, and water-loving California sycamores. Deer, ducks, bullfrogs, herons, hawks, falcons, and other wildlife may be seen here.
Fallen trees have been accumulating on the Forest Trail for months. On my last visit, following T.S. Hilary’s passage, another large oak had fallen near the beginning of the trail, making it unusable. Today, I was happy to find that the trees had been cleared, and the Forest Trail could be followed to its end at Century Lake Dam.
The eye-catching colors of apple galls are like nothing else in chaparral and impossible to miss. These are on scrub oaks along the Stunt High Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The galls are chemically induced by the larva of the California gall wasp, which uses the gall for food, protection, and to pupate. The rose color appears to result from exposure of the gall to sunlight.
I was descending the Stunt High Trail after visiting Saddle Peak while doing the Topanga Ridge Loop. As in other parts of the Santa Monica Mountains in which I’ve run following Hilary’s deluge, the trails were somewhat more eroded than usual but in OK shape.
Tropical storms are a different kind of weather beast than usually seen in Southern California. The warmer air associated with such storms can carry much more water and produce unusually high amounts of precipitation.
The rain resulting from Tropical Storm Hilary shattered many daily and monthly records. Over decades of record keeping, most stations in the greater Los Angeles area had previously measured only a trace of rain on August 20 or 21, or at best, a few hundredths of an inch. Some stations had never recorded any rain on these days.
The highest rainfall amounts occurred where the precipitation was enhanced by mountainous terrain. The northeast-facing slopes of the eastern San Gabriel Mountains, near Wrightwood, were ideally positioned in Hilary’s circulation to enhance rainfall. The Big Pine RAWS recorded over 6 inches of rain for the storm, Lewis Ranch slightly over 7 inches, and Lytle Creek nearly 10 inches.
Curious to see some of the local impacts of the storm, I ran at Ahmanson Ranch on August 22 and then a few days later at Malibu Creek State Park.
My West Hills weather station, about three miles from Ahmanson Ranch’s Victory Trailhead, recorded 3.86 inches of rain for the storm. After an initial technical hiccup, the Cheeseboro RAWS, overlooking Las Virgenes Canyon, recorded 3.52 inches of rain. This and other data suggest rainfall amounts in the Ahmanson area of at least 3.5 – 4.5 inches.
My Ahmanson run started at the Victory trailhead, went out East Las Virgenes Canyon, through part of Las Virgenes Canyon, and then up to Lasky Mesa. With that much rain, I was sure I would be wallowing in the mud and wading the creek crossings. But my shoes didn’t even get muddy!
As Hilary moved northward in California, the counterclockwise circulation of the storm increased the rainfall in the Santa Monica Mountains. Automated RAWS stations in Topanga, the Malibu Hills, and in Malibu Canyon recorded 4.0 to 4.5 inches of rain during the storm. CNRFC gridded precipitation data indicated higher amounts in some parts of the range.
On August 27, I ran the Bulldog Loop in Malibu Creek State Park. The run started at a small parking area at the junction of Malibu Canyon & Piuma Roads. As I was running up the Tapia Spur Trail, I wondered if State Parks had — as a precaution — removed the seasonal bridge across Malibu Creek on the Crags Road Trail. On August 19, the day before Hilary drenched the area, the bridge had been in place for the Bulldog Ultra. If it wasn’t removed, did Malibu Creek get high enough to damage it?
It looked like Malibu Creek State Park received more rain than Ahmanson Ranch. There was slightly more erosion on the dirt roads and some small sluffs/slides, including one tree that slid onto Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road. A tree had also fallen near the beginning of the Forest Trail.
Back at Ahmanson on August 31, things were drying out, but it was beginning to look like Spring. Grass was sprouting all over Ahmanson Ranch. It will be interesting to see if the grass survives the inevitable heat and grows enough to turn the hills green. The little bit of rain and cooler weather over Labor Day weekend will help. Some out-of-season wildflowers could also result from a false Spring.
Yesterday, I did a run in Topanga State Park, and the story was much the same. There was some minor erosion on the fire roads, but none of the larger sluffs and slides seen during the rainy season. There was no new damage to the Musch or Garapito Trails. It did look like the flow had increased on Garapito Creek with Hilary’s rain, and there was a still little water in the mainstem of the creek.
Update September 3, 2023, 1:15 p.m.Caltrans Quickmap is showing Angeles Crest Highway (Hwy 2) is now open between Grassy Hollow and Vincent Gap. Caltrans Road Conditions says the closure is “5 mi west of Big Pines.” Google Maps and Waze still show the section between Grassy Hollow and Vincent Gap as closed.
Update August 23, 2023. The Big Pines RAWS recorded 6.26 inches of rain, and Lewis Ranch RAWS 7.04 inches from T.S. Hilary. The heavy rain on the north-facing slopes of the eastern San Gabriels may have produced debris flows in the washes crossed by the Manzanita Trail. Excessive runoff may have done more damage to stabilized sections of the Manzanita Trail where it crosses steep slides above Paradise Springs. According to CalTrans, the previously open section of Angeles Crest Highway (Hwy 2) between Grassy Hollow and Vincent Gap is currently closed.
I’d been thinking about doing the South Fork Loop, a challenging loop that I usually start at Islip Saddle. The route descends the South Fork Trail to South Fork Campground (4,565′) and then climbs all the way to the top of Mt. Baden-Powell (9,399′), using the Manzanita Trail and PCT. From the top of Baden-Powell, the PCT is followed back to Islip Saddle.
But there were a couple of problems with this idea. First, the road to Islip Saddle — Angeles Crest Highway — was closed. More importantly, parts of the South Fork Trail were burned in the Bobcat Fire, and heavy snow and rain may have damaged the South Fork Trail or Manzanita Trail.
The road closure would be easy to work around — the loop could be started at Vincent Gap. But I definitely needed to check the condition of the South Fork and Manzanita Trails. The loop is difficult, even when the trails are in good shape.
I decided to check the Manzanita Trail first. If that trail had issues, then the condition of the South Fork Trail didn’t matter.
So that is what I was doing today. The plan was to run the Manzanita Trail from Vincent Gap down to South Fork Campground, then turn around and — just like on the South Fork Loop — take the Manzanita Trail and PCT to the top of Mt. Baden-Powell.
I woke early on Sunday and arrived at Vincent Gap at about 6:45 a.m. With much of Angeles Crest Highway closed, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the main parking lot was already full. I nabbed the last spot in the overflow area across the highway. I could only imagine what it must be like on the trail up Baden-Powell.
But I didn’t have to worry about that — not for a while. I grabbed my pack from the back of the car and started jogging down the Manzanita Trail. On that trail, I probably wouldn’t see anyone!
As would be expected on a little-used trail after a hard Winter, the Manzanita Trail was a bit of a mess. In addition to being generally overgrown, there were fallen trees, brush deposited on the trail by runoff or avalanches, minor washouts, and other damage. These slowed the pace but weren’t too much of a problem.
On the other hand, there is a section of the Manzanita Trail that could be a serious issue. It is where the trail crosses several steep, loose, stabilized slides. This area is about 4.4 miles from Vincent Gap and 1.4 miles from South Fork Campground. This section of the trail is almost always damaged, but on past adventures, had always been passable. How bad was it going to be today?
The answer is — pretty bad. As I started across the first slide, it looked like it would go just fine, but then I looked closer. One of the abutments on the down-slope side of the trail had completely given way. The trail had collapsed, leaving only a narrow slice of crumbling dirt along the base of the up-slope barrier. I would have to use the barrier to get past, and it wasn’t in the best shape. I’m sure people have done this, but it seemed like a bad idea. I could see no straightforward way around the collapsed trail. Disappointed, I turned around and started working back up the trail toward Vincent Gap.
I’d been running for a few minutes when I came across a “lightning tree.” These are trees that have been struck by lightning and have a scar spiraling down their trunk. I’ve photographed a number of them. Some are in a location that you would expect to be struck by lightning, but just as many are along seemingly unexposed sections of trail. Once, I was running down the PCT below Mt. Hawkins, well below the crest, and a tree 50 yards down the slope was smoking from just being struck.
On the way back up to Vincent Gap, there would be a little route-finding fun. The Manzanita Trail crosses some small debris-filled washes. Over time, paths develop through the rubble but can be intermittent and indistinct. Debris flows can destroy a part of nearly all of a path.
Did I mention the gnats, stinging nettle, and Poodle-dog bush? Oh, the gnats. On the way down the trail they weren’t too bad, but as the temperature warmed, they became increasingly annoying and persistent.
When doing the South Fork Loop, I usually stop for water at the stream that feeds Icy Springs. The trail was overgrown near the stream, and mixed in with the greenery was some stinging nettle. Even knowing it was there, I managed to brush against it on the way down the trail and then again coming back up.
What the heck? As I topped out at Vincent Gap, the sounds of revelry came from across the highway. It was party time in the Baden-Powell parking lot! A large group of people were gathered at the west end of the lot, near the trailhead. Were they preparing to do a mass ascent of Baden-Powell? I quickly refilled my hydration pack, grabbed some food, and headed up the PCT.
Once I escaped the craziness of the parking lot, it turned out to be one of the most pleasant ascents and descents of Baden-Powell I’ve done. Even with the machinations of the Manzanita Trail earlier in the morning and the additional vertical gain, Baden-Powell couldn’t have gone better. Very few hikers were on the trail, everyone was super-friendly, and when I reached the summit, it was empty — at noon, on a Sunday, in August!
The puzzle to solve this weekend was to find a run that was closer to home, higher than the Santa Monica Mountains, and had a “decent amount” of elevation gain. The solution put me right back at Red Box, doing two of the most popular peaks in the Front Range — Strawberry Peak (6164′) and San Gabriel Peak (6161′).
The main difference is that the 2018 run/hike was on a cool day in March, rather than a hot day in August. In 2018, I did San Gabriel Peak first, then Strawberry. The order didn’t matter. The temperature on both peaks that day was mostly in the 40s.
Today, it was essential to do Strawberry first, and get started early. The use trail between Lawlor Saddle and Strawberry’s summit faces south and east, and has very little shade. It’s steep and strenuous an no fun at all in the hot sun.
I left the Red Box parking lot at about 6:00 a.m. On the way up, the temperature ranged from the mid-50s to the mid-70s. On the way down, in some places it was already in the 90s. While it was hot in the sun on the upper part of the mountain on the descent, the traverse around Mt. Lawlor on the Strawberry Trail was still mostly in the shade and a relatively cool 75 to 80 degrees.
San Gabriel Peak isn’t the solar oven that Strawberry is. Much of the Bill Riley/Mt. Disappointment Trail faces north and a scrub oak forest provides some shade. Continuing up San Gabriel Peak after doing Strawberry, the temps were generally in the low to mid-80s.
Angeles Crest Highway was still closed between Red Box and Vincent Gap, and the heatwave continued. I was trying to decide where to run.
I briefly considered the Circuit Around Strawberry Peak, but yesterday at 10:00 a.m., the “in-the-shade” temperature at Clear Creek was already 92°F, and the “in-the-sun” fuel temperature 109°F. By 1:00 p.m., the fuel temp reached a scorching 122°F!
Although trailheads such as Three Points and Islip Saddle couldn’t be accessed using Angeles Crest Highway, the highway was open from Wrightwood to Inspiration Point and Vincent Gap. After seeing the temps at Clear Creek, it took about two seconds to make the decision to head to the San Gabriels’ high country.
From Inspiration Point (7,365′), I ran east on the PCT about 7 miles to the North Backbone Trailhead on Mt. Baldy. Over most of that stretch, the temperature was a blissful 60-something degrees. Other times, I’ve driven to this trailhead — which requires a high-clearance vehicle — or run to the trailhead from Wrightwood. But the run along Blue Ridge is a favorite. It is especially scenic, with fantastic views of Mt. Baden-Powell, Iron Mountain, Pine Mountain, and Mt. Baldy.
Another 10 minutes of climbing and I reached the Pine Mountain Juniper. Straddling the rocky crest at an elevation of about 9000′, this stalwart tree is estimated to be 800 – 1000 years old. It is a remarkable tree in a remarkable location. Except for one short, steep, eroded section, the remainder of the trail to the top of Pine Mountain (9648′) was relatively straightforward.
Pine is the second-highest peak in the San Gabriels and has excellent views of the surrounding terrain. It is higher than Mt. Baden-Powell (9399′) and Dawson Peak (9575′) but a few hundred feet lower than Mt. Baldy (10,064′).
From Pine Mountain, the North Backbone trail continues over Dawson Peak another 2.5 miles to Mt. Baldy. There was still a long ribbon of snow along the east side of the upper North Backbone, but it looked like the trail might avoid it. I would have liked to confirm that, but today the top of Pine was my planned turnaround point. As it was, with the warm weather, I thought I might run short on water on the return to Inspiration Point.
Leaving Pine behind, I started back down — jogging when it made sense — but trying not to do anything stoopid. On the way down, I kept reaching behind me and squeezing the bladder in my hydration pack. I guess I was hoping that it would magically be more full than the last time I checked. It never was.
Back at the North Backbone Trailhead, and definitely low on water, I decided it was a good time to run the dirt road back to the top of the Acorn Trail and see how much shorter it was than the PCT. The answer was not much — only about a tenth of a mile.
I’d been willing to push the water envelope because it had been a heavy snow year. I expected the spring near Guffy Camp would probably be running. I’d passed the side trail to the spring a bunch of times but never ventured down the steep slope. My impression was that the spring was often low or nearly dry. This time when I reached the side trail, I headed down.
And down and down… It sure seemed like a long way to the spring, but when I checked the track, it was less than a quarter-mile with an elevation loss of about 200′.
Back on the PCT, the temperature was generally in the mid-eighties but was warmer on south-facing slopes. At about 1:00 p.m., the in-the-sun fuel temperature at the Big Pines RAWS was 109°F. I was very happy to have the extra water.