San Jacinto Wilderness – Devil’s Slide to Tahquitz Loop
It’s been over a year since the Mountain Fire consumed over 27,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest in Riverside County. As a result, some of the trails in the San Jacinto range and some of the Pacific Crest Trail are closed indefinitely. The cause of the fire was attributed to electrical equipment failure on private property. Fortunately, no lives were lost. Since last fall’s hike on Fuller Ridge, we haven’t been back in the San Jacinto area. We love to hike up here in the summer because you can usually escape the hotter temps in the valleys below.
Today, we would venture out on Devil’s Slide and hit Saddle Junction From there, we would see which trails were open. On the weekends, this is a popular trail so the recommendation is to come early or start late (around noon). Humber Park is a popular area to picnic and the Earnie Maxwell trail is a 2.6 mile one way shuttle hike for a nicer walk in the park. Parking in Humber Park requires an adventure pass. For the Devil’s Slide trail, you will need to pick up a permit at the ranger’s station in Idyllwild.
I usually check the weather forecast when we hike. Now, a tropical storm off the Baja Peninsula was pumping in moisture to the desert regions east with subsequent scattered thunderstorms in the mountains. One thing about hiking, the longer you do it, the better you get at understanding the weather. The cumulus clouds were definitely about, but were spread out and not building into thunder-cells.
The trail up Devil’s Slide is well maintained, wide – with a mix of dirt, granite and some sand and scree. It gains a steady 500 ft. or so for the first mile and then you get switchbacks that are around 700 ft. per mile. It’s a steady climb with nice views of Suicide Rock and Lily Rock, both favorites for local climbers. You can hear them calling out to each other as you head up.
Unfortunately, this has been a low snow year so the trail is totally dry. If you want to find water sources in the wilderness, watch for bees. They seek out moisture and will actually pull water out of moist dirt that usually has a water source underneath. They often will take the water back to the queen to cool her down. I love nature.
After 2.5 miles, we reached Saddle Junction and most of the trails were roped off by the USFS. The Mountain Fire did impact a large area, but many mature trees survived because the fire was not as intense. Some species of pines in this area have bark that is 3-5 inches thick. It’s like armor and protects the conifers from the heat.
We took one of two available trails toward Tahquitz Valley, hoping that we could work our way toward Law’s Camp a few miles away which has decent views of the desert. After a half mile or so, we would run into some volunteer ranger’s and I automatically gave them my permit. The people who volunteer are usually locals that love this area and are a big asset to the Forest Service. They check permits, clean up trash and seek out illegal campsites or fire rings. Often, they assist with search and rescue. We had a nice conversation with them and were on our way again. We came to another junction and unfortunately, the trails to the north were closed so we went into Tahquitz Valley toward Tahquitz Peak.
We were rewarded with a display of colorful ferns. Some were orange and yellow, probably due to the lack of rain, but it seemed like fall foliage to us. We had the trail to ourselves for the next few hours as most people stopped at the junction or went straight to the peak. The trail meandered through the forest passing a couple of remote campsites. These would be nice if there was water around. Otherwise, you’ll need to bring it in like a camel.
One of the volunteer rangers mentioned that thunderstorms were due in around 3 p.m. We pushed up the last 500 ft. just past the Tahquitz Peak junction and wandered out to an outcropping for views of Lily Rock and the valley where we would take a late lunch break. Good thing too, because I hit the classic wall where I was out of energy. Many long distance hikers experience this frequently where they just run out of steam. For them, trying to stay ahead of the calorie deficit is the key. For us occasional day hikers, it’s a matter of eating a decent breakfast and snacking along the way.
We heard one group pass on their way to the peak and then the first rumbles of thunder. I looked around to see the source and the cumulus clouds were gathering to our south and moving north towards us. We finished up and began a fairly quick retreat down the mountain. Unfortunately, the first mile or so was parallel to the storm so we didn’t make much headway, but ended up getting out of harms way fairly quickly. I found out later that the storm dumped several inches of rain with hundreds of lightning strikes to our south and east. Did you know lightning can strike 20+ miles away from a storm? We took the opportunity to talk about lightning safety and what actions we would take. Feel a tingling on the back of your neck or arms? Drop those poles and squat near the ground ASAP. Don’t touch the ground though.
Anyhow, hike long enough and you are bound to get wet and/or experience lightning. Be prepared and have a plan. Pack a rain-pancho or raincoat – you can get hypothermia even in the summer. Avoid peaks and summits in thunderstorm conditions around the noon to early afternoon hours.
In summary, the Devil’s Slide trail to Saddle Junction is fairly limited for the time being due to the fire, but take the loop to Tahquitz Peak as it is a worthwhile trek. The views from the peak and the Lily Rock canyon are stellar. You’ll log around 9.5-9.7 miles on this walkabout. Take at least 2-3 liters of water with you, there’s none to be found this time of year. Hike on……