Summit Day Snow on San Gorgonio

Day 1: South Fork Trailhead to Dry Lake

Day 2: Summit Day – Dry Lake to Red Rock Flat

Day 2 started early. My alarm woke me at the lovely hour of 3AM. I woke surprisingly quickly. It may have been due to the 6PM bed time the night before, or maybe the adrenaline of knowing it was time to climb the mountain. The weather forecast had said there would be a 30% chance of snow this day, and I was worried about opening the tent to find ourselves socked in by clouds. With no idea how far the tracks continued up the trail, I feared the idea of having to route find with limited visibility… this would most likely have put an end to our summit dreams.

Summit bound under the new moon

I opened the tent to find it darker than dark outside as we were going to be under a new moon for our pre-dawn hike. The air was still and there were no snow flakes falling from the sky above. Looking up, I saw a sky that was crystal clear and full of tiny points of light (many more than visible from the sky of the Bay Area). This was definitely a relief.

After packing up camp and strapping on our snow shoes, we headed up the trail towards Mineshaft Saddle. We got on the trail by 4AM, and with the saddle about 2 miles away, we figured we would get there by sunrise.

As we hiked, it became clear that we were following only one set of tracks… those belonging to our trail blog friend who had turned back only 2 days earlier. I was happy to have a clear trail in front of me.

As we approached the saddle, a dim glow appeared over the ridge. I was happy to see morning arrive, and the saddle provided the perfect vantage point to watch the new day begin!

Day break from just above Mineshaft Saddle on Thanksgiving

Snow drifts slowly covering the trail

On the saddle, our trail intersected with Fish Creek Trail. There were no tracks coming up that trail, and the ones we were following continued up the mountain. While the air was still, the trail showed evidence that we had crossed over to the windy side of the mountain. The tracks had begun to be filled by drift snow traveling across the slopes, and the snow was consistently over a foot deep.

Continuing on, the slops continued to get steeper while the tracks we were following continued to disappear. As we followed the ever diminishing trail, a few gentle breezes started passing through. They were gentle and surprisingly warm… I enjoyed the feel of the warm air on my face, but hoped the winds would not pick up or bring the snow that had been forecast.

Trails don't last long on the snowy slopes

Making first tracks as we pass the plane wreckage

As we approached the beginning of the switchbacks, we came up to the site of the 1953 plane crash. The wreck had been mostly covered, but there were a few pieces still visible through the snow. This was also the point where our trail disappeared into the powder. We had reach the point at which our blogger had turned back. I could see the switchbacks weaving their way up the slope and began wondering how far we would get. It was still fairly easy to kick steps in the snow with my snowshoes, but for how long would this be true? There is of course only one way to find out, and with a beautiful, clear sky above us, we continued onward and upward!

The sun greeting us as we reach the top of the switchbacks

The switchbacks presented quite a challenge. While the trail was easy to follow through the trees, marked by evidence of trail maintenance, gaining about 1,000 feet in such a short distance is never easy… especially when shuffling through over a foot of snow. Our efforts were well rewarded. After no fewer than 8 switchbacks, we crested the ridge into the warmth of the ever rising sun to see the valley below to the east and a low lying blanket of clouds to the west. It was now approaching noon and we were within 2 miles of the summit. We estimated that we were about 30 min behind our expected pace, but after getting a quick lunch and checking the map, we continued on to the summit.

Summit this way!

As we pushed along the last bit of trail to the summit, I could feel the air getting thinner while my feet seemed to get heavier. Coming around the mountain allowed us to see the extent of the trail. It looked like a white carpet gradually sloping upward along the ridge. I knew somewhere out there was the trail junction that would take us up to the summit. Now that it was in sight, it seemed so close, but as my legs grew more tired, and my lungs had to work ever harder to get oxygen from thinning air, it seemed so far away. Then I saw it… the trail sign pointing towards the summit!

It was now almost 1:30PM and we had been hiking for over 9 hours. We dropped our packs to make a quick detour to the summit… half mile out, half mile back. We had made it… and what a way to spend Thanksgiving!

San Jacinto Peak holding back the clouds

We could see Dry Lake where our day began so long ago

The summit trail stretches out along the ridge

After celebrating a bit on the summit (11,501 feet), and enjoying the feeling of having a whole mountain to ourselves, we turned back and began our descent to Red Rock Flat. It was now 2PM and we still had almost 5 miles to go to reach the camp. While it was all down hill, we were feeling the effects of the sun, the altitude, and the hours of hiking and I wanted to be sure to get across the last steep snow field before the sun dropped to far and the snow crusted over.

Summit trail junction

We hoisted our packs and began down the trail. Since we were above tree line, we no longer had the cut branches of trail maintenance that I had grown a custom to following. It was up to my topo map skills to get us back to tree line (though I had a bit of help from the GPS of my iPone, which definitely came in handy). Descending was a nice change of pace, and the trail kept us on the sunny side of the ridge. Looking back we could see the trail we had been following stretching back along the mountain for miles.

Crossing the last snow field and ducking back into the trees, we found ourselves less than a mile out of camp with a perfect view of the sun set. The colors were spectacular, and provided the perfect back drop for the cloud filled valley stretched out before us. We stopped to grab our headlamps and watch the day slip away.

Sun ducking below a sea of clouds

The day fades through the trees

With the last of the light fading, we found our way into camp. We were on top of a ridge at about 10,000 feet, and as the sun disappeared, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped rapidly and what remained of my water started to freeze. We layered up, and quickly got the tent set up. My excitement for having a nice hot bowl of tuna rice was overshadowed by my desire to get into my fluffy down bag. Dinner turned into several handfuls of trail mix, jerky, cheese, and a few bites of summer sausage. Once warm, Paul fired up a stove to melt a bit of water to get us through the night, and I piled up snow to help protect the tent from the wind gusting over the ridge.

With the sun gone, and another night of new moon, it was pitch black out. But while building our snow wall, I noticed a strange orange glow on the horizon. I knew it couldn’t be the sun, that had set nearly an hour ago. Looking out into the dark I saw thousands of glowing points. The clouds had cleared, and the lights of San Bernardino were now illuminating the sky. As isolated as the mountain had felt all day, it was hard to believe the city was so close.

Crawling back into the tent, I could feel the toll that the day had taken on me. It had been a long day, and my body was ready to retire. It took us 13 hours to get from Dry Lake to Red Rock Flat, and I felt it. I was asleep moments after climbing into my sleeping bag and didn’t stir until the sun came up the next day…

Day 3: Red Rock Flat to South Fork Trailhead

More photos can be found on Flickr

Thanksgiving on San Gorgonio

Thanksgiving provides a great opportunity to take a trip someplace a bit farther than can be done in a weekend. In the beginning of planning this Thanksgiving trip, San Gorgonio became the target because it is the tallest mountain in Southern California at 11,500 ft. Initially, the weather looked like it would either be in the 50’s or on the leading edge of the winter snowfall. The route we decided on was to summit via the South Fork Trail.

As the trip date closed in, it became clear that we were gonna encounter a bit more snow than originally expected. Then, the day before leaving, someone posted on the trail blog that they had to turn back and recommended crampons for climbing the steep switchbacks. While we weren’t sure what this meant for our summit dreams, it didn’t deter us…

San Gorgonio Wilderness Boundary

Day 1: South Fork Trail to Dry Lake

The South Fork Trail head starts at about 6,200 ft and there was snow on the trail from the start. It was patchy at first, but didn’t take long to become at steady layer on the trail. The trail was well traveled with several sets of tracks leading the way.

About two miles in we passed the trail to Poopout Hill and crossed into the San Gorgonio Wilderness. From there the snow began to deepen and the trail began to pick up altitude. As we continued we arrived at the trail split for Dry Lake. The footprints followed the Dry Lake trail, while we got a look at the

Dollar Lake trail free of tracks

trackless trail coming from Dollar Lake that we would be returning on in a few days. This left me wondering how far the tracks continued along this trail. Did they go all the way to the top, or did they stop at the switchbacks where our guy from the trail blog had to turn back? The answer to this question would have to wait until tomorrow when we pushed for the summit. Until then, we continued to Dry Lake.

Getting to Dry Lake required several stream crossings. Some were small, and others were a bit tricky with the snow covering some boot sized gaps between logs. After some graceful steps (and plenty of balancing help from the hiking poles), the streams were crossed, and Dry Lake was a few steps closer…

Paul navigating the snowing crossing... August in Nebraska?

Snowy Stream

After crossing the streams, the tracks thinned and the trial climbed to the top of a ridge. As we crested the ridge, the summit became visible through the trees, and with the sun behind the mountains, it had an almost mystic glow in the sky. I could feel the excitement for the summit day growing…

San Gorgonio appears through the trees

San Gorgonio (left) and Jepson Peak (right)

Ice covered Dry Lake

We arrived at Dry Lake to find it frozen over. The 3,000 ft we had gained since leaving the trailhead had brought cooler temperatures (mid 40’s in the sun) and deeper snow at our first camp at 9,000 ft. We put on our snow shoes in order to leave the trail in search of a place to pitch our tent. The snow was a nice powder and about a foot deep.

As the sun started to dip behind the ridge, we got camp set up and made dinner. With the frozen lake and a thick layer of snow hiding any flowing water, we filled our water bottles by melting snow in preparation for the big summit day coming quickly. With few daylight hours, we decided to get up at 3AM to pack up camp and get on the trail by 4AM. It would be 5 steep miles to the summit at 11,500 ft, with 5 more miles to camp. Hoping to average 1mph, this would get us to camp before sunset.

Camp at Dry Lake

With food in our bellies, water in our bottles, and a plan for the summit, we called it a day and the late hour of 6PM…

Day 2: Dry Lake to Red Rock

More photos can be found Flickr

Leavitt Meadows to Long Lakes, September 16-18, 2011

After far to much time nestled in the crowded metropolis of the Bay Area, it was time to escape to the warming embrace of the wilderness. This trip was put together by my good friend Paul. The initial destination was to be somewhere within Yosemite National Park. After studying the red tape that is the permit system, we decided to set our sites on the surrounding national forests. Leavitt Meadows was suggested to Paul by a friend from his days as a Corn Husker.

The Route:

Starting at the Leavitt Meadows trailhead on the east side of Sonora Pass on CA highway 108, the trail follows the West Walker River south to Tower Lake.

Friday, September 16th:

Having to first survive the day at the lab, Paul, Herman and I met up at my place in the late afternoon to do a quick pack shakedown and add my food supply to Paul’s bear canister. Then we took a short ride across town to pick up Ulrike, and we were on our way! After minimal traffic and a pit stop at In’n Out, we rolled into the trailhead campground at about 11pm. The air was brisk, and we called it a night after a few star gazing moments.

Saturday, September 17th:

Leavitt Meadows

The goal of this trip was to get out of civilization and have a relaxing trip to the woods. With this as the mindset, we got up shortly after sunrise with out the aid of the incessant scream of an alarm. The morning air was cool and refreshing, maybe about 40F, but warmed quickly as the sun peeked over the ridge line. After a quick breakfast and filling out the necessary wilderness permits at the trail head, we were on our way!

Brrrr, that water is cold!!! Not quite August in Nebraska...

As we continued our stroll, the trail slowly climbed along the base of a ridge line from the trail head at about 6,500ft and passed several beautiful mountain lakes and eventually bringing us to the bank of the West Walker River. After following the river for several miles, our stomachs began to beckon for something a little more substantial than Cliff bars and GORP. About that time we also happened across a side trail to Hidden Lake. That sounded like a great place to have lunch, but after a knee deep river crossing that almost got the best of Paul, we decided the river bank would be as nice a picnic area as any.


After lunch and another chilly river crossing, we continued on our way to Fremont Lake. The trail continued to follow the river which continually changed from narrow fast moving rapids to wide still pools. The trail was well worn, and was littered with evidence of heavy use by four-legged steeds (it was a horse trail after all), but as we walked we turned the corner into a pack animal of a different breed! As we stepped aside, one of the hikers that the llamas were leading down the trail (cause you know its only an illusion orchestrated by the animals that people are in control) asked us where we were heading. We said, “Oh, just heading up to Fremont Lake.” Without hesitation, the hiker responded with what sounded like a scoff, “Hm, Good luck…” After they passed we looked at each other a bit surprised… we were under the impression that we were only about a mile from the lake!

After double checking the map, we decided that they must not have meant that we would be lucky to get there. Sure enough, after a shot time longer we reached Fremont Lake.

Our first view of Fremont Lake

Hermann, Ulrika and Paul take in the sights

While the trail was pretty sparsely populated, we immediately noticed the sounds of people drifting across the lake. After lounging for a bit, we decided that it was still early, so we would continue on down the trail rather than setting up camp here. So we set off towards Long Lakes.

This stretch of trail brought us away from the river and climbed up the ridge towards Long Lakes. As the light began to fad, we came to Lower Long Lake (~8,600ft) and decided that it was time to call it a day and set up camp. There were several flat grassy areas nestled in the rocks around the lake, so we took our choice, set up camp and as the sun began to set and the temperature began to drop, we busted out the hot drinks!

Camp at Lower Long Lake

91 octane!

A little Irish coffee...

A little spiced cider...

Sunday, September 18th:

Paul takes in the morning sights

The morning brought frosty tents and crisp air. We decided over breakfast that we would continue along the trail to complete a loop around Upper and Lower Long Lakes. The previous day had brought us about half way around, so the loop wouldn’t add any milage, but would allow us to see a few miles of new trail rather than back tracking the whole day.

As we neared the trail intersection that would start us back to the car, we paused to shed some layers and much on some bars and saw two older hikers heading by. They had some space between them and the lead hiker passed through the trail intersection without hesitation. When the second came to the intersection moments later we heard him call out, “Hey! Do you have the map!” With a response of, “Yea!” they continued on down the trail without consulting the map…

Ulrike taking in the beauty of the American country side in person

We picked up the trail that would lead us back to the car and it descended down the valley meeting up with the river we had followed for much of the day before. It was much smaller now, as we were several miles closer to its beginning. As we followed the river through the valley it slowly began to grow. We followed it to a field where Ulrike noted that “this is the picturesque American landscape.” Or at least closely resembling the photos of the American frontier she knows from Germany. As we continued through the field we made our last river crossing. This time Paul, having

Paul and Hermann fording the river... No oxen were lost, though Paul nearly got pneumonia.

learned from his close encounter with a cold and unexpected bath, as well as the wisdom of Hermann, had acquired a walking stick to aid in his journey through the depths. This crossing went a lot smoother than the previous ones.

Shortly after we leaving the field we came across a man leaning against a downed tree fixing some gatorade. He had been out for 6 days, and said we were the first people he had seen in 5 days! That’s a long time to go without talking to someone, definitely longer than I’ve ever gone. Yet what my mind was more focused on than this man’s recent lack of human contact, was why had he not seen the older hiker pair who were not far ahead of us…


As we continued on, the trail briefly ventured away from the river to make a rocky descent further into the valley. While on our descent, we had to step aside to make room for a few noble steeds complete with cowboy. When they passed us again on their way out we attempted to thumb-a-ride, but alas, they were not going where we needed to go.

Further down the trail, we decided that the cool water of a lake would be a nice finishing touch to a great weekend adventure (not to mention clean us up a little before the long drive back). We paused for a while for a dip in Roosevelt lake. The water was cool and refreshing. As we sat on a rock,drying off before heading on, we noticed a bunch of crayfish wandering around the rocks in the lake. We figure our quick dip must have stirred up a good afternoon snack for the little guys.

Sad to see the trip coming to an end, we took in a few last sights before arriving back at the car. It was a perfect weekend for a quick break from reality!

The crew takes a final look before hiking out to the car

Paul showing of his packing skills. Great job planning this trip dude!

More photos can be found on Flickr

Technology on the Trail:

On this trip I did a little technological experiment. Rather than using my usual point-and-shoot camera, I took all my pictures using my iPhone in order to capture the GPS tags that locate the pics with the places feature. Here is the result…

Photo GPS tags in iPhoto