Update June 11, 2021. Topanga State Park was reopened with restrictions. See the Park website for details.
According to the Topanga State Park website, all but a small part of the Park is temporarily closed as a result of the Palisades Fire. With the closure of most of the Park, I’ve been curious to see which trails were affected by the fire.
When I started up the trail from Vincent Gap (6585′), the thermometer on my pack read 36°F. For the first few switchbacks, the trail was immersed in cloud. Beneath the tall conifers, the sandy soil was dotted with droplets of moisture extracted from the fog.
I was on my way to Ross Mountain (7402′), one of the most isolated peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains. At the end of a rugged, 3-mile ridge extending south from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell, the peak overlooks the vast canyons of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness.
This morning, the canyons were filled with a 7000′ deep layer of stratus clouds. With a weak upper low over the Southern Sierra, the question of the day was whether the cloud deck would work up the ridge from Ross Mountain and completely envelop Baden-Powell.
Well acquainted with the trail up Baden-Powell, a combination of fast-hiking and slow-jogging put me on top in a relatively comfortable 90 minutes. I’d tried not to overdo the pace, knowing from previous experience that the return from Ross Mountain would be the tough part of the day.
From the summit of Baden-Powell, I gazed across the sea of clouds to Mt. Baldy. There was almost no snow on its steep north face. San Gorgonio Mountain was visible in the haze to the left of Pine Mountain and San Jacinto Peak in the gap between Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy.
Walking a little down the south side of Baden-Powell, I got my first good look at the South Ridge. Ross Mountain was nearly covered in clouds. Guessing that the deck of clouds might deepen, and a few minutes might make the difference of being in the clouds or out, I started to jog-lope-shuffle down the initial steep slope.
The title photo was taken a bit past Peak 8375, about 1.7 miles from Baden-Powell and 1.2 miles from Ross Mountain. At that time the clouds were spilling over the ridge near Peak 7407 and Peak 7360+, and around Ross Mountain.
The clouds added an aesthetic element to the adventure, as well as a little uncertainty. They accentuated and embellished the terrain, while threatening to make the conditions wet, cold and disorienting. Being familiar with the route helped me to enjoy the experience more than the concerns.
Don’t let there be a headwall… Don’t let there be a headwall… That’s what I kept muttering to myself as I climbed up the decomposing granodiorite rib. The topo map showed the rib connecting directly to the crest, but from my vantage point I couldn’t tell if that was actually going to happen.
So far the the difficulties had been manageable. The route had been steep and loose, but for the most part it was at an angle that probably wouldn’t result in a long fall or slide. Probably. But if it got any steeper it could be a problem, and I really didn’t want to downclimb 1200′ of crumbly rock and loose debris.
Working up the rib I had gone from “secure spot to secure spot,” trying to minimize my exposure in between. In a few places a climbing move had been required to avoid disturbing fractured or delicately balanced rocks. On one section it had been necessary to crawl through a mountain mahogany, its stiff limbs poking fun at my route-finding. Higher up, the solid handholds of a massive gray boulder had helped to ascend a particularly loose section.
As I climbed, I considered alternative routes, surveying the terrain to my left, right, and along the crest. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better line. But I needed to be patient. The rib was working and I just needed to stay on it.
I tried to recall if I’d ever been on anything like this. I’d certainly done a few class 2 descents on Sierra peaks that were loose. The closest comparison might be some of the “knapsack passes” in the Sierra. These are usually class 2 or class 3 routes that go over notches and connect one high basin to another. They are often steep, loose and wet, and can hold snow or ice throughout the Summer.
And then suddenly I was on top. There was no more rib to climb. While I enjoyed the problem solving, it’s not a climbing route I would recommend, and I probably won’t repeat it.
Climbing the rib was my overly-creative way of doing a loop that included the Hawkins Ridge Trail. I’d done Middle Hawkins (Peak 8505′) as a side trip on a run from Islip Saddle to Baden-Powell, but had not gone down the ridge as far as Sadie Hawkins (Peak 8047′).
It was the perfect day to be running the Ridge Trail. The weather was far better than during my last run in the area. Temps were about 20 degrees warmer, and while it was still breezy, the wind was nowhere near the strength of a couple weeks ago. A sea of marine layer stratus filled the valleys and extended into San Gabriel Canyon, providing an “above the clouds” backdrop befitting of a mountain trail.
Winding down the use trail from Sadie Hawkins, I rejoined the main Hawkins Ridge Trail and followed it down to the saddle between Sadie Hawkins and South Mt. Hawkins. Two weeks ago, I’d followed the road up to South Hawkins and then descended the north ridge directly. This time I ascended the Hawkins Ridge Trail, carefully following the trail. I was surprised to find it didn’t ascend the north ridge directly, but wrapped around the west side of the peak.
Later, as I ran down South Mt. Hawkins Trail/Road, I thought about the amount of rocky debris along and on the road. It emphasized the friable nature of the rock above, and how often there are larger rockslides. When I reached the point on the road where I could see the route I’d climbed, I just shook my head. Who the heck would want to go up there?
There was hardly any wind on the drive out to Azusa, and I wondered if the offshore wind event forecast to peak this morning was going to happen. But after winding up Highway 39 to the Windy Gap Trailhead, all doubts vanished. The wind was blowing in powerful gusts that shook the car and my enthusiasm.
Not only was it windy, it was cold. I briefly debated going down to warmer climes — temps were forecast to be in the 80s and 90s in the valleys — but decided to at least run up to Windy Gap and see what it was like there.
I’d been curious to see how the run/hike to Windy Gap (7588′) from the Windy Gap Trailhead (5836′) in the Crystal Lake Recreation Area compared to starting at the Islip Saddle Trailhead (6650′) on Hwy 2. It turns out the distance using either approach is the same — a little over 2.5 miles. But, the Windy Gap Trailhead is lower, so starting there adds a little over 800′ of gain. Today, that extra gain was helping to keep me warm.
As I worked up the last long switchback I could see and hear the trees on the crest being buffeted by the wind. Reaching Windy Gap I’d was relieved to see that it looked the same as it always has. As shown on fire maps, Windy Gap was not burned in the Bobcat Fire.
That relief was short-lived as I was just about knocked down by a gust of wind. I’ve passed by Windy Gap many times, and the wind this morning was the strongest I’ve experienced there.
Later I found that several gusts over 50 mph were recorded at Chilao that morning. Because of terrain effects, I would not be surprised if the gusts at Windy Gap were 60 mph or more. The gusts were “stop you in your tracks, blow you over” strong. And it was cold. The temperature sensor on my pack read 34°F.
Out of curiosity, I ran a short distance along the PCT to see if conditions improved. That was a bad idea. I turned around and got the heck off the crest.
Running back down the Windy Gap Trail, I wasn’t ready to call it a day. It occurred to me that I could run down to the South Mt. Hawkins Trail — the old South Hawkins Lookout service road — and then run up to South Mt. Hawkins. Maybe the old road would be more wind-protected than the Windy Gap Trail.
And maybe not! Looking at the topography, I could not figure out why the wind on some sections of the South Mt. Hawkins road was so strong. Some gusts were as strong as at Windy Gap. The noise from the wind in the trees was deafening, and amplified my concern about falling trees and flying debris. I did not want to have a “Weather Channel” moment.
Although the wind was strong, the sun was now higher, and some sections of the road were warmed by the sun. This made a big difference. As I wound into and out of the side canyons, the temperature varied from the high 30s to the low 50s. In two places there were small, dirty patches of icy snow.
Ironically, the wind and temperature were relatively moderate on the summit of South Mt. Hawkins! After taking a few photos, I descended the “Ridge Trail” to the South Mt. Hawkins trail/road, and made my way back to the Windy Gap Trail and the trailhead.
The 3D terrain image above shows an overlay of the Bobcat Post-Fire BAER Soil Burn Severity Map from the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Imagery Support website. The burn severity classes are high (red), moderate (yellow), low (light green), unburned/very low (dark green), and no data (black).
GPS tracks (yellow) of the Pacific Crest Trail and some other trails and routes in the area have been added. An unofficial version of the Bobcat Fire closure boundary (purple) has also been added. The closure boundary data is from CalTopo and appears to be based on Forest Order 05-01-21-03 (PDF). Locations of GPS tracks, placenames, soil burn severity, and the closure boundary are all approximate and subject to errors.
Below are some starting points in the 3D terrain viewer: