Category Archives: southern california

An ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment 2020 Adventure

Mt. Markham, from Mt. Lowe fire road, near Eaton Saddle
Mt. Markham

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.

into the canyon of the West Fork San Gabriel River from Mt. Wilson Road
View into the canyon of the West Fork San Gabriel River from Mt. Wilson Road.

Mt. Wilson road is exceptionally scenic, and on the way down to Eaton Saddle, I stopped several times to take photos. The canyon of the West Fork San Gabriel River is spectacular. It’s a long way down to the bottom, and I always marvel at its depth. The 2600′ climb out of that canyon is the crux of all the ANFTR courses, and as I would later discover, would be especially challenging today.

Rugged San Gabriel Peak marked the turn onto Mt. Lowe fire road at Eaton Saddle. From here, the course follows the fire road through Mueller Tunnel and up to the saddle between Mt. Markham and San Gabriel Peak. The first significant climb of the course begins here. Much of the 650′ climb up the single-track trail is in the shade. If it’s already warm here…

Looking back at San Gabriel Peak from near the top of the Lower San Gabriel Peak/Bill Reilly Trail.
Looking back at San Gabriel Peak from near the top of the Lower San Gabriel Peak/Bill Reilly Trail.

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.

In the actual event, runners doing the 50K and 60K turn left onto the Gabrielino Trail at Red Box and do a 15+ mile circuit around Strawberry Peak. Runners doing the 25K turn right and continue down Rincon – Red Box Road to West Fork.

Spanish broom along Rincon - Red Box Road near Valley Forge Campground.
Spanish broom along Rincon – Red Box Road near Valley Forge Campground.

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.

Gabrielino Trail at West Fork
Gabrielino Trail at West Fork

There was no shower setup at West Fork this morning, but the water flowing from the spring was clear and cold. I filled my Camelbak to the brim and then gulped some more. I felt good and thought I might try to push the pace a bit going up to Wilson.

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.

Mass of trees down on the Gabrielino Trail. July 11, 2020.
Mass of trees down on the Gabrielino Trail.

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.

Trees down on the Kenyon Devore Trail. July 11, 2020.
Trees down on the Kenyon Devore Trail.

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.

The highest temperature recorded at Clear Creek on the day of the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment races for 2005-2020. The 2020 race was canceled.
The highest temperature recorded at Clear Creek on the day of the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment races for 2005-2020. The 2020 race was canceled.

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 average hourly temperatures as high as 96°F and average hourly fuel temps as high as 121°F.

See the ANFTR web site, Facebook page and Facebook group for more info. All the results for the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment races since 2005 can be found on Ultrasignup.com.

Some related posts: ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment 2019, Another Scorching Angeles National Forest/Mt. Disappointment Trail Race, Record Heat for the 2017 Mt. Disappointment 50K & 25K

Hard Winter

Broken lodgepole pine near Throop Peak

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.

Satellite imagery of snow along the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains, April 28, 2020.
Snow in the San Gabriel Mountains, April 28, 2020. Click for larger image.

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.

Jeffrey pine near Mt. Burnham, toppled by Winter winds.
Jeffrey pine near Mt. Burnham, toppled by Winter winds.

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.

Snow plant along the PCT near Throop Peak.
Snow plant along the PCT near Throop Peak.

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.

The distance from Islip Saddle to Mt. Baden-Powell (9,399′), and back, is about 16 miles. The cumulative elevation gain is about 3800′. Here’s an interactive, 3D view of the out and back route.

Trail note: I ran into a “misplaced” hiker that didn’t know what trail they were on or where they started. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the adventure you have planned!

Some related posts: Mt. Hawkins Lightning Tree (2008), No Worries About Snow Flurries (2019), Mid January Trail Run from Islip Saddle to Mt. Baden-Powell (2014), Snowless San Gabriels (2007)

Elegant Clarkia Blooming in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Elegant Clarkia Blooming in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Over many years of running in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch), I’ve noticed that the height of Elegant Clarkia is closely related to the amount of Spring rainfall. During some years of our most recent drought, the plants were short and scarce.

Spring 2020 was particularly wet in the Los Angeles area. Downtown Los Angeles (USC) recorded 179% of normal rainfall in March, and 332% in April. This was the wettest March and April in Los Angeles since 1992.

This year’s bloom of Elegant Clarkia is the most profuse I’ve seen in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve. Look for Elegant Clarkia along the Lasky Mesa Trail and along the Mary Wiesbrock Loop Trail on the north side of Lasky Mesa.

Another Clarkia currently blooming at Ahmanson Ranch is Purple Clarkia (Clarkia purpurea). Look for it along East Las Virgenes Canyon Road/Trail.

Some related posts: Elegant Clarkia, Rain Gauge

Castle Peak, Chatsworth Peak and Oat Mountain from Lasky Mesa

Castle Peak, Chatsworth Peak and Oat Mountain from Lasky Mesa

Clouds, sun and shadow accentuate the rugged topography of the northwest rim of the San Fernando Valley.

Castle Peak is the rock-capped summit on the left of the photo. Chatsworth Peak (2314′) is in shadow and behind Castle Peak. The prominent rock bands are Chatsworth Formation sandstone formed more than 65 million years ago. Oat Mountain (3747′) is the sunlit peak in the distance.

From a run on Wednesday at Ahmanson Ranch.

Some related posts: The Cave of Munits and Castle Peak, Castle Peak, Snow on Oat Mountain

Los Angeles’ On and Off Rain Season is On Again

Clouds over a ridge west of Las Virgenes Canyon

Following a December with twice normal rainfall, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) experienced the fourth driest January-February on record. Now it seems the spigot has been turned back on, and March rainfall for L.A. might very well be above normal.

As of 3:00 p.m. today, March 13, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) has recorded 2.05 inches of rain this March, boosting the rain year total (since July 1) to 9.40 inches. This is about 75% of normal for the date.

More rain is forecast over the next week or so, but the major weather models differ on the projected amounts. To make up for the January-February rainfall deficit and finish the rain year close to 100% of normal, Los Angeles needs another 5.5 inches of rain by June 30.

Not impossible, given some of the forecasts, but that would be a lot of rain for this time of year. Well see!

Update July 6, 2020. Remarkably, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) ended the rain year, July 1 to June 30, within 0.07 inch of normal rainfall. It was a tumultuous rain season that saw copious rainfall in December, and then almost none in January and February — usually the wettest months of the year. Just when we started to think “drought,” the wet weather returned. Combined, Match and April precipitation was 221% of normal. That and a little rain in May brought the Los Angeles rain year total up to 14.86 inches, just short of the normal of 14.93 inches.

Update April 12, 2020. Over six consecutive days, from April 5 to April 10, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) recorded 2.96 inches of rain. This is about 325% of the normal amount for the whole month. The precipitation totals of 14.66 inches for the rain year and 14.63 inches for the water year are now above normal for the date and within about one-third of an inch of the normal annual rainfall for Downtown Los Angeles.

Update April 10, 2020. April rainfall picked up right where March left off.  As of April 9, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) has recorded 2.80 inches of rain this month. This is more than three times the normal amount of rain for the entire month of April. This brings the rain year and water year totals to 14.50 and 14.47 inches, respectively. For the first time since February 1 the rainfall totals for Los Angeles are above normal for the date. Los Angeles is now within a few tenths of an inch of normal rainfall for the year, and it is still raining today.

Update March 24, 2020. On March 22, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) set a new rainfall record for the date of 1.51 inches. As of March 24, Downtown Los Angeles has recorded 4.35 inches of rain this month. This is 179% of the normal amount of rain in March. The current rain year/water year total of 11.70/11.67 inches is about 88%/90% of normal for the date. The magic number for 100% of normal rainfall is 14.93 inches — either by June 30 (Rain Year) or September 30 (Water Year).

Update March 17, 2020. As of March 16, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) has recorded 2.80 inches of rain this month. This already exceeds the normal amount of rainfall for the entire month of March, which is 2.43 inches. The current rain year/water year total of 10.15/10.12 inches is about 79%/81% of normal for the date.

Malibu Canyon to Saddle Peak, Topanga Lookout, Calabasas Peak, and the Secret Trail

Corpse Wall and other rock formations along the Backbone Trail near Saddle Peak.

The range of temperatures had been remarkable. At the Secret Trail trailhead in Calabasas, where I left my car, it had been a balmy 60 degrees. Near the start of my run from the Tapia Trailhead in Malibu Canyon, it had been a very chilly 32 °F. Near the end of the run, the temp topped out at 79 °F. That’s SoCal Winter running!

On the way to Saddle Peak, I was surprised to see how wet it was on some sections of the Backbone Trail. There has been very little rain this January, but marine layer dew, the trail’s north-facing aspect, the low sun angle, the canopy of bays and oaks, and relatively cool temps have kept the trail damp. In places it looked like it had just rained yesterday.

Elevation profile for trail run from Tapia to Secret Trail via Topanga Lookout and Ridge.
Elevation profile for trail run from Tapia to Secret Trail via Topanga Lookout and Ridge.

Because there’s about 1000′ less elevation gain, I usually do this run in the opposite direction, starting on the Secret Trail and ending at Tapia. This is the route described in the venerable guidebook, 50 Trail Runs in Southern California. But I’d run it in that direction a bunch of times — so here I was, chugging up the Backbone Trail, nearing the end of a 2600′, seven-mile climb from Tapia to Saddle Peak.

The area around Saddle Peak is yet another spectacular section of the Backbone Trail. (There are so many!) Just west of the peak, the trail winds through a narrow passage with massive sandstone rocks on either side. As the trail levels out, there is a short spur trail to the peak’s antennae-infested summit.

Even if a little obstructed, views from the top extend to Catalina, Boney Mountain, Mt. Pinos, and Mt. Baldy. Sometimes San Gorgonio Mountain and San Jacinto Peak can be seen beyond Mt. Baldy. The round trip to the summit of Saddle Peak adds about 0.8 mile. The eastern summit is slightly lower, but no antennae obstruct the view.

Getting to Saddle Peak from the Tapia trailhead is relatively straightforward, if a bit strenuous. Getting to Calabasas Peak and the Secret Trail from Saddle Peak is not as simple.

The “normal” way to get from Saddle Peak to Calabasas Peak would be to run back down the Backbone Trail to the Stunt High Trail and then follow that trail to the parking area on Stunt Road. Calabasas Peak Mtwy is across the highway and slightly downhill (west) of the parking area and leads to Calabasas Peak and the Secret Trail.

If doing the regular route, note that the Stunt High Trail crosses Stunt Road twice on the way down. In each case turn right and follow the road east about 100 yards to pick up the trail on the other side of the road. There are also various side trails to avoid.

Calabasas Peak from Topanga Lookout Ridge.
Calabasas Peak from Topanga Lookout Ridge.

I had been planning to do the regular route, but as I was returning to the Backbone Trail from Saddle Peak, it occurred to me there was a way to avoid backtracking. Instead of turning left on the Backbone Trail and descending to the Stunt High Trail, I turned right and continued east, past the water tank, to the Lois Ewen Overlook. From there, I ran over to the Topanga Lookout and then scrambled down Topanga Lookout Ridge to Calabasas Peak Mtwy.

This option is more adventurous, but requires good route-finding skills and being comfortable clambering down a rocky ridge. This 3D Cesium interactive view shows a GPS track of my route. The yellow track is today’s route. The red track is the usual route between the Backbone Trail and Calabasas Peak Mtwy. The view can be zoomed, tilted, rotated and panned. Placemark and track locations are approximate and subject to errors.

Scrambling down the ridge put me at “The Bench,” at the junction of Calabasas Peak Mtwy and Red Rock Road. This is a little more than a mile from Calabasas Peak. Once on Calabasas Peak, it was only about 0.6 mile to the top of the Secret Trail, and from there about 1.3 miles of mostly downhill running to the trailhead.

With about 4000′ of gain over 14 miles, it was a demanding route, with challenging route-finding and a fun scramble down a rocky ridge. Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Some related posts: Topanga Lookout Loop, Plus Saddle Peak; Secret Trail Variations; Secret Trail to Calabasas Peak