Monday, June 9, 2014

Two Kickass Southern California Hikes

In the past week, I've done two extremely strenuous hikes. Not the hardest hikes around in absolute terms (Google "Cactus to Clouds") but strenuous in terms of long mileage and very steep terrain combined with hot weather and little shade.

The first was El Cajon Mountain at El Capitan Open Space Preserve in Lakeside, CA. This hike is notorious for its difficulty and some say it's the hardest hike in San Diego county. Around here, we often call it El Capitan, since we have a city called El Cajon, and calling it that might be confusing. I realize that, for non-San Diegans, El Capitan might refer to the place of the same name at Yosemite. So, FYI, that's not what I'm talking about.

The second was Mt San Antonio, more commonly referred to as Mt Baldy. It's located in the Angeles National Forest, in the town of Mt Baldy, more commonly known as "Baldy Village."

El Capitan is an 11.2 mile hike, out and back, through chaparral. If you go, do it in the winter. Of course, since people use this hike as training for places like Mt Whitney, which you typically hike in July and August, that means hiking El Capitan when it's hot. And I mean HOT.

Why is it so hard?

El Cajon Mountain

Most of the uphill segments are extremely steep. As you can see, there's a bit of downhill when you're going up, which means you have to go up hill when you're going down. This makes the trail a physical and mental challenge. For one thing, once you hit the peak, something in your brain clicks off that the main challenge is done, it's time to go down now. Only with this mountain, you still have to go up. I found myself uttering a lot of four letter words on the way "down" every time I looked ahead of me and saw something like this:

El Cajon Mountain Trail

The second reason it's so hard, besides the sheer length and steepness itself (up to a 42% grade) is simply because on the way down, you've already gone 5.6 miles to the top and your legs are somewhat shot. But I felt pretty good when I hit the top. It's not til you go back down a mile or so, and hit the first up hill of your trek "down" and it just isn't pretty. Even after you pass the last major up hill segment around mile 2.5, you still have short bits of steep up hill to go until you hit the 1.0 mile marker. And at that point, with 10.2 miles behind you, you can breathe easy because you are really going DOWN - and only down.

The last reason it's hard - particularly in the summer - is the heat. You can start early - the parking lot opens at 7am, but you can park on the road earlier than that - and hit the peak when the weather is nice. And then, around 10:30am, the weather becomes uncomfortable and continues heating up until its downright miserable or even dangerous. I thought three liters of water would be enough the first time I hiked it. They weren't. I needed four. Which means carrying a full gallon on your back (8 lbs), so now you're doing this trek and carrying a lot of weight as you go.

I first tried this June 1. The weather forecast said it would get up to 81. When I arrived back to my car after hiking 10.2 miles, it was 93F. I ran out of water and had a time constraint that made it impossible for me to finish the last mile of the trail - probably a good thing given the heat and my water situation. I went back a few days later and did the whole thing - with 4 liters of water. It was still hard, but not as hard. And it was a few degrees cooler that day, thank god.

That brings us to yesterday, June 8, and Mt Baldy. The mountain stands at 10,064 ft, just a few feet taller than Haleakala, in Maui. The trail starts around 6000 feet. To acclimate to the altitude, we camped out at the Manker Flats campground near the trailhead the night before. And since the web is piss poor at providing this info:
  • No reservations, the campground is first come, first serve. Even though it was 8pm Saturday night, we found a spot no problem.
  • The campground WAS open even though one website said it was closed (I think it closes in the winter)
  • It costs $12/night for one vehicle, or $10 if you have an Adventure Pass. No other permits are needed.
  • There are fire rings, picnic tables, and bathrooms with flush toilets. The women's has no sinks, but the men's does. I was not shy about going in there and using them. Each site also has its own running water.
  • There are bears but we had no trouble with them, and we did not use a bear canister. We did keep the food in the car. (In some parts of California, that would be a BAD way to go, but for here it was fine.)
  • There were LOTS of mosquitoes. LOTS. Be prepared.

The campground is shaded by beautiful conifers and dotted with wildflowers.

Pine tree

Beardtongue, Penstemon grinnellii

We decided to do a popular 11.3 mi loop, hiking up the Ski Hut trail to the summit, then down the more gradual Devil's Backbone to Baldy Notch and back down to the car.

The Ski Hut trail supposedly leaves from the Manker Flats campground, but it's actually from a parking area just up the road a little bit. Drive over and park there. You need an adventure pass for the car but no other permits.

We found the spot, parked the car, and got on our way. And I'm aware that my hair looks ridiculous. I didn't bother with it since I was going to wear a hat all day and end up with it ultimately looking even worse.

Starting the Hike

My big mistake is that I packed too much. I did El Cajon mountain with a day pack, my 10 essentials, a gallon of water in 2 64-oz Kleen Kanteens, a peanut butter sandwich, a banana, trail mix, and an energy bar. I should have stuck to that. This time around I switched to my Gregory Cairn 58, which weighs nearly 4 lbs, plus 2 Kleen Kanteens full of 3 liters of water, 10 essentials, a sweater, a heavy jacket, and way more food than I needed. In all, it weighed at least 17 lbs. That was a dumb move. REALLY dumb. There are some people who can carry 17 lbs like it's nothing. I am not one of them.

The Ski Hut trail begins by passing San Antonio Falls after 0.6 mi (not the most spectacular waterfall this time of the year) and continuing along a gravel road for about one-third of a mile. At that point, an unmarked steep trail leads off from the left, and that's the ski hut trail. Apparently there was a sign and people kept stealing it, so they leave it unmarked nowadays.

From that point, until you hit the summit in another 3.7 miles, you are going pretty much straight up. There is a stream where you can get water near the Ski Hut, and if the Ski Hut is open (and that's not a given), there is water and a latrine there. The Ski Hut is not far past the half-way point to the summit.

The trail is stunningly beautiful, much prettier than the way we went down, but it is STEEP. It climbs 3900 feet in 4.6 miles. There are a few short sections where it levels out a little bit, but not too many. Still, if you can do it, I think it's worth the beauty to take this steep route.

Mt Baldy Ski Hut Trail

A California King Snake!

I spotted the snake near the Ski Hut and got pretty excited because I've never seen a king snake before. This guy is obviously not dangerous if you remember "Red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, friend of Jack." Or Jill, in this case. But when I told other hikers about the snake, some got scared. The snake responded by hiding under a rock right after I got the photo. So clearly, he was a huge threat to human life (not).



The plant life on the trail was mostly conifers and manzanita. I saw quite a bit of golden yarrow, beardtongue (the penstemon in the photo above), and some snow plants. I am no expert with conifers but I think I saw limber pines, some kind of spruce, and incense cedar, plus some other kinds of pines.

Some of the pines have tons of sap that have spewed out of them and ultimately dried on the tree. I saw a woodpecker and a friend helped me identify it as a Williamson's Sapsucker. Sapsuckers are cool because they peck the tree to get the sap to flow. Then bugs come to eat the sap and get stuck... and the bird eats the bugs.

My friend Kevin near a big tree. You can see the mountain's kinda steep.




The photos do not nearly capture the beauty of this hike. They don't even come close. After a tough climb, we finally reached the top. By this time, I was running low on water. I did not refill it at the Ski Hut because I was tired of carrying so much weight. Dumb move. Even with the elevation, it was hot outside and I had to really chug my water to avoid dehydration. Three liters would have been enough IF I had refilled them when I had the chance. If you aren't certain that the Ski Hut is open or the stream is flowing, then bring 4 liters on this hike.

Me Atop Mt Baldy

Me Atop Mt Baldy

You can go down the way we came, and in retrospect, it would have been nice from a scenic point of view. On the way up, we had our back to the panoramic views surrounding us as we concentrated on the trail. It's always nice to enjoy them on the way down.

Instead, we completed our loop by taking a much more gradual route that takes you along a ridge (the "Devil's Backbone") to Baldy Notch, a ski resort. At Baldy Notch, you reach a restaurant (Top of the Notch) with water, food, and bathrooms, and ski lifts. The ski lifts allow you to bypass 1.8 miles of the trail, which is just a boring gravel road for that section. An adult ticket is $12 down and at that point we felt it was not worth the money, and sort of cheating. So we started walking. But as we walked those 1.8 miles - and yes, they were boring, scenery-wise - that's when we really just wanted to be done with the hike.

To be fair to my companion, he had just day-hiked Mt. Whitney two days before. If it weren't for that, he would've felt fine at the end of the hike. He's in great shape. I'm in great shape... for me. But compared to most humans, I'm a wuss.

The one nice thing we saw on the way down were matilija poppies. I had never noticed this before, but these poppies are weird because they have six petals. Most poppies I've seen have four, and most eudicots have petals in multiples of fours and fives. Monocots tend to have petals in multiples of three or six, and poppies are not monocots.

Matilija Poppies

Matilija Poppies

At long last, we reached the road, and then it was a short walk down to the car. By this point, I smelled probably worse than I've ever smelled in my life. Changing clothes felt GREAT. I only regret I did not have a change of shorts. I did have a fresh change of every other article of clothing and I was grateful for all of them.

My last photo is of a sign that cracks me up, since I'm a midwesterner who became a Californian as an adult:

No Throwing Snowballs

Silly Californians. They like to drive up to the mountains in the winter to play in the snow, and apparently they find it so exciting that they need to be told not to pelt passing cars with snowballs.

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