North Backbone Trail Revisited

Wind-swept Jeffrey pine near Dawson Peak
Wind-swept Jeffrey pine near Dawson Peak

I was cold — but not cold enough to do anything about it. I was chugging up the final steep step on Mt. Baldy’s exposed northern flank and didn’t want to stop. Strong winds were gusting out of the northeast, and the effective temperature had to be in the thirties. Mountain wave clouds paralleled the San Gabriels, stretching in a line from southwest of Mt. Baldy to beyond Mt. Williamson.

At the trailhead I’d seen the lens shaped clouds hovering over the mountains and expected it to be windy and cold. I’d changed my single layer long sleeve top for a more wind resistant double layer top and also pulled on some warmer shorts. I had started the climb with lightweight gloves and a  3 oz. rain shell in my pack. The gloves were out of the pack by the first peaklet, but I was still resisting putting on the rain shell.

So why repeat the same adventure on back-to-back weekends? The main reason is that I really enjoyed the route. But there were several more obtuse reasons as well. Last week, my Garmin Forerunner 205 would not turn on*. This is a known issue with an otherwise excellent GPS. However the usual workaround, pressing Mode + Reset + Power simultaneously, would not bring mine to life. So I didn’t get a a GPS trace of the route. The trace is not only useful for determining the approximate length of the route and elevation gain, but for documenting where photographs were taken and the location of interesting features.

This week I used my older Garmin Foretrex 201 GPS. It isn’t as compact or comfortable to wear as the Forerunner 205, and isn’t quite as sensitive, but at least it could be powered on. There were two trees in particular that I wanted to georeference. The first was a Jeffrey pine that had been recently struck by lightning. As it turns out, it didn’t require a GPS to determine its location because it is already marked on the topo as point 8555. The second was a gnarled and ancient Sierra Juniper on Pine Mountain.

Here’s a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of the route. The title photograph is of a wind swept Jeffrey Pine on a south facing slope near Dawson Peak, with mountain wave clouds in the background.

*Garmin promptly replaced the unit. As a precaution, I now check that the unit can be powered on after it is removed from the recharging cradle.

Some related posts: Mt. Baldy North Backbone Trail, Mt. Baldy Run Over the Top

Mt. Baldy North Backbone Trail

Lodgepole Pine and distorted mountain wave clouds near Dawson Peak.
Lodgepole Pine and distorted mountain wave clouds near Dawson Peak.

As I drove under the ski lift on the narrow dirt road, I wondered if I was in the right place. I had turned off of Angeles Crest Highway a few minutes before, and hoped I was still on Blue Ridge Road. My intended destination was an isolated turnout that serves as the trailhead for the North Backbone Trail. This classic trail follows a roller-coaster ridgeline to Mt. Baldy’s broad 10,064′ summit.

Bouncing along the dirt road, I surveyed the sky. The forecast had been for partly cloudy skies, but the morning had dawned overcast and crimson red, and now there was talk of rain. Autumn in the mountains is like that.

The North Backbone Trail is usually not as busy as the usual routes that ascend Mt. Baldy (Mt. San Antonio). One of the reasons is the bumpy six mile, back country drive to the trailhead. Another is the undulating round-trip route gains (and loses) about 4750′ over about eight miles. It climbs over – or nearly over – three highpoints: Point 8555, Pine Mountain (9648′), and Dawson Peak (9575′).

Rounding a corner, I’m surprised to see a small turnout jammed with cars. It’s not hunting season yet, so there must be a group already on the ridge. Squeezing into the last available space, I check that I’m not blocking the road or the car behind me, grab my pack, and jog down the trail to a saddle. To the east Mt. San Jacinto is sandwiched between low clouds and high, and I wonder what the day will bring…

As I reach the summit, the sun breaks through the clouds for the briefest instant. As if driven by my efforts on the ups and downs of the trail, the blues, whites and grays of the sky and clouds have been continuously changing. In turn, the intricacy of the clouds and their motion has energized me. It has been a extraordinary ascent, full of exertion, discovery, wonder, and awe.

A hiker on the summit smiles and waves, and walks over to me. Excited, he tells me that he is 57 and just started climbing peaks two years ago. This is his 57th summit. Days like today are why.

The North Backbone Trail is a treat for the fit and experienced adventurer. In fair weather, and without any snow and ice, it is a strenuous, but relatively straightforward climb. The ups and downs are generally quite steep and there are a few loose, rubbly sections. I hiked the ups, and jogged the flats and downhills. It is not a place to be in a thunderstorm.

The photograph of a Lodgepole Pine and mountain wave cloud was taken on the slopes of Dawson Peak, on my way back from Mt. Baldy. About an hour later, as I descended from Peak 8555, it started to rain. Autumn in the mountains is like that.

Here’s a Google Earth image of a GPS trace of the route from North Backbone Trail Revisited.

Some related posts: Mt. Baldy Run Over the Top, Pine Mountain Juniper, Mt. Baldy Runner

Poison Oak

Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)

Vibrant green with lustrous leaves in the Spring, Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) generally becomes less vivid with age, eventually turning red in the late Summer and Fall. The red color is due to anthocyanin pigments in the plant’s sap that become unmasked as the leaf loses chlorophyll.

Anthocyanin pigments are responsible for the reds and purples in Autumn leaves, and in common fruits and vegetables such as apples, plums, cranberries, grapes, tomatoes and strawberries. Some studies suggest anthocyanin pigments may contribute to the health benefits of these foods.

While the chemistry of Fall colors is fairly well understood, the role the yellow and red pigments play in the physiology of plants is not as clear. In The Warm Hues of Fall Foliage (2002), Geoff Brumfiel summarizes competing theories, ranging from sun and frost protection to acting as a bug repellent — or attractant.

As a starting point for more information regarding poison oak and it’s allergen urushiol, see Poison Oak: More Than Just Scratching The Surface (Wayne’s Word) and Allergies: Poison Plant Allergies: Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac (WebMD).

The photograph of poison oak is from a run in Dayton Canyon in the Simi Hills northwest of Los Angeles.

Related post: Poison Oak Along the Garapito Trail

Curly Dock


Brown seed stalks of Curly Dock (Rumex crispus)


Brown seed stalks of Curly Dock (Rumex crispus) amid dried grasses and mustard on Laskey Mesa in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (formerly Ahmanson Ranch).


Curly dock is a non-native invasive weed from Eurasia. The Cal-IPC Invasive Plant Inventory describes its impact as limited.


From a run at Ahmanson on September 13, 2006.

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