Category Archives: trails

North Backbone Trail Revisited

Wind-swept Jeffrey Pine and Wave Clouds.
Wind-swept Jeffrey Pine and Wave Clouds

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. Photographs of these trees will be included in subsequent posts.

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.

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Mt. Baldy North Backbone Trail

Lodgepole Pine and distorted mountain wave clouds.

Lodgepole Pine and Distorted Mountain Wave Clouds

As I drove under the ski lift on the narrow dirt road, I wondered if I was in the right place. I had turned off of Angeles Crest Highway a few minutes before, and hoped I was still on Blue Ridge Road. My intended destination was an isolated turnout that serves as the trailhead for the North Backbone Trail. This classic trail follows a roller-coastering ridgeline to Mt. Baldy’s broad 10,064′ summit.

Bouncing along the dirt road, I surveyed the sky. The forecast had been for partly cloudy skies, but the morning had dawned overcast and crimson red, and now there was talk of rain. Autumn in the mountains is like that.

The North Backbone Trail is the least popular of the usual routes that ascend Mt. Baldy (Mt. San Antonio). One of the reasons is the bumpy six mile, back country drive to the trailhead. Another is the undulating round-trip route gains (and loses) about 4500′ over about eight miles, climbing over – or nearly over – three highpoints: Point 8555, Pine Mountain (9648′), and Dawson Peak (9575′).

Rounding a corner, I’m surprised to see a small turnout jammed with cars. It’s not hunting season yet, so there must be a group already on the ridge. Squeezing into the last available space, I check that I’m not blocking the road or the car behind me, grab my pack, and jog down the trail to a saddle. To the east Mt. San Jacinto is sandwiched between low clouds and high, and I wonder what the day will bring…

As I reach the summit, the sun breaks through the clouds for the briefest instant. As if driven by my efforts on the ups and downs of the trail, the blues, whites and grays of the sky and clouds have been continuously changing. In turn, the intricacy of the clouds and their motion has energized me. It has been a extraordinary ascent, full of exertion, discovery, wonder, and awe.

A hiker on the summit smiles and waves, and walks over to me. Excited, he tells me that he is 57 and just started climbing peaks two years before. This is his 57th summit. Days like today are why.

The route is a treat for the fit and experienced adventurer. In fair weather, and without any snow and ice, it is a strenuous, but relatively straightforward climb. The ups and downs are generally quite steep and there are a few loose, rubbly sections. I hiked the ups, and jogged the flats and downhills. It is not a place to be in a thunderstorm.

The photograph of a Lodgepole Pine and mountain wave cloud was taken on the slopes of Dawson Peak, on my way back from Mt. Baldy. About an hour later, as I descended from Peak 8555, it started to rain. Autumn in the mountains is like that.

Here’s a Google Earth image of a GPS trace of the route from North Backbone Trail Revisited. Also see Mt. Baldy Runner.

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Cottonwood – New Army Pass Loop

Rock Creek trail below New Army Pass.

The climb up the glacier sculpted canyon hadn’t been too bad. How could it be on a day like this? Winds were light, and the temperature was refreshingly cool – perfect for running in shorts and a lightweight long-sleeve top. As I had worked up the Rock Creek trail, marmots, fat for the Winter, had whistled warnings of my approach and then waddled for cover. Amicable clouds embellished the high mountain sky, and sun-chased shadows quietly set the pace.


Mt. Langley from New Army Pass.
Atop New Army Pass, I marveled at the diverse landscape. To the north loomed the massive hulk of Mt. Langley. Invitingly close, I had climbed the peak from this point several times before. Today, the additional 5 miles and 2300′ in elevation gain were not part of the plan. Just a few hours before I had been in the San Fernando Valley at an elevation of 800′. Now above 12,000′, I was happy to feel more or less normal, be able to run the flats and downhills, and enjoy the day. (See the note regarding altitude sickness and acclimatization at the end of this post.)

New Army Pass (12,300′) is at about mile 12 of the approximately 21 mile loop. On May 1 California Cooperative Snow Surveys reported the Southern Section Sierra snowpack at 177% of normal. Four months and a very hot summer later, remnants of that snow could still be seen on the Sierra crest near the pass.


Long Lake in the Cottonwood Lakes basin.
My route had started at Horseshoe Meadow, climbed to Cottonwood Pass, and then followed the Pacific Crest Trail and a connecting trail to the Rock Creek trail. From New Army Pass the route would drop down to Long Lake, and then head east to Cottonwood Creek, where it would follow a roundabout route back to the trailhead.

Nearly the entire loop is at or above 10,000′, and almost 12 miles of it are above 11,000′. Many miles of the route are in stands of hardy and picturesque Southern Foxtail Pine. A close relative of the Bristlecone Pine, Foxtail Pines can live to be more than 3000 years old.

In places along the crest, impervious trunks of long dead Foxtail Pines lay in the talus. Many of these ancient trees are larger than the live Foxtail Pines surrounding them. In some cases the relic trees are found above the current treeline – a stark reminder of the changeable nature of Earth’s climate.

The title photograph was taken on the Rock Creek Trail at an elevation of about 11,200′ looking west. Mt. Anna Mills is the sunlit peak on the left, and Mt. Guyot is the peak on the right. In the distance are peaks of the Great Western Divide. An USGS aerial photograph of the area suggests that the mound of rocks to the right of the trail may be a moraine associated with a small rock glacier. The red arrow in the aerial photo indicates the approximate position and direction of the photo on the trail. It could be the feature originated as a landslide, but semi-concentric surface ridges in the debris appear to be evidence of fluid motion at some point in the past.

Here’s a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of the loop.

Note: There is much information available on the Internet regarding altitude sickness and acclimatization. As a starting point see International Society for Mountain Medicine: An Altitude Tutorial and Wikipedia: Altitude sickness.

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Balance Rock

Balance Rock above Echo Cliffs.

My plan had been to run out the Mishe Mokwa Trail to the Backbone Trail, and then head west towards Sycamore Canyon. I needed to be back in the Valley before noon, so about an hour out I would head back. Running past Echo Cliffs, I tried to pick out some of the steep climbing routes, and contemplated delicately perched Balance Rock. Sections of the trail facing into the morning sun are already warm, but shaded areas are cool and pleasant. Unlike the hot weather at the end of July, it isn’t like running in Death Valley.

By the time I reached the idyllic, oak-shaded area at Split Rock, I’d pretty much forgotten about Balance Rock and was trying to recall the trail choices ahead. But as I rounded a corner, I couldn’t help but notice a small spur trail marked with a sign announcing “Balance Rock – Not a NPS Maintained Trail.”

The last couple of times I had been on the Mishe Mokwa trail, I’d been on long point to point runs, and couldn’t be impulsive. Not so this time – so I hung a right and went to check out the rock. Here is a closer view.

The rocks of this area owe their striking appearance to a dramatic geologic history. The Dibblee geology map indicates that Boney Mountain, Echo Cliffs, and the summit of Sandstone Peak are exposures of 16.1 to 13.1 million year old Conejo Volcanics, probably deposited as volcanic talus and debris-flows.

After taking a few photos, I returned to the Mishe Mokwa Trail, and jogged up to the Backbone Trail. Out of time, I had no choice but to turn east on the Backbone Trail and return to the car. On the way back I did take a few extra minutes to run up the short spur trail to the summit of 3111 ft. Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The Mishe Mokwa – Sandstone Peak loop has much to recommend it. In terms of scenic value per mile, the approximately 6 mile loop is hard to beat. This National Park Service PDF provides additional information and a trail map of the Circle X Ranch area.

Note: The mileage figure does not include the side trip to Balance Rock. The use trail to the rock – at least the one I followed – was brushy in a few spots.

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Peru Running


Runners on a high plateau above the Sacred Valley of the Incas.


We did this acclimatization run early in our running adventure in Peru. The grain field is on a plateau at about 11,000′, and parallels the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and Urubamba River.


The run took us across the plateau, down to the Maras salt mines, and then down into the Sacred Valley at a little over 9000′. Excited about the trip, we ran most of the way back to the hotel in Yucay. That evening we enjoyed Pisco Sours and an excellent dinner, and then drifted off to sleep dreaming of big mountains and expansive views.


The high peaks beyond the valley are part of the Cordilla Urubamba and are over 5000m (16,400′). The highest point on the Inca Trail, the “pass of the dead woman,” is at about 13,800′. Later in the trip we would cross two 5000m passes while running a circuit of Mt. Ausangate.


The photograph is from July 15, 2003. The trip organizer, Devy Reinstein of Andes Adventures, is a accomplished runner, and a genius at travel logistics and organization.

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Valley Oak Savanna

Valley oak savannah on the north slopes of Laskey Mesa.

What a difference a week makes! At about 10:00 in the morning, when this photograph was taken, the temperature at a nearby weather station was a pleasant 78°F. Just a week before, the mid-morning temperature had been a blazing 104°F, and neighboring Woodland Hills had just set an all-time record high of 119°F!

The photograph is of valley oak savanna on the north slopes of Laskey Mesa in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (formerly Ahmanson Ranch). As mentioned in the posting Laskey Mesa Oak, this area was burned in the 2005 Topanga Fire. If you look closely, the condition of the trees varies widely. Some have full crowns; some partial crowns; and some are nearly bare.

Headed back on the Ahmanson “main drag,” I had done a keyhole loop through Cheeseboro Canyon, starting at the Victory trailhead. The 13 mile route is slightly shorter than the Bulldog Loop, and has less than half the elevation gain. Following several strenuous weeks, the idea was do some tempo and not too much climbing.

Here’s a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of the loop, and links to trail maps for Upper Las Virgenes Open Space Preserve and Cheeseboro/Palo Comado Canyons.

Related post: Ahmanson Blue Oak

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