It’s funny how much time you waste piddling around the campsite. By the time we loaded up, it was almost 9 a.m. We had a 7 mile descent ahead. Other than the difficulty of carrying a full load uphill, going down is harder. You tend to slip more and your toes feel like they’re coming out the front of your shoe. The talus was steep and the trail angled, which caused us to compensate by putting more weight on the uphill foot. It was slow going but we were ready to finish this. The focus required to maintain footing was intense. When you think about every step on this terrain being calculated, your brain gets a real workout too.
The volunteer trail crews have done an amazing job out here. On a previous scouting hike of Momyer Creek Trail, I counted no less than 10 blow-downs blocking the trail. By Memorial Day, they had cleared them all. Sometimes, I will make a note on the position of a trail issue and report it back to the ranger station on the way out. The hiking community is tight-knit and are good stewards of the trail. By noon, the exposed areas on the trail were heating up. It was a blessing to go in and out of the forest as the temps would drop 5-10 degrees in the shade.
Toward the end, we started to run into day-hikers and people who seemed to be out for a stroll. As we neared Mill Creek, we heard groups of people and lots of kids. We passed a family heading uphill, their daughter asking us “where the river was?” “River? Oh, you mean Alger Creek, it’s 3.7 miles that-a-way.” I doubt they made it that far as they towed an elderly woman who was inching along. They also had their sodas and snacks in a clear trash bag. Please don’t take me wrong, I don’t mean to make fun of them, it’s the contrast between a few days away from society and being thrust into an urban picnic. We came across another family and after we told them about our 27 mile hike, the daughter asked to take our picture. Of course, we agreed. Wow, we were puffed up now!
We entered Mill Creek Wash and the atmosphere was that of a park, with people gathered around the creek, umbrellas, blankets and picnic supplies. It was too much for us – as in culture shock too much. Civilization smacked us right in the face. What we saw as a simple wash with a creek running through it became a beach front resort to the people of metro San Bernardino.
After getting back to the car, we laughed for a long time about what we just witnessed. Imagine, going into the backcountry for a few days without having time to acclimate to society. We still giggle about it. In the end, our trip to Gorgonio was hard, but great practice for the JMT. Time spent together as a couple was primo. Taking the bear canisters gave Mary an idea what it was like to pack everything (including trash) in a can. One more hike up San Jacinto and we will be ready for one of the best treks in the country.
The scene at Mill Creek showed us one thing – people love to get out and away from the city. Imagine how much more fun it is to venture a few miles out. I encourage you to go higher and farther. Amazing times await you…
Day hiking is definitely a good way to warm up for section hiking. Just like car camping is a good way to warm up for wilderness camping. At least that’s how we approach it.
The first day up Momyer Creek Trail was a challenge. With 3,000 ft. of elevation gain and difficult terrain, we were ready for a quiet night. Our first task after getting camp set up was to get water for dinner and the next day’s trek. I’ve had a Sawyer 2-bag water filtration system for a few years now and it is dependable, albeit a bit bulky for two people. It does require an adequate water source and doesn’t work well in small puddles. The gravity feed from the dirty bag to the clean bag through the filter is slow and takes awhile to filter 6-7 liters.
Dinner consisted of dehydrated meals. Mountain House makes some decent ones that are fairly palatable. We use the portable Pocket Rocket stove with propane-butane fuel. Also found a MSR knockoff stove to use as a backup.
We settled in for the night into our tent as the temperature dropped quickly. After a full day of hiking, it’s amazing how fast you can go to sleep. The first night takes some getting used to, kinda of like sleeping in a strange room or hotel. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. At first, the sound of the helicopter was distant as we heard it pass through nearby canyons. Suddenly, the sound of the blades were overhead, followed by a bright searchlight. I was like, what the heck? I unzipped the door to the tent to see what was going on when the searchlight illuminated me like a Sci-Fi movie where the spaceship beams you up. The pilot announced through his speaker that they were looking for a lost hiker. I shook my head no, and the pilot proceeded a couple of hundred yards uphill where he lit up the camp were the boy scouts were. This continued for about 10 more minutes and then it was gone. That was midnight. The rest of the evening was uneventful. We never did find out who was lost.
Morning was brisk and breakfast consisted of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Crystallized eggs, sounds yucky huh? Actually it is one of the best inventions in a long time when it comes to freeze-dried type food. I don’t know how they do it, but when mixed with water and cooked in a skillet, it is exactly like scrambled eggs. Well, they are eggs. The pre-cooked bacon was also near normal taste and texture. Overall, a tasty breakfast with hot tea. Maybe coffee next time.
Today, we would hike from our base camp at 8,400 ft. to the summit at 11,500. I had Mary drop her main pack and carry a Camelbak hydration pack that I use for mountain biking. I dumped most of the stuff out of my backpack and used it to carry our days’ supplies. We hit the trail and continued through a sub-alpine forest before emerging on the edge of a meadow. Another small stream a mile away provided the last water until our return leg. Crossing above Plummer’s Meadow, we would see the first of many awesome views that day. The switchbacks up to Dollar Lake Saddle junction were steady and steep. This portion of the trail gained about 700 ft. per mile.
At the junction, we ran into a group of boy scouts trying to melt some snow. They had quite the quandary as they did not bring adequate water with them for the summit. It takes a lot of fuel to melt snow and in the end, I believe they failed to make the top that day. Planning, especially water – is everything on this mountain.
As we continued, the elevation ticked off, 9,000, 10,000… No altitude sickness today. It helped that we camped above 8,000 ft. last night to get acclimated. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is nothing to mess with. It could begin with a persistent headache, nausea or dizziness and can affect the healthiest of people. Don’t confuse it with a hangover because the symptoms are the same! For a mild case, often hydrating and a couple of ibuprofen help. For persistent or worse symptoms, the only cure is to descend.
We could see Mt. Baldy on one of the switchbacks and the views only got better. We passed through the last trail camp and the tree-line was around 10,700. Up the next switchback, Mt. San Jacinto came into view. The closest of the Three Sisters, its’ majestic peak stands out as a sentinel to the sprawling desert below. Streaks of snow remain at her higher elevations. The trail intersected with Vivian Creek Trail, the shortest-steepest route to the summit. We began to see more people as the trails converged on the summit like freeway ramps.
There are several false summits along the way. Unless you’ve been there before, each view to a taller hill appears to be the top. It’s only when you see people nestled in the boulders like eagles on their nests do you realize you are there. We would take our pics, write in the journal, text our families and have lunch right there – only feet away from people you’ve never met before. The summit had a celebratory atmosphere to it, with everyone smiling and quietly chatting.
You could see for miles or as far as the L.A. smog would let you see to the west. It actually wasn’t that bad today. Big Bear Lake to the north, the high desert to the east and the Peninsular Mountain chain farther south. By the time we left, there were over 100 people up there. Oh well, it is Memorial Day weekend.
The six-mile trip down was pleasant as we would run in to a few more people making their way up to camp at the top. We did not see anyone else after two miles. The constant downhill was harder on the feet and we took a “foot break” at Dollar Lake Saddle. There was a cool breeze as we aired out our socks. The pounding takes a toll on your arches and toes.
By the time we got to camp, we had logged 12 miles and were ready to eat dinner and crash. After filling up our reservoirs at the creek, we had a spicy Mountain House chili meal. It was actually pretty good and one bag was enough for two people. Well, one hungry dude could probably eat the whole thing. After cleaning up, we nestled into the tent around 8:00 with the intent to relax and read a bit. By 8:30 we were in la-la land.
I would be awakened some time later by a bright light next to my head on the outside of the tent. “What is that?” Mary was like – “huh?” I said “that light, what is it?” The flashlight in my backpack pocket must be on I thought. I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the chilly night air. The full moon in all its’ glory had crested the ridge and lit up our tent like the spotlight from the rescue chopper. We laughed and went back to bed.
The wind picked up a bit that night and made a soothing sound as it passed through the conifers on the exposed ridges. Soothing, but a bit eerie as the pitch would vary. Our campsite was on a downhill slope and not affected by the wind. Eventually, we would drift off only to be awakened by the woodland birds at dawn. Most were pleasant to listen to, except for the woodpecker.
Next: Mount San Gorgonio – A Three Day Journey – Day 3: Talus Is Hard To Walk On.
As part of our workup to a section hike of the John Muir Trail this summer, Mary and I decided to do a 3 day practice hike to the summit of Mt San Gorgonio via the Momyer Creek Trail. The tallest of the Three Sisters (San Antonio, San Jacinto, San Gorgonio) it stands out at 11,503 ft. Southern California isn’t necessarily known for its’ majestic mountains, but these peaks are often used to warm up for longer backcountry trips into the Sierras, especially Mt. Whitney.
It’s always good to check in with the rangers to get the latest on trail conditions. Also, get an update on the water flows at the creeks and streams. The office is often staffed with volunteers who are a wealth of knowledge. Having obtained the backcountry permit several weeks prior at the Mill Creek Ranger station, we arrived at the Momyer Creek Trail parking area around 0900 on what we expected to be a busy Memorial Day weekend. Altitude at the trailhead is approx. 5,450 ft.
This was Mary’s first time out with her new Gregory 60 liter pack, complete with a few days worth of food in a bear canister. While the canisters are not mandatory here, I suggested it to get used to our next backcountry on the JMT where they are required. She has the BearVault 500, and I picked up the Garcia canister. Both are highly rated, and I’ve rented the Garcia type in Yosemite. They are cumbersome and take up a lot of space in the pack, but we just dealt with it. My wife is an amazing hiking partner. She really kicks it on the trail and doesn’t complain a bit.
We began our trek by crossing the Mill Creek Wash, which has two sections of the creek that are fairly easy to cross. The terrain gradually changes from the rocky, sandy wash to a single track laced with chaparral. We passed through several wooded areas before breaking out into the open. You want to hit this section of the trail early because it does get hot by midmorning during spring and summer.
The trail begins a gradual climb (around 400-500ft. per mile) with a few switchbacks and moves in and out of deciduous forests. The acorns from the oak trees are among the largest I’ve ever seen. Due to the weight of our packs, we would stop every mile or two for a break.
The first water source on Momyer is Alger Creek, about 3.8 miles up. We climbed to 7,300 ft. before dropping into the canyon at Alger Creek Camp at 7,000 ft. Prior to the creek, I noticed a brightly colored snake on the switchback below. Knowing that it wasn’t a rattler and not poisonous, I slowly approached it. It didn’t budge, so I gently coaxed it with my trekking pole and it slithered away. Come to find out, it was a California King Snake. The water flow was decent with several cascades nearby. We dropped our packs, pulled our lunches out and enjoyed a break at one of the cascades. Taking our shoes off, we dipped them into the stream and laughed at how cold it was. We would also spend some time doing our couples devotion. It was time well spent.
We noticed a Boy Scout troop pass by. We would see them many more times throughout the weekend. We packed up and began a steep climb out of Alger to the next checkpoint – Dobbs Camp junction. We passed through an area of many fallen trees and a 500 yd. gauntlet of thorn bushes. Long pants are advisable through here.
The trail changed from dirt to decomposed granite and became even more narrow as it passed through areas of talus and scree. We encountered a volunteer trail crew pushing blow-downs off the trail. The trail crew leader politely asked for our permit and I obliged. Once he knew we were frequent hikers, he tried to recruit us. We are thinking about doing some type of volunteer work for the Forest Service, but trail maintenance is tough. 🙂 The one bit of bad news they provided was that the large Boy Scout troop was heading to the camp we were shooting for. Man, I wasn’t looking forward to camping near a bunch of kids, but knew that we could find another site in the forest. It was slow going as we passed Dobbs Camp junction but the views of Little San Gorgonio and Mill Creek Canyon were getting better. Momyer isn’t the most scenic of the trails around here, but is definitely less crowded.
We crossed another trickle of a stream before crossing a larger stream near our destination. It ended up being 300-400 yards before our site. As we neared Saxton Camp, I saw a clearing in the woods downhill. We bushwhacked to the area and found a semi-level location. There were some smaller widow-makers nearby, but the weather forecast was looking good, so it was a risk I was willing to take. We pitched our tent and set up for the night after hiking 6-7 hours. It was a long 7 miles today.
Next: Mount San Gorgonio- A Three Day Journey – Day 2: Lost Hiker!
We are coming up on three years since we’ve started day hiking in Southern California. What originally started as a way to get in better shape has morphed into a love of the outdoors and appreciation for an awesome creation.
It is a blessing to live in an area surrounded by “hike-able” terrain. Between San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, there are hundreds of trails to choose from. From coastal strolls to desert jaunts and a trek into the mountains, we just about have it all out here. No doubt, we live in one of the wackiest and most heavily taxed states in the union. A couple of reasons people tolerate the craziness out here is the abundance of outdoor activities and the ability to get away from it all.
The Peninsular Range of mountains in southern California runs north-south. From the San Jacinto’s to Baja California, they provide fantastic ocean and desert views. The trails encompassing the Laguna Mountains in the south are sub-alpine with areas of chaparral. They are often arid, with stiff, cold desert winds in the winter and hot, dry breezes in the summer. The famous Pacific Crest Trail winds its’ way through the Peninsular Range from Campo down by the Mexican border to Mount San Jacinto in the north. We’ve hiked a good bit of the PCT through here, 10 miles at a time. I’ve even thought about becoming a trail angel to the PCT thru-hikers one year.
The wildlife on the trails down here is sometimes sparse, but encounters are more frequent in the early morning hours and before dusk. Deer are abundant as are wild turkeys and a host of reptiles. Once the temps hit the 70’s, we occasionally run across two types of serpents – the Pacific and Diamondback rattlers. Often sunning across or along the trail, they usually slither away, but sometimes need a little encouragement from a hiking pole. Rarely will we find one coiled and ready to strike, but it has happened. Woodpeckers are the most common woodland bird and the California Quail is the ground dweller that we most often see – and hear. Red tail hawks frequently ride the afternoon drafts in their search for prey. Huge white owls are an occasional sight in the deserts after the sun goes down. We have yet to encounter a big cat on the trail, but we have seen a young mountain lion while driving out of San Jacinto. Skunks, bobcats and a host of vermin travel the same trails that the humans do.
Hiking season is year round with summer hikes around 8-9,000 ft. and winter hikes at lower altitudes. On one trip, we passed through a 106 deg desert climate and finished out at the snow-covered summit with temps in the 60’s. Wind is usually a factor and its effects are significant wind chills and increased dehydration. It’s usually the reason we layer our clothing too. Often, we are peeling layers off and putting them back on to stay comfortable. We have been blessed with amazing weather but usually check the forecast before heading out.
Our favorite trails are up in the San Jacinto area, the granite peaks provide majestic views, the Jeffrey pines provide ample shade for the rest breaks that you’ll need as you climb the 2-3000 ft. elevation changes, with the average hike above 6,000 ft. If you seek solitude, hit the trail later in the day and you will run across few bipeds on your hike. Bring a headlamp, and you will be rewarded with interesting descents through the forest as the sun drops behind adjacent peaks. Many of the trails are comprised of scree from decomposed granite and are slippery. Trekking poles are invaluable tools and have saved us from many a tumble. Even more important, the poles are knee savers. They will probably make nice spears too.
The easy to moderate trails in the Laguna Mountains are like casual strolls and make for a nice getaway from the suburbs. Take a lunch and enjoy watching the waterfowl at Big Laguna Lake and be on the lookout for the foxes as they seek out the field mice in the meadows. They’re watching you from a distance, but you can usually get a good photo with a zoom lens. This area is the best for an easy hike with mountains on one side and the desert on the other. The colors at sunset are beautiful.
All in all, the Peninsular Range offers some of the best day hikes, all within 90 minutes of San Diego. We are constantly on the lookout for those obscure trails less traveled and are often rewarded with solitude, awesome scenery and a decent workout. Wherever you are my friends, just venture out and explore.