Category Archives: trails|san gabriels

Woolly Bluecurls Blooming Out of Season Along the Ken Burton Trail

Woolly Bluecurls blooming out of season along the Ken Burton Trail, in the San Gabriel Mountains.

The blue of the woolly bluecurls was just stunning. The plant was along the Ken Burton Trail, in the San Gabriel Mountains, near Los Angeles.

Arroyo Seco below Royal Gorge at Gabrielino Trail crossing.
Arroyo Seco below Royal Gorge at Gabrielino Trail crossing.

Woolly bluecurls normally flowers in the Spring, but rain from Tropical Storm Hilary, combined with Spring-like conditions caused it to bloom this Fall. Such blooms are usually not widespread and the flowers are often less robust than their Spring counterparts. Other Spring flowers that were blooming included Ceanothus, bush poppy, and golden yarrow.

The Ken Burton Trail connects the Gabrielino Trail, near Oakwilde, to a saddle at the top of Brown Mountain Road. Today, I was doing a longish out and back trail run to Wella’s Peak from Clear Creek via Switzers and the Gabrielino and Ken Burton Trails. Wella’s Peak is a bump on the west side of the saddle. Brown Mountain towers above the east side of the saddle.

An idyllic section of the Gabrielino Trail on the segment that bypasses Royal Gorge.
An idyllic section of the Gabrielino Trail

Explore the scenery and terrain on the out and back trail run to Wella’s Peak from Clear Creek using our high resolution,  interactive, 3D viewer. The imagery is so detailed, it’s almost like being there! To change the view, use the control on the upper right side of the screen, the CTRL key and your mouse, or touch gestures. Track and placename locations are approximate and subject to errors. Snow, ice, poor weather, and other conditions may make this route unsuitable for this activity.

Related post: Red Box – Bear Canyon Loop Plus Brown Mountain

Three Bighorn Sheep, a Solar Eclipse, and a New Peak

Bighorn sheep blend into the rocky terrain near Windy Gap in the San Gabriel Mountains
Bighorn sheep blend into the rocky terrain near Windy Gap

Had they not dislodged some rocks, I doubt I would have seen the three bighorn sheep in the photo above.  They are easier to see in this zoomed-in photo of the sheep descending the rocky slopes just below Windy Gap (7,588′) in the San Gabriel Mountains. They crossed a brush-covered rib and disappeared from view.

A partially-eclipsed sun crests a ridge east of Windy Gap.
The partially-eclipsed sun crests a ridge east of Windy Gap.

A few minutes after seeing the sheep, I reached Windy Gap and stopped to put my arm sleeves away. It had been cool at the trailhead — about 40 degrees — but the temperature had warmed as I worked up the trail. As its name suggests, the wind can be fierce at Windy Gap, but this morning there was almost no wind, foretelling nearly ideal weather for today’s adventure.

Windy Gap was still in shade, and the sun was just peeking over the ridge to the east. You couldn’t tell, but the eclipse had already begun. The eclipse would be nearly total in parts of Oregon, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas. In the Los Angeles area, the moon would obscure more than 70% of the sun’s disc.

Partially eclipsed sun from the PCT in the San Gabriel Mountains
Partially eclipsed sun.

From Windy Gap, I headed east on the Pacific Crest Trail toward Mt. Hawkins. From time to time, I would stop and check the progress of the eclipse using eclipse sunglasses. In sunny areas, I looked for lensed images of the sun in the shadows of trees but didn’t see any. Having needles instead of leaves, conifers don’t produce the myriad images of the eclipsed sun seen under trees with leaves.

A few minutes before the eclipse reached maximum, I took this photo of the eclipse with my iPhone, using eclipse glasses as a filter.

With nearly three-quarters of the sun obscured, the light from the sun had become enfeebled. The feeling was more than that of a cloud passing in front of the sun. I stopped and listened… to nothing. It was eerily quiet. No birds called or sang, and only chill zephyrs of wind wafted about the area. Somehow, the sun was broken.

The south ridge of Mt. Lewis can be accessed from the CalTrans shed at Dawson Saddle.
The south ridge of Mt. Lewis can be accessed from the CalTrans shed at Dawson Saddle.

As the eclipse slowly waned, I continued east in the corrupt light, past Mt. Hawkins and Throop Peak, to the PCT’s junction with the Dawson Saddle Trail. In what seemed fitting for the day, instead of continuing to Baden-Powell, I turned left and headed down the trail toward Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2).

Why? Angeles Crest Highway was closed from Red Box to Vincent Gap, transforming Dawson Saddle into one of the more isolated areas of the Angeles National Forest. I hadn’t been on the Dawson Saddle Trail in years, and with Highway 2 closed, it would be a quirky way to climb Mt. Lewis. Instead of having one of the shortest approaches in the San Gabriels — a few feet from the CalTrans shed at Dawson Saddle — it would involve a trail run of nearly eight miles just to get to the base of the peak.

Angeles Crest Highway from the shoulder of Mt. Lewis.
Angeles Crest Highway from the shoulder of Mt. Lewis.

The eclipse was nearly over when I reached the bottom of the Dawson Saddle Trail on Highway 2. From the trailhead, I ran up an empty Angeles Crest Highway a short distance to Dawson Saddle. Mt. Lewis’ south ridge was accessed from here.

Only about a half-mile long, the south ridge isn’t technical, but the first third is steep and rocky. The elevation gain from the saddle to the summit is about 500′. Offset from the crest of the San Gabriels, the flat summit of Mt. Lewis has unique views of the crest extending from Mt. Baden-Powell to Mt. Islip and beyond.

After a few minutes enjoying the summit, I turned southward and began working my way back down to Angeles Crest Highway, up to the PCT, over to Windy Gap, and back down to the trailhead in the Crystal Lake Recreational Area.

Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Some related posts:
Solar Eclipses, Saros Cycles and Chumash Rock Art
Boney Mountain Eclipse Run
It’s Mid-July And There Is Still Snow in Los Angeles County!

Dealing with the Heat on Strawberry Peak and San Gabriel Peak

Early morning view of Strawberry Peak from the Strawberry Trail, near Lawlor Saddle.
Strawberry Peak from the Strawberry Trail, near Lawlor Saddle.

Last weekend I’d considered doing a run from Red Box, but finally decided to go to higher elevation and do a combination run and climb.

Blazing star near the bottom of the Bill Riley/Mt. Disappointment Trail
Blazing star.

The puzzle to solve this weekend was to find a run that was closer to home, higher than the Santa Monica Mountains, and had a “decent amount” of elevation gain. The solution put me right back at Red Box, doing two of the most popular peaks in the Front Range — Strawberry Peak (6164′) and San Gabriel Peak (6161′).

I’d done these peaks as a duo several years ago. The basic details remain the same and are described in this post.

The main difference is that the 2018 run/hike was on a cool day in March, rather than a hot day in August. In 2018, I did San Gabriel Peak first, then Strawberry. The order didn’t matter. The temperature on both peaks that day was mostly in the 40s.

Mt. Disappointment (left) and Strawberry Peak from the San Gabriel Peak Trail.
Mt. Disappointment (left) and Strawberry Peak from the San Gabriel Peak Trail.

Today, it was essential to do Strawberry first, and get started early. The use trail between Lawlor Saddle and Strawberry’s summit faces south and east, and has very little shade. It’s steep and strenuous an no fun at all in the hot sun.

I left the Red Box parking lot at about 6:00 a.m. On the way up, the temperature ranged from the mid-50s to the mid-70s. On the way down, in some places it was already in the 90s. While it was hot in the sun on the upper part of the mountain on the descent, the traverse around Mt. Lawlor on the Strawberry Trail was still mostly in the shade and a relatively cool 75 to 80 degrees.

San Gabriel Peak isn’t the solar oven that Strawberry is. Much of the Bill Riley/Mt. Disappointment Trail faces north and a scrub oak forest provides some shade. Continuing up San Gabriel Peak after doing Strawberry, the temps were generally in the low to mid-80s.

Some related posts: Front Range Duo: San Gabriel Peak and Strawberry Peak, Blazing Star

A Warm Day on Blue Ridge and the North Backbone Trail

Clouds, pines, and Pine Mountain from Blue Ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains

Angeles Crest Highway was still closed between Red Box and Vincent Gap, and the heatwave continued. I was trying to decide where to run.

I briefly considered the Circuit Around Strawberry Peak, but yesterday at 10:00 a.m., the “in-the-shade” temperature at Clear Creek was already 92°F, and the “in-the-sun” fuel temperature 109°F. By 1:00 p.m., the fuel temp reached a scorching 122°F!

Although trailheads such as Three Points and Islip Saddle couldn’t be accessed using Angeles Crest Highway, the highway was open from Wrightwood to Inspiration Point and Vincent Gap. After seeing the temps at Clear Creek, it took about two seconds to make the decision to head to the San Gabriels’ high country.

 sulfur flower-lined section of the PCT east of Inspiration Point
sulfur flower-lined section of the PCT east of Inspiration Point

From Inspiration Point (7,365′), I ran east on the PCT about 7 miles to the North Backbone Trailhead on Mt. Baldy. Over most of that stretch, the temperature was a blissful 60-something degrees. Other times, I’ve driven to this trailhead — which requires a high-clearance vehicle — or run to the trailhead from Wrightwood. But the run along Blue Ridge is a favorite. It is especially scenic, with fantastic views of Mt. Baden-Powell, Iron Mountain, Pine Mountain, and Mt. Baldy.

About a quarter-mile east of the top of the Acorn Trail, the PCT passes within a few feet of one of the Wright Mountain landslides. The canyon-size landslide is prehistoric, but smaller landslides and mudflows occur periodically within the primary scar. The debris cone of a dramatic 1941 mudflow is an unmistakable feature on satellite photos.

Peak 8555 and Pine Mountain from the PCT.
Peak 8555 and Pine Mountain from the PCT.

Less than a mile beyond the overlook of the landslide, I left the PCT and jogged down to the North Backbone Trailhead. After a short descent, I started up the steep use trail toward Peak 8555. On the way up, San Gorgonio Mountain and San Jacinto Peak were visible in the haze to the east.

Peak 8555 is the first high point on Baldy’s North Backbone. It is an idyllic spot with a great view of Mt. Baden-Powell and the surrounding terrain. But you might not want to linger here in a thunderstorm — spiral scars on the trunks of trees suggest the point is repeatedly struck by lightning.

Crossing the top of a chute on Mt. Baldy's North Backbone.
Crossing the top of a chute on Mt. Baldy’s North Backbone.

Following a short descent, I resumed climbing the steep, somewhat loose ridge. After about ten minutes, I scrambled onto the crest of the ridge and crossed the top of a prominent, rocky chute. More than a thousand feet below, avalanche-hardened snow gleamed white in the sun at the base of the chute.

Another 10 minutes of climbing and I reached the Pine Mountain Juniper. Straddling the rocky crest at an elevation of about 9000′, this stalwart tree is estimated to be 800 – 1000 years old. It is a remarkable tree in a remarkable location. Except for one short, steep, eroded section, the remainder of the trail to the top of Pine Mountain (9648′) was relatively straightforward.

Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from Pine Mountain's south summit.
Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from Pine Mountain’s south summit.

Pine is the second-highest peak in the San Gabriels and has excellent views of the surrounding terrain. It is higher than Mt. Baden-Powell (9399′) and Dawson Peak (9575′) but a few hundred feet lower than Mt. Baldy (10,064′).

From Pine Mountain, the North Backbone trail continues over Dawson Peak another 2.5 miles to Mt. Baldy. There was still a long ribbon of snow along the east side of the upper North Backbone, but it looked like the trail might avoid it. I would have liked to confirm that, but today the top of Pine was my planned turnaround point. As it was, with the warm weather, I thought I might run short on water on the return to Inspiration Point.

Leaving Pine behind, I started back down — jogging when it made sense — but trying not to do anything stoopid. On the way down, I kept reaching behind me and squeezing the bladder in my hydration pack. I guess I was hoping that it would magically be more full than the last time I checked. It never was.

San Gabriel beardtongue along the PCT on Blue Ridge.
San Gabriel beardtongue along the PCT on Blue Ridge.

Back at the North Backbone Trailhead, and definitely low on water, I decided it was a good time to run the dirt road back to the top of the Acorn Trail and see how much shorter it was than the PCT. The answer was not much — only about a tenth of a mile.

I’d been willing to push the water envelope because it had been a heavy snow year. I expected the spring near Guffy Camp would probably be running. I’d passed the side trail to the spring a bunch of times but never ventured down the steep slope. My impression was that the spring was often low or nearly dry. This time when I reached the side trail, I headed down.

Pumphouse at Guffy Spring, surrounded by giant larkspur.
Pumphouse at Guffy Spring, surrounded by giant larkspur.

And down and down… It sure seemed like a long way to the spring, but when I checked the track, it was less than a quarter-mile with an elevation loss of about 200′.

As I walked up to the spring, a flurry of birds scattered in every direction. Eight-foot-tall larkspurs surrounded the spring, and an old pump house was adjacent to it. While not exactly gushing, the flow from the spring was more than adequate and refreshingly cold. I drank several cups of water and added some to my hydration pack.

Clouds over Mt. Baden-Powell from the PCT east of Inspiration Point
Clouds over Mt. Baden-Powell

Back on the PCT, the temperature was generally in the mid-eighties but was warmer on south-facing slopes. At about 1:00 p.m., the in-the-sun fuel temperature at the Big Pines RAWS was 109°F. I was very happy to have the extra water.

Here are a few photos from the out and back trail run to Pine Mountain from Inspiration Point.

Explore the scenery and terrain of this out-and-back trail run and hike from Inspiration Point to Pine Mountain using our high resolution,  interactive, 3D viewer. The imagery is so detailed, it’s almost like being there! To change the view, use the control on the upper right side of the screen, the CTRL key and your mouse, or touch gestures. Track and placename locations are approximate and subject to errors. Snow, ice, poor weather, and other conditions may make this route unsuitable for this activity.

Some related posts: Inspiration Point to the Pine Mountain Juniper and Pine Mountain, Mt. Baldy from Wrightwood Via the Acorn and North Backbone Trails, North Backbone Trail Revisited

It’s Mid-July And There Is Still Snow in Los Angeles County!

Snow in the lee of the West Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell.
Snow in the lee of the West Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell.

You might not see it from the Los Angeles side of the mountains, but there is still some snow on the higher, north-facing slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains.

During and after storms, snow-laden southerly winds dump their load on the backside of the crest, creating deep drifts, cornices, and compacted slabs of snow. This snow is often the last to melt, not only because it doesn’t face the sun, but because there is more of it.

Mt. Burnham, Peak 9086, and Mt. Baden-Powell from near Throop Peak.
Mt. Burnham, Peak 9086, and Mt. Baden-Powell from near Throop Peak.

This morning, I was doing an out-and-back from the Windy Gap Trailhead in the Crystal Lake Recreation Area to Mt. Baden-Powell. The Windy Gap Trail climbs 1730′ in 2.6 miles, joining the PCT at Windy Gap. From there the trail follows the spine of the San Gabriels past Mt. Hawkins, Throop Peak, and Mt. Burnham to Mt. Baden-Powell.

I usually do this run from Islip Saddle, but with Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2) closed between Red Box and Vincent Gap, the Islip Saddle trailhead isn’t accessible.

Snow on the west ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell. July 9, 2023.
Snow at about 9100′ on the west side of Mt. Baden-Powell.

Whether you start at Crystal Lake or Islip Saddle, the length of the run is about the same — a bit over 16 miles. The main difference is that the Windy Gap Trailhead is about 800′ lower in elevation. On the plus side, the Windy Gap Trail is very scenic; on the minus side, it faces south and can bake in the midday sun.

On today’s run, I encountered the first snowbanks at an elevation of 8870′, near the Dawson Saddle Trail junction. Out of curiosity, I tried to follow the trail and soon realized that was a mistake. I was more or less forced to skirt the downhill side of a lengthy and deep drift — it being too steep and icy to cross directly.

Mt. Baldy from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell. July 9, 2023.
Mt. Baldy from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell. July 9, 2023.

For the remainder of the run, I switched to the early season tactic of staying on the crest when the trail deviated onto shaded, north-facing slopes. These areas might have significant snow on the trail. This only happens in a few places, such as when the PCT works around Mt. Burnham. There is a use trail that ascends the west ridge of Mt. Burnham, and then returns to the PCT.

The conditions today are reminiscent of those found here in early July 2005. July 3rd of that year there was still snow on the summit of Baden-Powell, and there was deeper snow in the areas where there was snow today. We had a lot of storms this rain season, but in Rain Year 2004-2005 Downtown Los Angeles (USC) recorded about 9 inches more rain than during the 2022-2023 rain year!

Here is a short slideshow of some photos taken on the run. I’ve also included a few photos from the run to Baden-Powell in 2005 for comparison.

Red Box – Bear Canyon – Switzer’s Loop – Memorial Day Weekend 2023

Marine layer pushing into Bear Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains, near Los Angeles.
Marine layer pushing into Bear Canyon

The Red Box – Bear Canyon – Switzer’s Loop trail run is a favorite I’ve enjoyed doing for many years. Part of its attraction is the isolated, backcountry feel of Bear Canyon, particularly between Tom Sloane Saddle and Bear Canyon Trail Camp. It’s worth spending a few minutes at the old cabin site in the upper canyon to contemplate a lifestyle from an earlier century.

Early morning view from the Bill Reily Trail (aka Mt. Disappointment Trail).
Early morning view from the Bill Riley Trail (aka Mt. Disappointment Trail).

The descent of Bear Canyon is always adventurous in some way. Based on what I’d been seeing on other trails this year, I’d expected upper Bear Canyon to be a mess. I had braced myself for downed trees, washouts, and overgrown, hard-to-follow sections of trail.

But just a few minutes below Tom Sloane Saddle, a tree blocking the trail had been cleared, and the saw cuts were fresh! As I worked down the trail, I was excited to find more trailwork had been done. Branches or trees that had fallen across the trail had been cut. Some overgrown sections of trail had been trimmed. One washed-out section of trail looked like it had just been repaired. Someone had even trimmed a little of the poison oak that is so common along the trail.

Bear Canyon Trail near Arroyo Seco
Bear Canyon Trail near Arroyo Seco

As I discovered when I encountered them lower in the canyon, the Bear Canyon Trail Crew had been hard at work, and they were working in the canyon again today!

The last time I was in Bear Canyon (April 2021), the creek had been nearly dry. This year there was plenty of water and plenty of stream crossings. Unlike several recent runs, I had my poles and was able to keep my shoes and socks mostly dry.

Trailside wildflower garden on the Bear Canyon Trail.
Trailside wildflower garden

I had debated whether to do this loop on Memorial Day Weekend. It passes through Switzer’s Picnic Area, one of the most popular day-use areas in Angeles National Forest. Many visiting Switzer’s do the hike down the Gabrielino Trail to see Switzer Falls, and many of those continue down the Bear Canyon Trail to the area below the falls.

Today, the two-mile stretch from below the falls to Switzer’s was as busy as expected. One issue I hadn’t anticipated was that some stream crossings were backed up like the Hillary Step on Everest. Other than wading, there was usually only one “dry” route across the stream. At one busy crossing, a hiker — clutching a dog under each arm — deftly balanced across a sequence of slippery rocks and branches, keeping his and his charge’s feet dry.

Crimson-spotted rock rose along the Gabrielino Trail between Switzer's and Red Box
Crimson-spotted rock rose along the Gabrielino Trail

Once past Switzer’s, things returned to normal. From Switzer’s, it’s about 4.5 miles up to Red Box, with an elevation gain of about 1350′. I had been on this section of the Gabrielino Trail about a month before and was curious to see if a mass of fallen trees blocking the trail had been removed.

The trees still needed to be cleared — Forest Service rules require a qualified sawyer to do that kind of work — BUT the remaining 2.5 miles of trail to Red Box were being trimmed and cleared by several dozen members of the Mt. Wilson Bicycling Association. I wondered why I wasn’t seeing any mountain bikers on the trail — they were all working on it!

Here’s an interactive, 3D terrain view of the Red Box – Bear Canyon – Switzer’s Loop. The map can be zoomed, tilted, rotated, and panned. To change the view, use the control on the upper right side of the screen. Track and placename locations are approximate and subject to errors.

Some related posts: Bear Canyon Loop – 2021, Red Box – Bear Canyon Loop Plus Brown Mountain, Bear Canyon Loop Plus Strawberry Peak

Canyon liveforever (Dudleya cymosa) in Bear Canyon.
Canyon liveforever.
Paintbrush along the Gabrielino Trail between Switzer's and Red Box.
Paintbrush along the Gabrielino Trail.