U.S.D.A. Identifier: Marion Mountain Trail-2E14
Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil, rocks, pine straw
Distance as hiked: 12.5 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-6,400ft., Top of trail-10,834ft.
The last time we hiked Marion Mountain Trail was in April/May of 2012. Snow covered a good portion of the trail above 8,000 ft, and we only made it to the junction. It is known as one of the shortest and steepest routes to the summit of San Jacinto.
We took my brother on this hike as a warm up for the JMT at the end of the month. this is a challenging trail with difficult terrain. You must keep a sharp eye out for the path as it gets tricky.
Less than half a mile into today’s hike, I came within a foot of a Pacific rattler, who warned me in the nick of time. My hiking pole was inches away from his tail. I backed away slowly to allow this 4-5 foot adult make his way up the slope. Close encounters with rattlers gets the adrenaline going. The color and pattern of this one blended in perfectly with the trail. While I’ve had over a dozen encounters with rattlers in my few years of hiking, this was the closest. Our altitude was approx. 6,700 ft. In my observation, snakes are rarely seen above 8,000 ft. in the San Bernardino Mountains. It made me more cautious the rest of the day and I also took the time to brief my hiking partners on how we would handle a poisonous snake bite situation.
After snapping a few photos of this viper, we focused on our journey to the summit. The trail wastes no time in elevation gain as it climbs out at over 900 ft. per mile. The short switchbacks and rocky, sandy trail makes for a calf and quad burning extravaganza.
Due to the lack of snowfall last winter, the vernal streams are fewer and water flows much less. The first significant stream was around 9,300-9,400 ft., and probably feeds into the tiny San Jacinto River. The temps stayed in the 80’s for much of this trek and we were using up our water faster than predicted. There were a couple of other streams where a someone with a pump could extract some water.
Sometimes, I question why we do these tough hikes. Marion Mtn is one of the hardest ones around. It’s really mind over matter because it isn’t always fun. It does build confidence in the sense that once you put your mind to something, you can conquer it. Besides, if you always hiked on flat terrain it would be boring.
We took many breaks today due to the heat and intensity of the trail. We started feeling the possible symptoms of mild acute mountain sickness (AMS) around 9,000 ft. To compensate, a motrin and increased fluid intake helped, as well as slowing the ascent. Symptoms may include nausea, light-headedness and a mild headache. We kept an eye on this and agreed to head back down if the symptoms did not go away. AMS is nothing to play around with and is important to recognize it as it can lead to a more serious condition. You can read about it here: http://www.altitude.org/altitude_sickness.php
We took a lunch break at the junction of the PCT/Marion Mtn/Seven Pines trails. From the junction, you enter a heavily wooded area for 1/2 mile and begin a steady climb that is exposed to afternoon sun. The trail is rocky with occasional shade under some conifers. We continued on to Little Round Valley campground. It is a nice area with private campsites less than a mile to the summit. The nearby vernal stream was pretty much dry, so I recommend you top off at the stream about 700-800 yds before camp on the ascent.
We broke out into a clearing with signs that pointed us to the summit and points to the tram, Wellman’s Divide, Deer Springs Trail and Humber Park. The views to several 10,000+ peaks and the desert below are beautiful.
No hike to San Jacinto is complete without stopping by the summit cabin. The last 200 ft. to the summit are spent scrambling up boulders and around the flora. At the top, we saw several others – not too bad. Sometimes, you can run in to 30 or 40 people crowded around the sign. It was 5:30 by then, so that might have something to do with it.
We started down by 6 p.m. knowing that it was going to be a close call on darkness. I have to admit, this trail is no easier going down since you have to pick your way around the rocks and scree. We burned through our food and snacks due to the extra effort going up. Now, we were on auto pilot.
As darkness approached, we broke out the headlamps and realized we would be hiking for at least another hour. The forest and moonless night made for a slow descent as we picked our way over the obstacles. My headlamp needed the batteries replaced, but I kept going. I did have spare batteries, but just didn’t want to stop. After a week of night hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness last year, this wasn’t too bad. My hiking partners weren’t digging it though. Actually, I was tired and ready for it to end too.
If you’ve hiked this trail, you know how hard it is to follow – especially at night. As Mary discovered, the scorpions come out at night here. While I was struggling to see the trail ahead, she was seeing every crawling critter on the path. Oh well, at least the scorpions are small.
After 1 1/2 hrs, we finally reached the parking area and were dog-tired. We were still committed to the post-hike celebratory meal of In-N-Out with “animal style fries”. Well, if you live out here – you know what that is.
This hike is a great workup for a Mt. Whitney type trip. We used it as a warmup for the JMT. Even though the trail humbled us, we came away confident with a few lessons learned.
1. Take more water than you think you need or have the ability to filter some. For me that’s 1 liter for every 3 miles. Your mileage may vary. I carry a backup 24 oz. Camelbak bottle and needed it on this hike.
2. Take extra food and snacks. While we had enough, it wasn’t enough if we had gotten lost and needed to spend the night. Keep some of those nuclear proof classic Clif Bars in your emergency pack.
3. Hiking at night is slow going, especially in tough terrain. Scree isn’t as obvious and a rolled ankle 3 miles from the trailhead is a bad thing.
We use trekking poles when hiking. This is a good set that is reasonably priced: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue Unless you are a pro, don’t spend your money on the carbon fiber poles.
Mary and I have discovered our favorite area to hike in Southern California. The San Jacinto Mountains are less than a two-hour drive from North County San Diego. This range is on the northern end of the Peninsular Range that extends into San Diego County, all the way to the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico. Off on our usual late start, it was a comfortable 68 degrees leaving home. By the time, we passed Temecula, 88 and the town of Banning on I-10 was a dry 97 degrees. A general rule of thumb is that for every thousand feet you go up, the temperature drops 3-5 degrees. We wanted to get above 8,000 ft. today so that would hopefully be in 70 deg temps at the summit.
Driving up the 15, San Jacinto Peak stands out early, with its snow-capped peak in stark contrast to the flat, dry valleys surrounding it. Our approach through Banning brought us up the northwest side and the curvy switchbacks on the 243 make for an enjoyable ride. Since we would be hiking in the wilderness areas, we needed to obtain the wilderness permit at the state park headquarters in Idyllwild. Not knowing exactly which trail we would hike, I wrote down Marion Mtn. and Seven Pines for the permit. I usually print out a partial topo map of the areas we hike since we trail-blaze occasionally. I picked up a Tom Harrison trail map of the San Jacinto Wilderness at the ranger station and asked for directions to the trailhead. The Harrison maps work well for me since they are fairly durable and have UTM coordinates on the outside edges. My little Garmin Foretrex GPS works ok using UTM.
The Marion Mtn. trailhead is located near several campgrounds, none which are opened for the season. The trail wasted no time increasing in elevation, the first mile was almost a 1,000 ft. gain without an abundance of switchbacks. The path was well maintained and we crossed a couple of fire or maintenance roads before entering into a deeply wooded area. The amount of dead timber was really high. I haven’t researched it, but it was almost like these trees were hit by disease or a wind storm since the wood was not burnt. Even so, there were plenty of thriving Sugar and Jeffrey Pines, along with some fir trees. A mile or so into it, the trail became harder to distinguish and by the time we hit the second vernal stream around the 1.2 mile mark, we climbed onto a bolder in the middle of the stream and had our lunch. Also brought my Kindle on this day and we did our daily couple’s devotion right there on the rock. The one we use is named Moments With You by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. It was an awesome time surrounded by God’s creation. Once again, not a soul around but us.
We jumped down and crossed the stream to what appeared to be the trail. Not long after, we realized that we were bushwhacking again. After 30 minutes of picking our way up the mountain, I broke out the map and got a rough plot of our location. Land navigation is a skill that is challenging to be proficient at and difficult to master. The terrain was covered with tall pines and huge boulders, making it tough to pick out landmarks more than a few hundred yards away. Our estimated position was about 400 yards east of the Marion Mtn Trail and maybe 1000 yards to a major trail junction. We worked our way around the scrub, over a few streams and found the actual trail. From this point on, the path was a mix of blowdowns (fallen trees) snowed over, and streams that flowed down the trail. The snow was crusty and slippery due to the cycle of melting and freezing over the past couple of weeks. The snow was hard to hike in but a blessing because you could make out the footprints of those that had gone before.
Surrounded by the white stuff, it was noticeably cooler, almost like when you open the refrigerator. We continued to trudge uphill and it leveled out around 8700 ft. We hit the trail junction which was the intersection of the Marion Mt., Seven Pines Deer Springs and the PCT. San Jacinto Peak was also “only” a couple of miles away. Tempting, but it was already after 5 p.m. and we weren’t exactly prepared to camp out in the snow. While each of us carries a small survival kit in our day packs, I could tell that Mary did not want to create an episode of survivor man/woman. We decided to lay in the snow and pretend to make snow angels.
The descent was a bit more treacherous and slippery because the snow hid the rocks underneath; a sprained ankle up here would make for a long trip down. Picking my way around a fallen tree, I was following tracks in the snow and before I knew it I post-holed ( fell in a drift up to my thigh). Funny thing was that it was just the right leg, so I awkwardly extracted myself from the hole and laughed at myself. We were able to follow the trail the remainder of the trip and weren’t sure where we actually got off the trail going up. We ran into another couple on the way down who said that they also lost the trail and turned around. So, the path less traveled is worth it as long as you are prepared.
The Marion Mt Trail is a great trail that is moderate-strenuous with decent views. In early spring, there is plenty of snow and streams to explore.
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Hiking poles: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
Lessons Learned: 1. Take maps and practice land navigation with a compass. 2. A GPS is nice, but technology isn’t always reliable. 3. Hiking in the snow is tricky, especially going down a slope.