The last time I was on this part of the North Backbone Trail it was bitterly cold and very windy. Today it was just very windy. Even though the air temperature was in the 70s, the “wind chill” was enough that I was considering grabbing the sleeves and shell from my pack.
I stopped in the lee of a sprawling, stunted lodgepole pine and enjoyed a moment of relief, shielded from the wind. But there wasn’t that much mountain above me, and I resumed zig-zagging up the final steep stretch of trail. Climbing a little higher, I could see the trail sign that marks the top of the North Backbone Trail.
Mt. Baldy from Wrightwood is a more difficult variation of the North Backbone Trail route. Instead of driving to the North Backbone Trailhead on East Blue Ridge Road (F.R. 3N06), you run/hike to the trailhead using the Acorn Trail and a short stretch of Blue Ridge Road or the PCT. (The dirt road is slightly shorter, but you don’t have to dodge off-road vehicles when on the PCT.)
Including Pine Mountain (9648′) and a short detour to the top of Dawson Peak (9575′), the regular North Backbone route is about 8 miles long and gains/loses around 4700′. Starting in Wrightwood at the small parking area on Acorn Drive ups those totals to around 15 miles, with a 6800′ gain/loss.
A mix of hikers and trail runners were scattered across the broad summit of Mt. Baldy (10,064′). The wind wasn’t as strong on the summit as it had been on the North Backbone. Smoke from the Western wildfires reduced the visibility, but the air quality and view were still pretty good.
Like many mountains, the adventure didn’t end on the top of the peak. The elevation gain on the way back to Wrightwood is significant, and much of the downhill demands close attention — especially on tired legs. I squeezed the water bladder in my pack and tried to estimate how much was left. The day was just going to get warmer, and I hoped it was enough to get me back over Dawson Peak and Pine Mountain. On the way up, I’d stashed a small water bottle near the North Backbone Trailhead, and that would help on the final few miles.
Other than initially running past my water stash, the descent went well. Once on the PCT I could run normally — well, more or less normally — and it didn’t take long to get over to the Acorn Trail.
When doing the AC100 and related training runs, I’d run/hiked up the Acorn Trail a number of times, but I’d never run down it. After all the rough trail on the North Backbone, it was great to be able to cruise down through a forest of pine and fir on a well-groomed trail!
I’d decided to stay off the higher peaks because a combination of monsoon moisture and an upper level low was probably going to produce some thunderstorms in the high country. The action was forecast to stay east of of the Mt. Wilson area, but there was a chance there might be enough clouds to knock the temperature down a few degrees.
But a chance is just that, and the day dawned mostly clear and warm at Red Box. A few feathery high clouds had no effect on the sun, and as I jogged up Mt. Wilson road to the start of the Mt. Disappointment Trail, the temperature was already in the 80s.
I was doing a 15-mile version of the Red Box – Bear Canyon loop. The main trails that make up this version of the loop are the Mt. Disappointment Trail, San Gabriel Peak Trail, Mt. Lowe Fire Road, Upper Bear Canyon Trail, Bear Canyon Trail, and the Gabrielino Trail. Refer to a trail map for additional details.
As it turned out, the Bear Canyon Trail was in the best condition I’ve seen in years. Thank you Bear Canyon Trail Crew! While still rustic, the trail between the old cabin site and the trail camp was a bit more worn than usual, and a little easier to follow. In some years it can be much more difficult to navigate.
No one was camped at Bear Canyon Trail Camp. The condition of the creek was similar to 2018. There were a few small pools here and there, but almost no surface flow. In addition, strict fire restrictions are currently in effect. See Forest Order No. 05-01-21-04.
The dry conditions had one benefit — I didn’t have any issues with stinging nettle. There was still plenty of poison oak, but it was drying out and turning red. For the most part the poison oak could be avoided.
The Gabrielino Trail between Switzer Falls and Switzer’s Picnic area was as busy as usual, including one hiker walking their cat!
As I worked up the Gabrielino Trail above Switzer’s, I kept looking for those monsoon clouds. Temps in the sun on the exposed trail was in the high 90s, and it was a relief to finally get to the more shaded sections near Red Box.
The adventure combines a seven-mile run on the PCT along Blue Ridge with a strenuous 1.5 mile, 1500′ climb up the North Backbone Trail to the summit of Pine Mountain (9648′). The Pine Mountain Juniper, estimated to be 800-1000 years old, is found at the 9000′ level of the North Backbone Trail.
On the way out I was glad to see the PCT had been rerouted around a steep, rocky stretch of trail below Mountain High West’s snow-making pond. I stayed on the PCT except for a very short section of dirt road between the top of the Acorn Trail and the overlook of the huge Wright Mountain landslide scar. The single track is more pleasant, and I didn’t have to worry about vehicles or their dust. I left the PCT when I was directly above the North Backbone Trailhead. A short path descended to the road.
The North Backbone Trail seems to be getting more attention these days. This adventure could be extended to include Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy. A similar route was part of the 44-mile Big Pines Marathon — possibly the first mountain ultra in the U.S.
WARNING: The North and Northeast Ridges of Lone Pine Peak are long, complex, alpine climbing routes. Many people climb them without issue, but some are forced to retreat, bivi, or have other difficulties. Some have problems finding the descent routes. Depending on your mountaineering and rock climbing skills, the weather, and your judgement, these climbs can be a fantastic experience or an epic nightmare.
The soaring knife-edge ridges and sweeping granite faces of Lone Pine Peak are compelling features that mountaineers and rock climbers find irresistible. The North Ridge — the right skyline of the peak when viewed from the Owens Valley — is the most popular climbing route on the mountain. It was first climbed in September 1952 by A. C. Lembeck and Ray W. Van Aken. In the 1954 edition of the Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra, it was described as a long class 5 route requiring six pitons.
What’s old is new again, and with the rapid evolution of climbing in the ’70s, the North Ridge was rediscovered. I think I first heard about an “amazing ridge” on Lone Pine Peak out at Stoney Point. There was a group of us that bouldered at Stoney on Tuesday and Thursday and then climbed at Tahquitz, Suicide or JT on weekends. Periodic multi-day trips to the Needles, Yosemite, Tuolumne, and the Sierra rounded out our climbing routine.
Phil Warrender and I, along with other climbing partners, climbed the North Ridge many times. We’d drive up from L.A. after work, sleep at Whitney Portal, and would climb the ridge the following day. I don’t think I climbed the North Ridge by the same route twice. That was part of its attraction.
Because we were familiar with the approach and descent, climbed the ridge without a rope, usually didn’t have route-finding issues, and ran down most of the Meysan Lakes Trail, we were able to do the North Ridge comfortably in a day. Starting at the Portal 6:00 a.m., we typically made it back in the mid to late afternoon.
You can’t climb the North Ridge, or look at Lone Pine Peak from the Owens Valley, and not think about climbing the Northeast Ridge. To our climbing eyes, the Northeast Ridge looked like it was going to be more difficult than the North Ridge. The Northeast Ridge looked sharper and the towers more dramatic. And, it looked like the ridge ended at a headwall.
Whether it was the perceived difficulty and the strenuous approach — or just random chance — nearly 30 years after the first ascent of the North Ridge, there was no record of the Northeast Ridge having been climbed.
Phil and I did a lot of rock climbing and mountaineering in 1982. That June, along with Rich Grigsby, we climbed Whitney Portal Buttress. Lone Pine Peak was across the canyon, and I think that’s when we decided we had to get on the Northeast Ridge as soon as possible. We scouted the approach and waited for the snow higher on the ridge to melt.
To give ourselves the most daylight for dealing with possible problems on the technical part of the ridge, we decided to hike the non-technical section in the afternoon, then bivi and start climbing early the next morning. One downside of this decision was that it was July, and we did the hike during the hottest part of the day.
To save weight we carried a minimum of “just in case” climbing gear. We took the good half of an 8 mm rope that had been damaged. We packed “swami belts” instead of climbing harnesses. The webbing was much lighter and more compact, and might come in handy if we had a problem. We took a few slings and maybe a nut or two. In a pinch we figured we could use natural protection or chock some appropriately shaped rocks. We hiked and climbed in approach shoes. Phil’s shoes were Nike Lava Domes. I don’t recall what shoes I used, but I do remember that the soles started to delaminate during the climb.
We each took a couple bottles of water. We thought there was a slight chance of finding an accessible patch of snow higher on the route, but that didn’t happen. There was a little snow in the gully between the Northeast and North Ridges.
We both carried (film) cameras. My camera (and maybe Phil’s) was a Pentax ME. At that time, I was shooting a lot of B/W film – rolling my own cartridges from a bulk roll of fine-grained 2415 Tech Pan film and developing it myself.
The climb could not have gone more smoothly. It was a granite playground of ramps, towers, and feldspar dikes and crystals. Everything that looked like it might be a problem had a solution. My notes regarding the route were pretty sparse:
“Ramp on right of first major tower. Followed a dike on another. Traverse on shattered ledge/weakness on final headwall.”
We never used the rope or any of the climbing gear. There were a few bouldering-type moves, but overall the climbing was surprisingly straightforward. The rock quality was generally good. The granite is peppered with large feldspar phenocrysts. These can make great holds, but can also pop unexpectedly.
Judging from the sun angle and shadows, it was around noon when I took this last photo high on the ridge. That would have put us on top about 1:00 p.m. It may have been earlier. Low on water, we briefly visited Lone Pine Peak’s summit, and then hiked south to the usual descent chute on the west side of the peak.
Hurrying down the scree, we thirstily drank from the first little stream we encountered. After rinsing off the granite grime at a nearby tarn, we found the Meysan Lakes Trail, and headed back to the Portal.
For the second time this month, I was crossing San Gorgonio’s summit plateau and relieved to be nearing the summit. Most of the uphill was done! My route was the same both times — South Fork, Dollar Lake, Divide, and Summit Trails up; then the Summit Trail, Sky High, Dry Lake, and South Fork Trails down. Here is an interactive, 3D terrain view of the route.
The changes along the South Fork Trail in just two weeks were remarkable to see. It may be Summer in the lowlands, but Spring was still in progress on the mountain. Withered-looking black oaks were now flush with leaves; newly sprouted ferns had unfurled, filling areas of the understory with bright green fronds; colorful wildflowers seemed to have appeared overnight.
Over the past two weeks, trailwork continued in the area. The start of South Fork Trail was rerouted for a second time since the 2015 Lake Fire, avoiding a very steep, root-filled section. In a continuing battle, some of the dead trees that had fallen on the trail had been cleared.
Earlier in the month a few small patches of snow could still be seen on the mountain, but today it was nearly gone. Only one tiny, stubborn patch of snow remained on the crest, near the summit. Most of Southern California recorded below average precipitation this past year. According to OntheSnow.com, nearby Snow Summit recorded 121″ total snowfall in the 2020-2021 season. This compares to 110″ in the 2019-2020 season and 143″ in the wet 2018-2019 season. A paltry 36″ was reported in 2017-2018.
As I started up the final rocky hill to the top of San Gorgonio, a small group of hikers scrambled down from the summit. As was the case earlier in the month, the summit area was nearly empty. On an ascent in September 2019 — when wilderness permits were not required — I’d estimated 40-50 people on, or around, Gorgonio’s summit. The restoration of the permits seemed to have made a big difference.
In 1989, the “San Bernardino County Surveyors” determined the elevation of San Gorgonio Mountain to be 11,501.6 feet. They placed this small marker on summit. The USGS page Global Positioning Application and Practice discusses some higher precision GPS equipment and survey methods. The elevation of the mountain has probably shifted a little since that measurement was done.
After comparing notes with a runner doing the clockwise version of the route I was doing, I headed back down the Summit Trail to its junction with the Sky High Trail.
By their very nature, mountain trails are scenic, but the Sky High Trail is exceptionally so. Running down the Sky High Trail is what running in the mountains is all about. It is spectacular! That doesn’t mean it’s a cakewalk. The trail is rough, rocky, and crosses steep slopes. As with any trail on such terrain, snow on the trail can be a serious issue.
It can be very warm in the afternoon on the Dry Lake Trail between Dry Lake and South Fork Meadows, but today gusty winds kept the temperature moderate. At South Fork Meadows, I gulped down a liter-bottle of water, enjoying the cool shade, and then finished the run.
The Palisades Fire began the evening of May 14, 2021 in Santa Ynez Canyon, near Michael Lane in Pacific Palisades. According to the Los Angeles Fire Department Palisades Fire incident page, 1202 acres were burned, one firefighter was injured, 710 structures were threatened, but no structures were damaged or destroyed. The fire was fully contained on May 26.
Most of Topanga State Park was closed as a result of the fire. The Park reopened, with restrictions, on June 11. On June 13, I found myself chugging up the Garapito Trail toward Eagle Rock, and wondering what I was going to find.
I was doing a variation of one of my favorite trail runs in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains — the Trippet Ranch Loop.
This trail run links together several single-track trails and fire roads between Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park (Top of Reseda) and Trippet Ranch. With the addition of an out and back segment on the the Santa Ynez Canyon Trail, the route included all the trails impacted by the fire.