Category Archives: running|adventures

Strawberry – Bear Canyon Loop

Trail runner in Bear Canyon, in the San Gabriel Mountains.

The Strawberry – Bear Canyon loop trail run is a longer, more adventurous variation of the run around Strawberry Peak described in the post Strawberry Peak Circuit.

The photograph Fall Leaves On Bear Creek was taken on this loop in November 2005. As described in that post, instead of descending directly to Switzer’s from Red Box, this route descends the West Fork to Valley Forge Campground and then climbs up and over the shoulder of Mt. Wilson, and down into Bear Canyon, eventually working its way back to Switzer’s and Clear Creek.

Without any wrong turns or other route finding issues the loop works out to about 25.5 miles with an elevation gain and loss of about 5500-6000 ft. The running (and hiking) is extremely varied, including fire roads, old road beds, easy trail, technical trail, and lots of up and down. Bear Creek’s lush canyon is gorgeous, but 20 miles into the run, it’s winding course and many creek crossings can prove demanding.

I attempted to obtain a GPS trace of this route in 2005, but the steep, narrow canyons defeated my Foretrex 201. Not so with my Forerunner 205. I continue to be amazed at the 205’s performance. Here’s a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of the GPS trace of my route.

Related posts: Spring Growth, Fall Leaves On Bear Creek, Forerunner 205.

Backbone, Bulldog & Beyond

A dramatic gorge of volcanic rock sculpted by Malibu Creek.

For me part of the fun of trail running is not always following “the plan.”

When the doors of the car slammed shut at Tunnel #1 on Kanan-Dume road we had no idea that about the time we expected to be back to the car, we would be scrambling among huge boulders in a dramatic gorge of volcanic rock sculpted by Malibu Creek. It wasn’t part of the plan.

The plan had been to do a point to point run to Tapia Park along the Backbone Trail. But at the top of Upper Solstice Canyon, standing in a misty rain, we opted to run over to the Bulldog “T” and down into Malibu Creek State Park. And there we were, at least a few miles from the Backbone Trail, ogling the convoluted and pocketed walls along the creek, wishing we had our climbing gear!

San Gorgonio High Line

Mt. San Jacinto from the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain

One of the other climbers commented, “It’s almost eerie.” And it was. On the 11,499′ of San Gorgonio Mountain there was not a breath of wind and the temperature was a comfortable 50-something degrees. Wisps of cirrus accentuated the azure sky, and to the southeast San Gorgonio’s ever-present companion, Mt. San Jacinto, stood quietly above Banning Pass.


San Bernardino Peak and the Mt. Baldy area from the summit of East San Bernardino Peak.
A couple of hours before I had been sitting on the summit of East San Bernardino Peak, debating whether to continue my planned trek to San Gorgonio. I was considering running over to San Bernardino Peak instead, and then calling it a day. For sure I couldn’t do both. I didn’t have enough water, and the only nearby water source might be dry.

A month old report from the Water Collector had noted water “barely trickling” out of the pipe at Trailfork Springs. I wasn’t familiar with the spring, and given the pessimistic report probably wouldn’t do the required detour to check it out. So whatever I did, my remaining water would have to do. If I didn’t push too hard, it would get me to San Gorgonio, but probably not over to San Bernardino Peak and then to Gorgonio. (Note: A better late season water source is High Meadow Springs. The springs and camp site is about 1/3 of mile below the Divide Trail, east of Shields Flat. The turn off to the spring is between high point 10500 and Red Rock Flat. On a run of this course in late October 2009 the spring had a good flow.)

The hike up from Momyer had been unrelenting – a gain of 5250′ in elevation over about 7.5 miles. It was kind of like going up the Palm Spring Tram, without the tram. Beyond the turn-off to Alger Camp the character of the trail changed from obvious and well-trodden, to a schizophrenic path that in places was the kind of trail that only the really adventurous enjoy.

There were numerous downed trees, stark evidence of the bark beetle infestation. Although most could be bypassed or clambered over, one recently downed tree required a face in the dirt belly crawl. In other areas the manzanita, chinquapin, and whitethorn were so thick that the trail, though nearly invisible, could not be lost. Upward progress was possible by only one route.


Saddleback (Santiago Peak) from slopes below East San Bernardino Peak.
In counterpoint to these inconveniences were the early morning views of Mill Creek Canyon, idyllic sections of forested trail, Clark’s Nutcrackers and gnarled Lodgepole pines on the high mountain slopes, and outstanding views of Saddleback and Mt. San Jacinto. Near one fallen tree an opportunistic red paintbrush bloomed as if it were Summer. It is better to be positive…

Back on East San Bernardino Peak, I needed to make a decision – San Bernardino Peak or San Gorgonio? Instead I wandered about the peaklets in the area, not really heading in the direction of either peak, but evaluating how I felt and thinking through scenarios… Feel OK… Full moon tonight… Enough water to get to the peak… Water at Vivian Creek… Weather great… Know the route… After a few minutes, I found myself bearing slowly to the east, picking up the Divide Trail and starting to run.


San Gorgonio Mountain from East San Bernardino Peak.
The distance by trail from East San Bernardino Peak to Mt. San Gorgonio is about 8 miles. Virtually all of route is above 10,000′ and along a spectacular mountain divide. The running on this high line is unmatched in Southern California. Once on the Divide Trail and headed in the direction of San Gorgonio there was no thought of turning back. Perhaps the biggest difficulty was resisting the ascent of the many named peaks along the way. Without more water, most of these would have to wait until a another day.


Epilogue: The climb from Momyer (5500′) to East San Bernardino Peak (10,691′) took about 3 hours, and the traverse over to Gorgonio (11,499′) about 2.5 hours. I reached the summit of Gorgonio at about 1:00 p.m, and after running down the Vivian Creek trail, and through Forest Falls, made it back to Momyer at about 4:00 p.m.

The distance to the summit of Gorgonio from Momyer via East San Bernardino Peak is about 15.5 miles, and the total length of the loop is about 26 miles. About 11 miles of the route is above 10,000′ and the total elevation gain and loss is on the order of 7000′. If you include Alto Diablo, there are nine named peaks above 10,000′ along the route. Dobbs Peak is somewhat further from the trail than the others, but rounds out the total to ten. Here is a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of the loop.

Note: Mill Creek can be difficult and dangerous to cross.

Related post: San Gorgonio High Line 2009

Google search: $g(trail running), t$(San Gorgonio Mountain)

Room with a View

Tahquitz Peak Historic Fire Lookout

Tahquitz Peak Historic Fire Lookout

The intimidating canyon rose steeply above me. Towering rock precipices lined the canyon walls, their summits glistening in the morning sun. I was at an elevation of about 2600′ and it was already warm. A little unsteady, and moving slowly at first, I started the ascent. Gaining speed, I passed the first rock face, and after a minute or two, turned to gaze at Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. In what seems like a matter of minutes, yucca and cresote transitioned to mountain mahogany and juniper, and then to pine and fir. Suddenly my pace slows, there is a bump, a jostle, and a pause. The operator announces, “Welcome to the mountain station of the Palm Springs Tram. The elevation is 8516’…”


Palm Springs Tram
A 10 minute ride from the desert to the pines on the Palm Springs Tram isn’t a bad way to start a run. A couple of weeks before I had seen Mt. San Jacinto from the North Backbone Trail and it reminded me that I hadn’t done that peak in a while. As the weekend approached it looked like the weather would be perfect for a long mountain run.

Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness contains a network of over 50 miles of trails, including a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail. The resourceful runner or hiker can put together an adventure ranging from a few miles to 30 miles or more. I hoped to beat the worst of the Sunday going home traffic, so opted for an approximately 20 mile route that would get me back to the tram in the early afternoon.

Stopping at the ranger station in Long Valley, I filled out a wilderness permit. Cool air had pooled in the valley overnight, and the deck of the station was still in shade. The ballpoint pen protested the 40-something degree temperature, but with repeated attempts, I scratched in my destinations: Mt. San Jacinto and Tahquitz Peak.


The summit of Mt. San Jacinto, with Mt. San Gorgonio (11,499') in the distance.
My route would take me to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto (10,834′), back down to the junction at Wellmans Divide, and then continue down to the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT would be followed through Saddle Junction to the junction with the South Ridge Trail, and then continue on this trail to the historic fire lookout on Tahquitz Peak. I would return to Long Valley via Skunk Cabbage Meadow and Hidden Divide. Here’s a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of the route.

The run and the running were outstanding – a blue skies and sunshine kind of day, with Autumn shadows, light winds, pleasant temperatures, and nearly unlimited visibility. Much of route was through spectacular old-growth forests of Jeffrey Pine, Lodgepole Pine and White Fir. The uphills were generally very well graded, with long runnable sections. And the downhills – ah the downhills – some rocky and technical, and some that make you feel as if you’re blazing down the trail on a Star Wars speeder bike.


Tahquitz Peak Historic Fire Lookout.
The lookout on Tahquitz Peak is a can’t miss destination. On the way, there are superb views of Tahquitz and Suicide rocks, and from the summit there are expansive views in nearly all directions. Palomar Mountain can be seen about 30 miles to the south, Saddleback about 50 miles to the west, and Mt. Baldy and its neighbors about 65 miles to the northwest. Much closer are the slopes leading to Jean Peak and the summit area of San Jacinto.

The lookout operated continuously from 1917-1993, and is listed in the National Historic Lookout Register. It reopened in 1998 and is manned by volunteer Fire Lookout Hosts.

Walking up the stairs in the mountain station, I glance at my watch. It’s 2:00 p.m.and the next tram is just about to depart. I’m back to my car and headed down the hill by 2:30, but it’s still not early enough to miss the traffic on I-10.

Related post: Skiing San Jacinto, Autumn Trail Running on Mt. San Jacinto

(Also see Manzanita, Ice and Clouds, The Shovel, and Mt. San Jacinto Summit Hut on SierraPhotography.com.)

Strawberry Peak Traverse

Josephine Peak from the northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.

When I broke through the top of the stratus layer, bright sun glared from the jagged granitic rocks along the ridge. To the west, Josephine Peak (5558′) was nearly immersed in an ocean of clouds.

The route I was doing was a variation of the Strawberry Peak Circuit described in the posting Spring Growth. Instead of going around the peak on the Colby Trail, this 13-mile loop climbs up and over Strawberry’s summit (6164′), ascending the class 3 northwest ridge, and then rejoins the circuit at Lawlor Saddle. Although a couple of miles shorter than the circuit around the peak, this route has more elevation gain, and the class 2 and class 3 sections of the ridge require careful route-finding.

Class 2, class 3 – what’s that about? Basically, class 1 is hiking, class 2 is easy scrambling where the hands are used for balance, and class 3 is when the scrambling gets serious, and handholds are required. Another element of class 3 climbing is that staying on route can be important. Deviating from an established route may significantly increase the difficulty or hazard. This is certainly the case on the northwest ridge of Strawberry.

Like much of the San Gabriel Mountains, the rocks of Strawberry Peak are old and fractured. Large landslides have originated from the northwest face of the peak. (The Colby Trail passes through the moraine-like debris of one of these slides.) Because of its friable nature, extra care is required when climbing the northwest ridge. Hand or footholds can break, or footing can be lost on a sandy shelf. Or, as described in a story by pioneering aerodynamicist Paul MacCready, the climber can be trapped in a situation where they cannot climb up or down.

The northwest ridge of Strawberry is by far the most frequently climbed class 3 route in the San Gabriel Mountains. Done with care and appropriate skill, the climbing on the ridge can be an enjoyable and unique experience.

On the summit ridge, I admired the steep northwest face of Strawberry Peak as it plunged through the morning shadows to Strawberry Potrero nearly 1500′ below. Did I hear voices down there, or was it just the wind…

Here are a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of the route.

North Backbone Trail Revisited

Wind-swept Jeffrey pine near Dawson Peak
Wind-swept Jeffrey pine near Dawson Peak

I was cold — but not cold enough to do anything about it. I was chugging up the final steep step on Mt. Baldy’s exposed northern flank and didn’t want to stop. Strong winds were gusting out of the northeast, and the effective temperature had to be in the thirties. Mountain wave clouds paralleled the San Gabriels, stretching in a line from southwest of Mt. Baldy to beyond Mt. Williamson.

At the trailhead I’d seen the lens shaped clouds hovering over the mountains and expected it to be windy and cold. I’d changed my single layer long sleeve top for a more wind resistant double layer top and also pulled on some warmer shorts. I had started the climb with lightweight gloves and a  3 oz. rain shell in my pack. The gloves were out of the pack by the first peaklet, but I was still resisting putting on the rain shell.

So why repeat the same adventure on back-to-back weekends? The main reason is that I really enjoyed the route. But there were several more obtuse reasons as well. Last week, my Garmin Forerunner 205 would not turn on*. This is a known issue with an otherwise excellent GPS. However the usual workaround, pressing Mode + Reset + Power simultaneously, would not bring mine to life. So I didn’t get a a GPS trace of the route. The trace is not only useful for determining the approximate length of the route and elevation gain, but for documenting where photographs were taken and the location of interesting features.

This week I used my older Garmin Foretrex 201 GPS. It isn’t as compact or comfortable to wear as the Forerunner 205, and isn’t quite as sensitive, but at least it could be powered on. There were two trees in particular that I wanted to georeference. The first was a Jeffrey pine that had been recently struck by lightning. As it turns out, it didn’t require a GPS to determine its location because it is already marked on the topo as point 8555. The second was a gnarled and ancient Sierra Juniper on Pine Mountain.

Here’s a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of the route. The title photograph is of a wind swept Jeffrey Pine on a south facing slope near Dawson Peak, with mountain wave clouds in the background.

*Garmin promptly replaced the unit. As a precaution, I now check that the unit can be powered on after it is removed from the recharging cradle.

Some related posts: Mt. Baldy North Backbone Trail, Mt. Baldy Run Over the Top