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……
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.