You know what they say about making assumptions. Did the Three Points loop around Mt. Waterman today (July 25), and assumed that water would be available at Buckhorn Campground. In a normal summer that would be a reasonable assumption, but this has been anything but a normal summer.
Running down through the campground, I thought it was strange that many of the spaces were empty. Following the signs that said, “Day Use Parking,” and then “Burkhart Trail,” I stopped at a spigot across from some restrooms.
Later, I talked to a ranger and learned that the campground had just reopened on Friday! He said routine tests on the water system had to be completed before the water could be deemed potable.
So I had a choice to make. I was doing the loop counterclockwise, which put Buckhorn at about mile 9 of a 20-mile loop. The second half of the loop — on the PCT — can bake on a hot day, with the climb out of Cooper Canyon being especially blistering.
So far, the run had gone well. The Mt. Waterman Trail between Three Points and the turn off to Twin Peaks had been in excellent shape. No trees had blocked the trail, and the wildflowers and ferns at Waterman Meadow had been extraordinary. Like last year, a rejuvenated spring about 0.5 mile west of the Twin Peaks junction had water. (Not aware of the situation at Buckhorn, I didn’t top off my water.)
As usual, the run down the Mt. Waterman Trail to Highway 2 was excellent. A lot of people were enjoying the hike to the peak, but no more than is typical for that trail in the summertime.
Which brings me back to Buckhorn and my water problem. I could have shortcut the loop by skipping Cooper Canyon and running directly to Cloudburst Summit on Highway 2. That would have shortened the loop by 5 miles. But the day wasn’t super-hot, and there were several places where water could be used for cooling — even if I couldn’t drink it.
Reconfirming how much water I had left, I squeezed the Camelbak(TM) in my pack, and then started running down the Burkhart Trail into Cooper Canyon.
By maintaining a comfortable pace, and using seeps for cooling, my water lasted until I was within sight of the Three Points parking lot. This probably wouldn’t have been the case on a hot day.
After so many years of doing the Angeles National Forest Trail Race, I’m not sure I even had a choice. At about 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, July 11, 2020, I found myself running down Mt. Wilson Road.
It was odd not to be surrounded by runners. Gary Hilliard had not done his one-of-a-kind pre-race briefing. There had been no hugs or handshakes at the start of the run. No runners commented on the temperature or talked about past or future races. Thanks to COVID-19, the 2020 ANFTR race had been canceled.
But the mountains and trails were still there, and by running the 25K course, I could get a good idea of what the 2020 race might have been like.
I was not racing the course. The forecast was — of course — for a hot day. And in these covid times, I was running solo. I was out to enjoy “being there” — seeing what I could see, learning what I could learn.
The single-track trail leads up to the Mt. Disappointment service road. The high point of the 60K, 50K and 25K courses — about 5780′ — is along this short stretch of road. For the 25K course it’s (almost) all downhill from here to West Fork. A winding, and usually dusty, single-track trail turns off the service road and leads down through scrub oaks to Mt. Wilson Road, just above Red Box.
The time of day when you do the 5+ mile segment from Red Box to West Fork makes a huge difference. On hot race days, such as in 2012, 2017 and 2018, the road bakes and in-the-sun temps can reach well over 100 degrees. (This isn’t the only part of the 50K/60K course that can be hot!)
Because I was running the 25K course, I was on Red Box road relatively early. It was probably in the 90s in the direct sun, but there were still some cool stretches of shade. In years with average or above-average rainfall, there are usually a few little stream crossings where capfuls of water can be dumped on your head. They were flowing today. Usually at West Fork there is a hose/shower setup to use for cooling.
There was a collapsed sycamore on the trail near the spring, but it didn’t look like it was going to be much of a problem. On the run down to West Fork, I’d noticed an increasing number of trees on the road. About a mile from West Fork, a large oak had fallen down a road-cut, blocking the road and bringing with it a pile of debris.
Leaving West Fork on the Gabrielino Trail, I worked around the fallen sycamore and then continued up the trail. Within yards there was another fallen tree, then another, and another. The number of trees down on the trail was remarkable. Part of the reason is that the Forest Service isn’t currently allowing volunteer groups to do trail maintenance. I’m sure ANFTR R.D. / AC100 Trail Boss Gary Hilliard is going crazy not being able to work on the trails.
But I think there’s more to it than trail maintenance. There are far more trees down on the trail than I’ve seen in other years. The area is covered in scrub oaks and bay trees that were killed by the Station Fire. I suspect the same storms that broke and toppled trees in the San Gabriels high country over the Winter, toppled dead trees here as well.
It became a mantra — over, under, around or through? Over, under, around or through? Tree after tree. It was warming up, and the extra work of battling the trees added to the effort. On the Gabrielino segment of the route, trail users had trimmed some small limbs from a few of the trees, and that helped.
I thought that once I got out of the scrub oaks and into the forest proper, there wouldn’t be so many trees on the trail. That was mostly true, but there were still several tree challenges higher on the Kenyon Devore Trail. One large log was perched across the trail at the top of a steep gully. I didn’t want to slip and started to use the log for hand-holds. Bad idea! Who knew how little force would be required to dislodge the tree.
Eventually, I reached a point on the trail where I could just hike and didn’t have to climb over, under, around or through anything. What a relief!
It’s difficult to estimate just how many trees were down on the trail. Fifty? Sixty? I have no idea. There were many small trees I didn’t even think about, and there were multiple trees down in some spots. However many there are, if another Winter passes before the trails can be maintained, it will require a massive effort to get them cleared.
Based on the temperatures recorded at the Clear Creek RAWS, this would have been the #3 or #4 hottest of the ANF Trail Races. Compared to the other hot races, temps were a few degrees cooler early, but reached similar temperatures by mid-afternoon. The Clear Creek RAWS recorded hourly temperatures as high as 96°F and hourly fuel temps as high as 121°F.
The out and back to Mt. Baden-Powell from Islip Saddle has become a springtime running ritual for me. Sometime in April, May or June, I like to get back to the high country, and see what there is to see — including whether there’s any snow left on Baden-Powell or Mt. Baldy.
Sentinel satellite imagery showed a lot of snow along the crest at the end of April, but hot weather and dry winds in May accelerated the melt. By early June most of it was gone. It didn’t seem likely I would see any today.
I hadn’t seen any snow along the trail this morning. I’d run past Little Jimmy Camp, Windy Gap, Peak 8426, and was now at an elevation of about 8700′, near Mt. Hawkins. Above me, I could hear the excited voices of a couple of hikers near its summit. Thinking they might be part of a group, I looked up the trail toward the crest.
Something was missing… Where was it? Usually prominent on the skyline at this point, the “Mt. Hawkins Lightning Tree” was gone. I walked up the trail to look for the familiar landmark. The trunk of the lightning-scarred Jeffrey pine had been snapped like a twig. The crown of the tree lay 50 yards down the steep slope, jammed against two trees.
It must have been a hard Winter. Several other live trees along the crest between Mt. Hawkins and Mt. Baden-Powell were either blown down or broken in half. In some cases, the damaging winds appeared to be from the south side of the crest and in others from the north. December 2019 was stormy in Southern California, particularly around Christmas. Weather data suggests this might have been when most of the damage was done.
Today, only two large trees blocked the trail. One, on the west side of Mt. Burnham, was easy to go under or around, but the other, west of Throop Peak, was a bit more of a challenge. Given the brush on either side, climbing over the tree worked for me. Some others had detoured well above or below the tree.
Surprise, surprise! It turned out there were a couple of small patches of snow on the north side of the crest near Baden-Powell. These were the remnants of an area of wind-deposited snow on the lee (north) side of the crest between Mt. Baden-Powell and Mt. Burnham. Large drifts can collect here, and in a heavy snow year, can persist into July. The deposition area can be seen in the Sentinel satellite image.
With its long views, sub-alpine elevation, and weather-worn limber and lodgepole pines, Baden-Powell is a rewarding summit. Just a few miles to the southeast, Mt. Baldy looms above a mile-deep canyon. If the visibility is good, San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain can be seen beyond Mt. Baldy, many miles in the distance.
“Condor Peak-Elevation 5430 ft. – 1 Day By Vogel Canyon Trail. Drive Big Tujunga Canyon road to Vogel Flat Ranger Station and park auto. Hike trail starting opposite station for short distance up Vogel Canyon, then around mountain slope west of Big Tujunga Dam to summit of Condor Peak. Return by same route. Carry water and cold lunch. No fires permitted. Total hiking distance, 12 miles.”
The relocation of Big Tujunga Canyon Road in the 1950s shifted the starting point, and some other details have been updated, but the route from Vogel Flat to Condor Peak is pretty much the same as it was in 1934.
It’s telling that hikers of that era would have estimated the round-trip distance to Condor Peak at 12 miles. This was probably a “feels like” estimate of distance, based on time. The mileage in the description is far less than the presently accepted distance of 15.5-16.0 miles. Back then, the trail would have been relatively new and in better condition than it is now. Even so, they must have been fit and fast!
The “Vogel Flat” trailhead for the Condor Peak Trail is now a little to the east and above its original location, and is not obvious. If traveling up-canyon on Big Tujunga Canyon Road, it is just past Vogel Flat Road, directly across the highway from the second turnout on the right.
Note: Even in the best of circumstances, hiking, running, or riding a mountain trail involves risks. The nature of the terrain this trail navigates is such that the risk from falling while running, hiking or riding, crossing washouts, and from heat-related illness is high. There are some sketchy sections with large drop-offs. In particular, below Fox Mountain there was a very exposed washout at the top of a steep sandy chute that required extra care to cross.
As was the case last week on the Stone Canyon Trail, it looked like some sections of the Condor Peak Trail had been trimmed in the last year or two. And like the Stone Canyon Trail, the trailwork ended partway to the peak. In this case, it ended about two-thirds of the way to Condor Peak, as the trail turns northwest and contours around Fox Mountain. The bushwhacking wasn’t nearly as bad as on the Stone Canyon Trail, and things improved once up on Fox Divide.
Prior to this outing, I’d only attempted to do the peak in December and January. There is almost no shade, and the trail traverses several south and south-east facing canyons that act like solar ovens. The last time I did Condor Peak, in December 2007, the overnight low at Clear Creek had been 34 degrees and the high 52. That day was chilly in the shade, but about right in the sun. Today, the overnight low at Clear Creek was 63 degrees and the high 75. It was warm, but with an early morning start, was OK.
It was a relief to finally reach Fox Divide. In 2007 we climbed Fox Mountain from this point. Today I was running alone and thought the ascent of Fox, as short as it is, might result in me running short of water. I didn’t do Fox, and as things worked out, I finished the last of my water about a half-mile from the end of the run. (There is a spring, but the flow was just a trickle.)
I had not reread my notes from 2007 and had conveniently forgotten the nature of the final 1.5 miles between Fox Mountain and Condor Peak. I won’t spoil the adventure here.
There was a fairly well-defined path up the steep, east ridge of Condor Peak. As in 2007, the red register container was on the western summit. The eastern summit, marked by a robust yucca, is about the same height. Viewed from the summit of Condor Peak (5440+’), Mt. Lukens (5074′) was clearly lower in elevation.
Like last Sunday on the Stone Canyon Trail, I did not see anyone on the way up or down the Condor Peak Trail. Ironically, just a couple miles away, there were over a hundred cars parked along Big Tujunga Canyon Road at the Gold Canyon/Trail Canyon access.
Update April 4, 2021. Wow! What a difference from last year! The Stone Canyon Trail was in great shape on this morning’s hike/run. All the dead limbs/small trees had been removed. All the washouts had been repaired. A ton of brush had been cleared. I didn’t even get my shoes wet crossing Big Tujunga Creek because there was a causeway of large rocks across the creek. Many thanks to whoever did the work on the trail!
At the deepest part of the creek, the cold water reached mid-thigh. I’d futzed around looking for a way to rock hop across slowly-flowing Big Tujunga Creek, but didn’t find one.
With squishy shoes, I followed the trail eastward along the creek. A little past Stone Canyon wash, the trail turned toward Mt. Lukens and started to climb.
The Stone Canyon Trail is one of the trails on my list of trails less-traveled. Today, the trail choice had been between the Stone Canyon Trail and Condor Peak Trail. Recalling the difficulty of the Condor Peak Trail, I thought it would be better to do Mt. Lukens first, and save Condor Peak for later.
As I worked up the trail, I marveled at its condition. It was in surprisingly good shape! It had been groomed relatively recently, and I mentally thanked the person or group that had taken care of the trail. With a clear trail and cool morning temperature, it felt good to push the pace up the steep trail.
The last time I’d done this route was in November 2016. That outing followed five years of drought. With growth suppressed, the upper half of the trail was only moderately overgrown, and I did not see any poison oak. Ever the optimist, I thought today’s conditions might be even better.
Not this time. I don’t know if Winter rains or the pandemic had intervened, but about halfway up the peak, the trailwork abruptly ended. The upper half of the trail was badly overgrown, and at inconvenient times Spring-green poison oak lined the trail. In a few places, fallen scrub oak trees — burned in the Station Fire — were mixed in with the brush. Where the 2016 ascent had been after a drought, today’s followed a wet period in which three out of the past four years have had normal or above-normal rainfall.
With care, patience, and a bit of bushwhacking, I eventually reached the top of the Stone Canyon Trail and the old dirt road on the west side of the peak. A few minutes later I stood alone on the summit of Mt. Lukens. I had not seen anyone on the ascent and would not encounter anyone on the way down.