As of March 1, Downtown Los Angeles had recorded only 1.99 inches rain over the past eight months. Most of that was recorded in one storm in early January. It was the second driest July 1 – February 28 on record.
Following the January storm, temperatures warmed up and stayed relatively warm for much of the next 30 days. In the West San Fernando Valley the high temperature hit 89 °F at Pierce College on February 4, and was over 80 °F for 12 consecutive days. Some plants (and some rattlesnakes) responded as if it was Spring.
In mid February Winter returned, with cool daytime temperatures and cold nights. There were Frost and Freeze Warnings on several nights.
In March the ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure over the West Coast finally relented, resulting in above normal rainfall. It took awhile, but the March rain and April sun eventually produced an assortment of wildflowers.
The group of five mountain bikers first passed me at Strawberry Potrero, a picturesque area on the north side of Strawberry Peak. The circuit around Strawberry Peak is a favorite of MTBers and in recent years I’ve encountered bikes on the loop nearly every time I’ve done it. It’s also an excellent run and part of the Mt. Disappointment 50K course.
The trail segments that make up the usual loop are Josephine Fire Road, Strawberry Spur Trail, Colby Canyon Trail, Strawberry Peak Trail, Gabrielino Trail, and Nature’s Canteen Trail. Today, I was doing a variation of the circuit that swapped out some fire road for trail. Instead of parking at Clear Creek, and running up Josephine Fire Road, I parked at the Colby Canyon trailhead and ran up the Colby Canyon Trail. This variation joins the usual course at Josephine Saddle** and continues around the peak. (Another option climbs over Strawberry Peak.)
I thought I’d seen the last of the mountain bikers, but found them taking a break near the beginning of the two mile, 750′ climb to Lawlor Saddle. We chatted about the great weather and the next section of trail. As I turned to continue, one of the riders asked, “Hey, do you need a GU or anything?” I told them I was good, and started running.
Mountain bikers expect to be faster than a runner — and they usually are — but there are certain situations where runners have an edge. This was one of them. The first half-mile of the climb to Lawlor Saddle is relatively steep. After that the trail backs off a bit, but is still a decent climb. Since I had a head start, I decided to play the “How Long Can I Stay Ahead of Them” game.
I didn’t know if they were going to play or not, but it really didn’t matter. It was a way of having a little fun and motivating myself to push a little harder and run a little faster.
Whether you’re doing the Mt. Disappointment race or not, the climb to Lawlor Saddle will tell you if you are having a good day or bad. Today I was having a good day. The temperature was about 30 degrees cooler than at this year’s Mt. D, and after the initial steep section I ran nearly every step to Lawlor Saddle. A couple of times I thought I heard the bikers behind me, but somehow made it to the saddle without being tagged.
But now I was in trouble. Just past Lawlor Saddle the uphill ends. The question wasn’t if they would catch me, but when. Just before the trail turned to the east I caught a glimpse of a bike at the saddle, so the when might be in just a few minutes. It would depend on how spread out the riders were and if they decided to take another break.
From Lawlor Saddle the trail contours around the south side of Mt. Lawlor for a mile or so, winding in and out of one ravine after another. It’s not particularly technical, but I hoped the frequent turns might slow a bike. I pushed the pace as much as I could.
About a mile from Red Box the trail finished its traverse around Mt. Lawlor and dropped down a rocky section of trail to an abandoned Forest Service road. Foolishly I started thinking maybe, just maybe, I’d make it to Red Box ahead of them.
Only about a quarter-mile from Red Box and in sight of the parking lot, I heard the tell-tale jingle-jangle of a bike bell. It wasn’t far behind me, and I moved to the side of the trail to let them pass. As the lead bike rolled leisurely past, he commented, “Hey, we weren’t sure we were going to catch you!”
The game over, I settled back in for the last few miles of the run.
** The location of Josephine Saddle is currently mismarked on Google Earth and Google Maps. The saddle at the top of the Colby Canyon Trail has long been known as Josephine Saddle. It is marked as such on the U.S.G.S 7.5 Minute Condor Peak Quadrangles from 1959 to 2012. It is called Josephine Saddle in John Robinson’s authoritative guidebook Trails of the Angeles and numerous other guidebooks and route descriptions.
The north side of San Gorgonio Mountain was closed in June 2015 when the Lake Fire burned approximately 31,359 acres of forest, chaparral, sage, pinyon and Joshua tree habitat at elevations ranging from about 10,700′ to 5350′. As a result of the determined efforts of firefighters, only one residence and some remote outbuildings were lost.
Of the 30,487 acres reviewed by the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team 4,327 acres (14%) were categorized as Unburned; 17,100 acres (56%) as having Low soil burn severity; 8,420 acres (28%) as having Moderate soil burn severity; and 640 acres (2%)with High soil burn severity. (Note that soil burn severity isn’t necessarily synonymous with fire intensity and fire effects such as tree loss.)
I’d been keeping an eye on the Alerts & Notices section of the San Bernardino National Forest web site to see if the Lake Fire closure order would be renewed. I was curious to see the extent and impacts of the Lake Fire and how the area was recovering. Plus, the Dollar Lake – Dry Lake keyhole loop is an outstanding trail run — one of the best in Southern California. In addition to climbing San Gorgonio Mountain (11,499′), it encompasses some of the most scenic areas on the peak.
The area’s trails reopened July 20. The weekend prior to the reopening San Gorgonio Wilderness Association volunteers worked on the South Fork and Dry Lake Trails, clearing a number of large trees, removing debris and other hazards and improving the trail tread.
A week and a half after the opening I pulled into the South Fork parking lot on Jenks Lake Road, excited to get on the trail. There was a slight chance of thunderstorms in the forecast, and I hoped to be off the summit and on my way down by 10:30 or 11:00.
Most of the run is in the San Gorgonio Wilderness and a wilderness permit is required. Check a map, but the general sequence of trails is the South Fork Trail, Dollar Lake Trail, Divide Trail, Summit Trail, Sky High Trail, Dry Lake Trail and then back down the South Fork Trail to the trailhead. This Google Earth image shows the western part of the Lake Fire burn area in relation to San Gorgonio Mountain and some of the area’s trails.
Here are a few photos taken during the run:
Click an arrow or swipe to advance to the next image or return to a previous image.
Overview of the western flank of the 31,359 acre 2015 Lake Fire burn area and FRAP fire history. The fire database showed two previous fires in the area -- a fire in 1950 (309 acres) and in 1951 (1412 acres). The yellow trace is the GPS track of my run.
Crown-sprouting California black oaks along the South Fork Trail about 0.5 mile from the trailhead. July 29, 2017.
Mix of burned and scorched trees below Horse Meadow about 1.1 mile from the South Fork trailhead. July 29, 2017.
It was a close call at Horse Meadows, but the cabins and most of the trees appeared to be OK.
Post-fire understory regrowth above Horse Meadows folowing the 2015 Lake Fire. The regrowth helps protect and promote the germination and growth of pine seedlings. July 29, 2017.
Woolly mullein (Verbascum thapsus), an invasive species, along the South Fork Trail. July 29, 2017.
Prickly poppy blooming along the South Fork Trail on San Gorgonio Mountain. July 29, 2017.
The change in soil chemistry and other factors influence the growth of plants following a fire, in this case promoting the growth of southern goldenrod. July 29, 2017.
The western part of the BAER Soil Burn Severity Map with my route highlighted. The full map can be found here. Of the 30,487 acres reviewed by the BAER Team 60% were categorized as either unburned (14%) or low soil burn intensity (56%).
Coyote tobacco along the South Fork Trail. The flowers of the plant were open in the morning and closed in the afternoon. The plant changes the time of day the flowers are open to protect itself from hungry caterpillars that hatch from eggs deposited by pollinating moths.
A Jeffrey pine on the Dollar Lake Trail above South Fork Meadows on San Gorgonio Mountain that was previously struck by lightning and then scorched in the 2015 Lake Fire. This image from 2013 shows the size of the tree. July 29, 2017.
South Fork Meadows from the Dollar Lake Trail on San Gorgonio Mountain. July 29, 2017.
Dollar Lake Saddle from the Dollar Lake Trail about 5 miles from the South Fork Trailhead following the 2015 Lake Fire. July 29, 2017.
Regrowth of chinquapin along the Dollar Lake Trail on San Gorgonio Mountain following the 2015 Lake Fire. July 29, 2017.
Chinquapin produces a nut, several of which are encased in each thorny burr.
Nearing Dollar Lake Saddle on the Dollar Lake Trail. The 2015 Lake Fire burned a number of limber pines in this area. July 29, 2017.
Continuing on the Divide Trail above the Little Charlton - Jepson saddle. At this point the elevation is about 10, 600' and it's about two miles to the summit of San Gorgonio.
View west from near the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain on July 29, 2017. That small patch of snow was nearly gone a week later.
The final section of trail leading to the summit of 11, 499' San Gorgonio Mountain, the highest peak in Southern California. There was only one other person on the summit at 10:45 a.m. He had ascended the peak via the Vivian Creek Trail.
San Jacinto Peak (10839') from the Sky High Trail on the south side of San Gorgonio Mountain.
Cumulus clouds were already beginning to develop over San Gorgonio Mountain and San Jacinto Peak when I left Gorgonio's summit at 10:45 a.m. and by 1:00 p.m. or so it was mostly cloudy. Thunder rumbled in the distance a couple of times.
These lodgepole pines along the Fish Creek Trail were previously killed by a bark beetle infestation. Some of the dead trees were burned in the Lake Fire.
Dry Lake on San Gorgonio Mountain. July 29, 2017.
Creek crossing on the Dry lake Trail at South Fork Meadows, near its junction with the Dollar Lake and South Fork Trails. July 29, 2017.
Paintbrush and yarrow along the South Fork Trail. July 29, 2017.
Sugarloaf Mountain (9952') from the South Fork Trail.
Goldenrod and penstemon along the South Fork Trail about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. July 29, 2017.
On this particular run I also wanted to check out the Fish Creek Trail and the “use trail” down to Lodgepole Springs and Dry Lake, so rather than continuing down the Dry Lake Trail from Mineshaft Saddle, I turned right (east) and followed the Fish Creek Trail to Fish Creek Saddle.
There were some downed trees and a lot of fire debris on the Fish Creek Trail. Extra care was required and I probably hiked as much of it as I ran. As I worked toward Fish Creek Saddle I could not tell how much of the canyon leading down to Lodgepole Spring had burned. The slopes on the southwest side of Grinnell Mountain had burned and some areas along the Fish Creek Trail had burned as well. Whether I descended to Lodgepole Spring from Fish Creek Saddle or returned to Mineshaft Saddle would be a judgment call.
Arriving at Fish Creek Saddle I was glad to see the forest was intact. The path down to Lodgepole Spring looked promising, but had not been used in some time. As it turned out most of the trees along the path had not burned. In places, runoff from the burned slopes above had resulted in some erosion and small flows of sandy soil. There were also the usual downed trees, but other than being a little challenging to follow, the path was generally OK.
I was nearly off the trail when the “chance of thunderstorms” forecast materialized into threatening gray clouds, a few sprinkles, and a couple of rumbles of thunder.