Strawberry Peak

Strawberry Peak

I needed one more peak to climb to complete the 2021 Six Pack of Peaks SoCal Challenge. While I am planning to climb Mt. Baldy as part of the Climb For Heroes, that hike has already been postponed once due to the forest closure orders. With that hike now slated for Veterans Day Weekend, there is a chance of weather impacting it. Heck, the first time I did CFH, it was delayed due to snow! Although we might be near the end of the fire season, there is always a chance for a repeat. Therefore, I chose Strawberry Peak to ensure my challenge would be completed.

I got to the trailhead around 7:30 am. The sun had risen above the marine layer that covered the LA basin. Unlike the last time I had come to this peak, there was certainly a lot more traffic on the road and cars parked at various spots. Once David Lipsitz (one of my fellow San Diego Hiking Society admins) arrived we grabbed our gear and carefully crossed the road to the trail. 

Some Forest Service workers passed us on their bikes, hauling their gear up the trail to do some maintenance. We continued working our way to the summit. The din of motorcycles and performance cars racing around the road below us took away from some of the enjoyment. Soon, Strawberry Peak came into view. 

From the junction, the trail would begin its steep climb to the summit. I took the lead as we made our way over some minor false summits. Once at the summit, we took a nice break and soaked in the views. It was nice to have completed another challenge. Now, I can focus solely on the Sierra Club 100!

We retraced our route without incident, passing several more hikers making their way to the summit. Unfortunately, my tracker went wonky, but using the time stamps on the photos, we did the hike in 4:13. Given we stopped to chat with some folks a few times along the way, this was not too bad. 

San Jacinto via Devil’s Slide

I wanted to try to cross off another peak on the SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks challenge before my upcoming vacation to see my sister in Arkansas. Of my remaining peaks on the list, several have already been earmarked for other attempts later in the year, so that really only left San Jacinto available right now. Setting my alarm for 3 am, I hit the sack early. The drive up to Idyllwild was uneventful, sans passing what I later learned was a fatal roll-over crash on the southbound I-15. I picked up my permit from the ranger station and drove a bit further to Humber Park. This was going to be my third summit of San Jacinto. My first summit had been done via the Marion Mountain route, and the other time Ted and I had done the traditional route from the tram station. This time I opted to take the Devil’s Slide Trail until it connected with the PCT, then continue on to the summit.

I arrived a bit before dawn at the parking lot. Thankfully, the trailhead has some bathrooms, so I took advantage of that before setting off. I had hiked some of the Devil’s Slide trail years ago when my wife and I spent a weekend in Idyllwild. Unfortunately, I don’t remember a lot about that hike. Grabbing my gear, I headed for the southeast end of the parking lot to the start of the trail. While it was still dark, my eyes had adapted enough to clearly see the well-maintained trail, and I set off.

Knowing I had about 15 miles of hiking ahead of me, I kept my pace measured. As I made my way up toward Saddle Junction, I could see Suicide Rock to the west starting to emerge from the darkness. Once at Saddle Junction, I turned north onto the PCT. I would have a couple of sections of switchbacks to use. Just a friendly reminder that I was climbing to a peak that stands at 10,843 feet.

After crossing from the San Jacinto Wilderness into the Mount San Jacinto State Wilderness, I soon passed the Wellman Cienaga. Two springs still had some flowing water. I had packed my small water filter just in case I needed to refill upon my descent. It was just past here I finally met another person on the trail. He had camped at Little Round Valley the night before, and after summiting this morning was heading back down. We chatted a bit before parting ways.

I found a nice spot past the Wellman Divide for a short break for some fuel and fluids. Since I had dinner plans with some friends back in San Diego, I needed to be mindful of my time. I set a hard turnback time of 11, figuring I would be able to have a quicker pace on the descent. 

The trail had now become familiar to me, as this was the same as the route Ted and I followed last time. Around 10,000 feet I started developing a bit of a headache from the altitude, so I needed to be mindful of it as I continued pushing to the summit. As I kept working my way up, I also kept an eye on my time. It was going to be tight, but I should be ok. Finally, the hut came into view and I knew the peak was a short scramble away. I worked my way to the summit. Unlike last weekend, where I had the peak to myself for a bit, this was not the case today. Several Boy Scout troops were scattered about, along with other hikers. I snapped just a few photos and headed back down to the hut for a short break and a snack. It was almost 11 and I needed to begin my descent. I had really hoped to relax on the summit for a while, but I knew that was not going to happen. 

Making my way down, I passed more and more hikers heading up. I suspect many of these had started at the tram station. Continuing back the same way, I would check my current pace to see if I was still on track. Thankfully, I was. Reaching the spring, I stopped for a bit. My water bladder still had enough water, so I did not need to filter any, but I did take the opportunity to wet a towel to toss around my neck. I certainly could feel the day becoming warmer. But between the shade of the trees and the slight breeze, it was still a mostly pleasant descent. Judging by the faces of those ascending, they might have a different opinion.

I knew there was a chance of some thunderstorms in the later afternoon, and to the south, I could see the start of some clouds forming. Once I reached Saddle Junction again, I knew I had a mere 2.5 miles to go. Since I had forgone any long rest breaks, I was starting to feel the miles at this point. Finally, the parking lot came into view. I happily took off my hiking shoes and slipped on my sandals. The thermometer in the car read 91°F! Thankfully, I really did not feel it during the descent, although on some of the exposed sections, it was a bit warm. I grabbed a couple of cold drinks from the market and another snack and began the long drive home. All told the hike was 14.9 miles with 4,378 feet of gain in 9:45. And yes, I made the dinner party without any issue. 🙂

Baden-Powell

Decided to get back to working on the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge by summiting Mount Baden-Powell. Since we were under a heat advisory, I knew a very early start was in order. I set the alarm for 3 am, and begged forgiveness from my wife. As I finished getting my gear ready in the morning, I discovered that my water bladder was leaking. Crud! I pivoted to using side bottles instead and tossed in an extra bottle in the pack as well. With that problem solved, I began the two-hour drive to the trailhead. When I pulled into the lot at Vincent Gap, there were just a handful of cars there. Another hiker was also getting ready across the lot. We chatted briefly. It turns out he drove up from Oceanside. He planned to do Big Horn Mine first with a friend, then attempt Baden-Powell. I wished him well and I left him waiting for his friend to arrive.

The trail began its steady climb to the summit. I was mindful of my pace, as I knew I had almost 2,800 feet of gain ahead of me. I kept an eye on the east, as the sun had not cleared the mountains yet, and I was hoping to capture some nice photos. 

I would stop every so often and grab some water from my side bottles. While the short break was nice, I am more of a sipping style of hiker. I continued to make my way up the 40 switchbacks. It was not until the last mile or so that I finally encountered some hikers coming down. 

I stopped at the Wally Waldon Tree for a short break. This limber pine is believed to be the oldest living thing in the entire San Gabriel Mountains and was named after Michael H. “Wally” Waldron, an L.A. area Boy Scout leader who helped organize a nine-week project to repair the trails and erect the concrete monument and plaque to Lord Baden-Powell.

From there I continued on the last tenth of a mile to the summit. The hikers that passed me were resting on the concrete platform where the monument to Lord Baden-Powell is erected. I headed over to the flag and the sign and took my summit photos. As I stood on the summit once again, I knew I had a better ascent. While I felt the last bit of the climb, I pushed on since the summit was close and I could refuel then. The other two hikers headed back down the trail, so I grabbed their spot and enjoyed my snacks. A couple more hikers joined me on the summit. One was another Six-Pack Challenger, and in fact, this was his final peak! Then I heard my name being called out. The two women I had met on Oakzanita had just summited. I went over and chatted with them for a bit. Meanwhile, the summit I once had to myself was now swarming with people. I figured now would be a good time to head back down, plus it was starting to get warmer.

I set off back down the trail at a quick pace. The trail was certainly more busy than during my ascent. One group of four ladies stopped me to inquire about my Garmin InReach and its use. We chatted a bit about it and how I use it when I am out. One of them has a Whitney permit and wants to have something with her. We parted ways, and I continued motoring down the trail. As I drew closer to the trailhead, I could feel the day becoming very warm. Whenever the trail passed through an exposed section, I could really feel it. My greetings to passing hikers changed from simple encouragement to more cautionary about staying safe. I could not believe hikers were still starting out under the heat for this hard of a hike. When I reached the car, its thermometer was at 88°F! I’m glad I started when I did. With that, my 4th peak on the Six-Pack of Peaks was in the books. I covered the 7.58 miles in 3:51, about 15 minutes faster than last time!

3-2-1 Overnight

For those who have done the 3-2-1 Challenge in Los Padres National Forest, you know that one of the real challenges is just the long drive to the trailhead. Last year when Ted Markus and I did these peaks, we did it as a day hike. During the long drive back to San Diego, we both commented that while the hike itself was great, sitting in LA traffic, not so much. Since we had both acquired backpacks and related overnight gear, we decided to do this trip as an overnight adventure.

Last year I logged that the entire hike was just under 11 miles, including a side trip to Sawmill Mountain West, so we knew this trip would be quite manageable. In fact it is about 4.5 miles to the campsite, and we’d pass the first two peaks on the challenge; Mt. Pinos and Sawmill. I figured once we made camp, we could go to the summit of Grouse, about a mile away.  Another goal of this trip was to test out a few new items before I embark on the Rae Lakes Loop in a few weeks. Primarily the bear canister and the water filter. 

Ted and I left San Diego just after 8 am and began our drive up to the trailhead. Our first stop was the Subway in Castaic. While there is a spring at the campsite, we were cautious about the flow. One site labeled the flow as ‘a trickle’. Rather than risk needing to use our water for food, we planned our hike to avoid needing to do so. Also, instead of hauling out lunch to eat on the trail, we stopped at Mike’s Pizza Co in Frazier Park and split a nice medium-sized veggie pizza. Ted had also packed a couple of beers for later that evening, so I ran next door to the market and grabbed some as well. 

About 30 minutes later, we were pulling the parking lot at the Chula Vista Trailhead (aka Nordic Base), and we quickly gathered our gear. I hung my Adventure Pass from the mirror and we were off. The temperatures were pleasant and the scent of the pines was a welcomed treat. I carried our dinner in the bear canister, along with 2 liters of water and one Gatorade. This fluid load is about what I am planning for Rae Lakes. While the actual pack will be heavier with more food and clothes for the trip, it should give me some insight to what I have in store.

The trail, actually a closed dirt road, led us to the top of Mt. Pinos. In just over 1.5 miles, we gained about 500 feet. Once at the summit, we snapped a few photos of the survey marks and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Neither one of us felt the need for a real break yet, so we continued on. The nice road ended at the Mt. Pinos Condor Observation Site. There are some nice benches here but we still felt fine, so instead of stopping we headed down the Tumamelt Trail. This hike is a bit of a roller coaster, up to one summit, down to a saddle, then up to the next, and once again for good measure. I remember needing to stop last time when I was ascending this section. I was interested to see how I would do on this section the next day. For now, we just worked our way down the switchbacks. 

Once at the saddle, we began to regain those 500 feet we just lost. I took a couple of short breathers under some refreshing shade, but overall everything was still feeling good. The summit of Sawmill sits off to the side of the main trail, about .2 miles away. We soon found ourselves before the massively stacked cairn and the curiously misspelled sign. I have seen incorrect elevations before, but not a misspelling on a simple word like Sawmill.

We dropped our packs and took a short rest. I had some Gatorade and some trail mix. After about 10 minutes, we put our packs back on for the descent down to Sheep Camp. At about 4.6 miles, we came to the junction of Tumamelt and the North Fork Trail. The campsite is about ½ mile down the North Fork Trail. As we neared it, we could hear the voices of other campers. Since this was a first-come, first-served site, I was hoping that we would find a spot. Thankfully, site #2 was open and we would not be looking to find an alternate site for the evening. I dropped my pack and walked the 50 yards or so to inspect the state of the spring. It had a nice steady trickle. I could see if you needed water for a group of Boy Scouts, you could wait a while. But for what we needed, this would be fine. 

Sheep Camp Spring

With our tents set up, we grabbed our slack packs and set off to finish the 3-2-1 Challenge by climbing up Grouse Mountain. Ted brought a simple waist pack, while I was testing yet another new item, the REI Flash 22 pack. We made our way back up to the junction and then continued on about .3 miles until the junction that would take us up to the summit. In keeping with the spirit of the day, we had another roller-coaster profile before we would reach ‘False’ Grouse. The well-defined trail ends at what appears to be the summit. There is even a small rock cairn. But in reality, the true summit is back along the crestline. There is where you will find the wooden structure that you probably have seen before. We snapped our photos and headed back to camp. Ted was hoping we might have a nice view to capture a sunset, but this wasn’t going to happen on this peak.

Back at camp, I went to the spring to filter some water for the evening and to have on hand since we were planning to enjoy a small campfire. As the sun slowly sank behind the hill, we broke out our sandwiches and beers. Soon evening fell and we began to enjoy the night sky. It was a new moon, so the stars were out in force. Ted was able to capture some pretty good shots.

I awoke just before sunrise, having an average night of sleep. Since we were just about 4.5 miles from the trailhead, we decided to wait on a real breakfast until we were back in town. I fired up the Jetboil for my coffee and Ted’s tea. As we sipped our beverages, we each munched on a bar, before packing up. We quietly left the campsite and began hiking out. I had a small blister on my pinky toe, but the KT tape seemed to be doing its job. 

The final test for me was going to be that final climb up to the Condor Viewing area. Unlike last time, where I needed to take a few breaks, this time I was able to motor up with no real issues. It was here we finally started to encounter some hikers starting their day. I was wondering when we would. I had figured once we reached Mt. Pinos is where we would spot our first-day hikers. 

Ted and I just continued on, thinking of some fresh eggs and toast… Soon we were back at the car, covering the 4.25 miles in just over 2 hours. We threw our packs in the car and changed into some clean shirts and drove back down the hill. Unfortunately, the restaurant I picked had some of the slowest service I had ever had. Not a lot of options in the area, so we just sucked it up and waited for our meals. But overall, the trip was great! Doing this trip as an overnight is the best way to do these peaks. Now to devote all my focus on getting ready for my big Rae Lakes trip!

Cuyamaca

WIth my recent summit of Hot Springs Mountain, I was down to only one more peak to complete the San Diego Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge — Cuyamaca Peak. Initially I had planned to save doing it until a nice fall day, but we still had some nice spring weather so I decided just to go knock it off the list. The past few times I have summited this mountain I had been working on the 100 Peak Challenge, so getting Airplane Ridge and Japacha Peak had been on the agenda. This time I did not need to revisit those summits, so I looked at some of the other possible routes. For many, they simply take the newly re-paved fire road to the summit from the campground. This was the route I did the first time years ago. While it is the shortest route, it is steep and all on a paved road. I had no desire to take this route again. Instead, I opted to use some of the trails on the north side of the mountain.

Cuyamaca in the distance

I pulled into the parking lot near the Trout Pond trail, just a bit north of the Paso Picacho Campground. This the same starting point you would use if you were going to hike up Middle Peak. There were a few cars here as I gathered my gear. It was still a bit nippy, so I pulled on a fleece. The forecasted high on the summit was in the low 50s, so I was probably going to want it later even if I warmed up while I was hiking.

After carefully crossing the highway, I headed down Milk Ranch Road. The grade was nice and gentle and had some lovely views. I passed the turn off that would take you up toward Middle Peak. After about 1.4 miles I came to the junction of the Black Oak Trail to my north and the Azala Springs Fire Road to my south. Walking around the gate, I continued on for about a quarter of a mile until I reached the Conejo Trail. My route now turned from nice wide roads to a more traditional trail. I continued to have a nice view of Cush-Pi (Stonewall) to my east. Over the next 1.5 miles, I would gain almost 900 feet of elevation. I could occasionally hear some voices ahead of me, and since I was making good time, I figured I would probably catch up to them. As I turned the corner of one of the switchbacks, I recognized Amber Haslerud from the San Diego Hiking Society. She and her boyfriend were also climbing Cuyamaca today. I stopped and chatted a bit. I loved following Amber’s hiking journeys, so it was a treat to finally meet her face to face. I wished them a good hike and continued on. The trail still had some nice wildflowers along it, so I seemed to be grabbing my phone to snap a photo quite often.

The Conejo Trail meets up with the Lookout Fire Road about .4 miles from the summit. However, I still had over 300 feet of gain until I summited. As I made my way to the top from the road, I spied two teeny tiny patches of snow tucked in the shade. The summit sign was still there, so I took my summit selfie then wandered over to take a few more photos of some of the interesting landmarks, the NASA benchmark, the Forest Service carving, and of course the view. I had a quick snack and was just about ready to leave when Amber and John arrived. Since this was their first time at the summit, I showed them how to get to the top. Once there, I gave them a quick tour of the summit. We chatted some more, and then I let them enjoy their accomplishment by themselves.

Since I found much of the Conejo Trail a tad rocky, I opted to take a slightly different route back to the car.

So, I stayed on the fire road until it met up with Azala Springs Fire Road. I followed it for about .6 miles until I reached the spring. Now if I had parked at the campground, there is another trail that would take me there, but I continued north back toward Milk Ranch Road, and eventually my car. My entire hike clocked in at 8.73 miles with 1,880 feet of gain in 4:02 (including all the chatting).

Sitton Peak

My fellow admin of the San Diego Hiking Society wanted to climb Sitton Peak, and as I also needed to climb it again for this year’s Six-Pack of Peaks, we arranged to hike it together. We met in the parking lot under overcast skies. After grabbing our gear we carefully crossed Ortega Highway and onto the trail. I signed the back-country register and we continued making our way on the trail. 

Wildflowers still dotted the sides of the trail. The grey skies provided some nice relief, as there was not a lot of shade to be found while we worked our way to the peak. The entire route was still marked with white signs at each of the junctions. 

We passed one person who appeared to have spent the night camping. Soon we found ourselves at the turn-off to the summit. Here is where you earn the summit by gaining about 400 feet in 3/10 of a mile. I lead the way up and it was easier for me this time.

Soon the summit came into view and we had a well-earned break. The clouds had burned off near us, and while the marine layer still socked-in the coast, Santiago Peak stood out clearly to the north of us. After a nice break and snapping our photos, two more hikers joined us at the summit.