Three days, three mountains

A local outdoor supplies store puts on the A16 3-Peak Challenge every year. I first heard about it last year, but it was too late in the year to attempt. The challenge is to climb three of the highest peaks in Southern California within a certain self-defined time, either 24 hours, 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months. 3 days seemed like an achievable but tough goal, so at the beginning of the year already, my wife and I decided we should attempt it.

The year got busy and we didn’t. Running out of time, we identified the Labour Day long weekend as the perfect opportunity. With only two weeks to spare, we started planning. And realized how late we’d left it. While the peaks are all within viewing range of each other, depending on traffic, it could take us 4+ hours to get to some of the trailheads. It made sense to camp somewhere central for the weekend.

As we’ve come to realize though, Americans are far more active campers than South Africans, that or there are just more of them. Los Angelenos are anyway, as all 250ish of the campsites in the San Bernardino Forrest had already long been reserved. So we decided to chance it, and grab one of the first come, first serve campsites.

The next challenge is that San Gorgonio requires a permit to hike. The popular Vivian Creek Trail’s permits were all issued, for every day of the weekend. After a bit of digging, we found that an alternative route had recently opened, and still had permits available, turnaround time was 5 days though.

And so it was Friday afternoon that we set off to the San Bernardino Forest to camp in a site we didn’t yet have, and climb a mountain we had not yet acquired a permit for. But apparently it was meant to be. We arrived late on Friday evening, and after finding a full South Fork Campsite, we lucked out on an empty spot amongst the Yellow Post Sites.

As part of the challenge you are allowed to choose any order to do them in, and pick any route to the top. We wanted to do Baldy (San Antonio) last, as it was closest to home, and would allow us to go straight home, instead of returning back to camp, this meant it had to be done on Monday. We didn’t arrive early enough on Friday to pick up a permit from the ranger station, so that meant Gorgonio would have to be on Sunday. So our first hike was San Jacinto.

San Jacinto (via Palm Springs Aerial Tram) – 3,300m

SanJacinto

View from the top

We had previously attempted San Jacinto via Marion Mountain. It wasn’t really a planned attempt though; started far too late in the day (11am) and ended in the dark (8pm at the start of winter), without us having summited (me being ill being partially to blame).

The A16 challenge however encourages you to take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway part (most) of the way. Although making it an easier climb, it still requires some effort. The tramway is something in itself; a cable-car setup identical to Table Mountain, but climbs from 805m all the way up to 2,600m. Cost is roughly $25 per person, and there was a $5 parking fee. This leaves an additional 700m (920m of climbing) to the summit.

San Jacinto Cablecar

There is a large area you can walk around if not intending to summit, but if you intend to enter the wilderness area, a permit is required. Permits are free of charge and can be collected at the ranger’s station at the top of the cable car. It’s a beautiful hike through the pine forests at the top. While fairly short, at only 8.8km, it’s still a tough hike. We were in a bit of a hurry, as we still wanted to get back to Gorgonio to pickup a permit, so pushed through to do 2ish hours to the summit. With a 20min lunch break at the top, it actually took us a bit longer to get back down. Mainly due to waiting to allow later ascenders to pass us by (mountain rules are you yield to those ascending), many of the higher paths only have space for one person at a time.

The weather at the top was cool but sunny, with thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon. It made for easy hiking, and the forest provides a lot of shade during the hike. Just before arriving back at the tram station, you’re forced to endure a short climb up again. This promptly necessitated a stop at the restaurant/cafeteria at the top to grab an ice-cream before our descent.

18.5km, 920m elevation
Tram up departed: 08h43
Summit: 11h15
Tram down arrived: 14h15

San Gorgonio (from South Fork) – 3,506m

SanGorgonio

View near the top

San Gorgonio, also known as Old Greyback, is the highest mountain in Southern California, topping out just over 3,500m. There are three main routes to travel it, but up until recently only the Vivian Creek route has been open. The South Fork and FIsh Creek options having been closed due to fire damage for the past year or two.

Vivian Creek is still the most popular route and results in its permits getting issued quickly. As such we resorted to the South Fork trail. It was conveniently located only a few miles from our campsite, which made a 7am start a bit easier, and you could still receive same day permits if you desired. While Vivian Creek is the shortest route to the top, the South Fork route doesn’t have as much climbing. We hiked up via Dry Lake, and after reaching the summit circled back via the Dollar Lake route.

SanGorgonioScarredThe fire damage has resulted in some truly spectacular scenery on this hike. The route takes you through vastly different landscapes, all very green for this late in the summer. The route has one of the most constant gradients I’ve ever experienced. There are very few extremely steep sections, and at the same time, almost no flat areas. This makes the hike quite a slog, and the hike back down can get very long. Many people prefer to do this route as a multi-day hike.

Not an option for us. We enjoyed being surrounded by various birds all the way along. After dry lake, you reach a first section of short switchbacks, followed by a long stretch to the Fish Creek turn-off. From there you have several sweeping switchbacks which gain you some elevation and take you past the remains of the a C-47 which crashed in the mountains in the 1950s. It’s remarkable how much of it is still left 60+ years later.

OldGreyback

After the switchbacks, it’s still a bit of walk as you swing around behind the mountain, meet up with the Vivian Creek trail and do the last stretch to the summit. From there you’ve got a long walk home. The Dollar Lake route may not have as many switch backs, but it is just as long.

We were once again blessed with ‘good’ weather. It was cool and pleasant on our hike up, but the clouds rolled in as we summited, leaving us with little view. On our way down the rain decided to pay us a visit, and while not terrible, we had to break out the rain jackets, and do some trudging. Would definitely like to give the Vivian Creek trail a try some time to see how it compares.

33.7km, 1,500m elevation
Started: 07h00
Summit: 12h33
Finished: 17h17

San Antonio (via Baldy Bowl) – 3,070m

SanAntonio

View from the top

Mt Baldy should really be done as a round trip, but we’d just spent our entire long weekend hiking, and opted to cut our final day short by heading up and down the same route (something we prefer to avoid), the shorter Baldy Bowl Trail, which passes the Ski Hut.

This being our last hike, we woke up at 05h30, packed up camp and drove halfway across LA, and followed the winding roads up to the ‘base’ of Baldy. As we were driving we were a bit concerned to see a big sign advertising a trail run on Mt Baldy. Things worked out quite well though, as the starting gun went off at 08h00, as we arrived. Giving them a good head-start, as we got our packs ready. In the end they took the longer fire break trails up the mountain, so wouldn’t really have been a problem.

LAInTheDistance

While we both enjoy hiking, it had been a long weekend, and we were a bit over it. The route is far steeper than our previous days’ hikes, even though it was just 3.3 miles. Regardless it was a slog. Along with some confusion as to where the top actually was, we were both slightly surprised to all of a sudden appear on top of the mountain, along with a bunch of runners who had just finished.

I’m sure the views from Baldy can be spectacular, but the normal LA haze had probably been exasperated by the recent fires, meaning our view was not particular amazing. Our hike up had been relatively cool, but as we descended the sun came out in full force, and we were very thankful to have already completed the hard section. The route down had us in much higher spirits, especially with the thoughts of a swimming pool and cold beer awaiting us at home.

10.6km, 1,190m elevation
Started: 08h21
Summit: 11h27
Finished: 13h40

Summary

It was a long 3 days, in which we did little other than hike and drive. By the end of the last day we were tired and ready to get home. That being said it was an awesome experience, and will probably be repeated some time. Each hike has its own unique draw, and (weather permitting) offers some spectacular views from the top.

Having completed it in 3 days, the next obvious step is the 24-hour challenge. While on paper our times would allow us to achieve this, a lot more training would be required to get it right without the luxury of sleep and full meals we ended each day with. Maybe not next year, but someday.

Camping California

The last few weeks have given us the opportunity to do some camping in and around LA, namely Monte Cristo in the Angeles Forest and a trip to Joshua Tree.joshuatree

Angeles Forest – Monte Cristo

Our first weekend we headed out to the Angeles Forest and spent a night at the Monte Cristo campsite. Campsites are all first come first serve. We got there midday on Saturday and about half the campsites were still available, but by the time sunset came around, the campground was pretty much full.

There’re no rangers at the campsite, so you buy yourself a permit at the entrance, and drop money in the drop-box. There are no ablution facilities besides a couple longdrop toilets which were surprisingly clean. Each site is quite large and has parking for two vehicles. Even though all the sites were full, there’s enough space that you don’t feel people are on top of you. Drinking water taps are shared between adjoining campsites.montecristoThe campsite is nestled nicely in one of the valleys with a river running through it. It is right next to the road, but traffic isn’t that heavy. While the Angeles Forest has plenty of hiking opportunities, none are close enough to the campsite to hike from there. You’ll have to drive to a trailhead before starting a hike.

It was nice to be able to quickly get out of the city and just relax with nothing going on. We didn’t get any cell reception at the campsite itself, adding to the quietness. Angeles Forest has a lot of other campsites which we’re keen to checkout, especially with summer on its way, opening up some of the campsites which were inaccessible during the winter.

Joshua Tree – Joshua Tree Lake

The next week, we headed out early on Friday and drove out to Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree has a mix of reservation and first come, first serve campgrounds. The reservations were full weeks before, and only arriving late on Friday afternoon, we decided to play it safe and camped just outside Joshua Tree at a private campground, Joshua Tree Lake.joshtreelakeThe campsite is quite close to the West Entrance Station of Joshua Tree, which never closes, so you can head into the park whenever it suits you. Joshua Tree Lake has a mixture of campsites and RV spots. The campsites aren’t demarcated, so you just find a spot where there’s space. It wasn’t particularly busy so we chose a spot without anyone nearby. Barrel fires and camping tables are provided, although if it gets very busy, I doubt there’re enough for everyone.

Being in a dessert environment, there’s no grass for camping, but even with a howling wind the whole time, dust was not an issue. Ablutions were clean and showers are also provided.joshtreelakepanoWe spent Saturday in the north end of the park, hiking Ryan Mountain and Lost Horse Mine. All the trailheads have limited parking, and in the busy spring, you’re not guaranteed a spot. We were lucky though, arriving early enough at Ryan Mountain that there were open spaces, and getting lucky at Lost Horse Mine that we arrived as another vehicle was leaving.

Neither hike was particularly difficult. Ryan Mountain is a straight up, straight back down route that is quite popular and offers good views from a central location. Lost Horse Mine was a flatter and longer loop. It goes past an old gold mine, and some of the buildings still remain there for you to see.

BeforeAndAfter

My wife has apparently been here before.

Before heading back to our campsite we decided to drive out to Keys View. It’s well worth it, with spectacular views into the Coachella Valley, spanning as far as the Salton Sea. We considered doing a section of the Geology Tour Road, but it’s marked 4×4 only, and although some of it is supposedly accessible to two wheel drive vehicles, we didn’t feel like risking getting stuck in the sand.

On Sunday we drove all the way through the park towards Cottonwood Springs. It was pretty amazing seeing the vegetation change from the Joshua Tree packed Mojave Desert in the North, to the Colorado Desert in the South. We did a short hike up to Mastodon Peak, which again offered good views.

losthorsemine

Lost Horse Mine

While we knew Joshua Tree was popular, we didn’t have major expectations, which resulted in an amazing trip. I don’t know if it was just the recent rains, but the park offers stunning scenery with many hikes and other points of interest to keep you busy. We stopped off at Hidden Valley to watch some of the rock climbers do their thing too at some of the world famous routes too.

California has camp grounds everywhere you look, so we’re looking forward to doing some more exploring in the future.

 

Angeles Snow

Apparently it snowed in LA in the early 1900s. I’m not so sure about that, but that’s what I’m told. However it definitely doesn’t snow in LA now. We have been blessed with a large amount of rain though in the last month, and LA has several 3,000m+ peaks surrounding it. This means that it does snow in the mountains around LA, and many people have completed the challenge of spending some time at the nearby ski slopes in the morning, and heading back to LA for a swim in the afternoon (it was 25degC last week, mid-winter).Angeles ForestSo last weekend we took a shortish drive out into the mountains to go play in some snow. The nearby Angeles National Forest has a highway going straight through it, so we packed in our snow chains and hiking boots and headed out. Within an hour we had snow around us, and shortly further down the road, a snow plough blocked our path. Apparently it’s too much work to plough whole highway.

We pulled off nearby in any case and climbed up a nearby hill through 3 feet of snow and played around a bit. A week later we decide to head out again and try find the Cooper Falls, also in the Angeles National Forest. A week later, even without any further storms, the snow was still holding out, and our entire hike took place on top of snow.Buckhart TrailThis was a lot of fun. While the city was covered in cloud, as we drove out of town we came out above the snow. We took the Buckhart Trail to Cooper Canyon Falls, and after a bit of wondering we realized the start was from the camp site and not the day site. The campsite is closed during winter, as is the road leading to it, so it adds another mile each way to get to the actual start and end of the hike.Buckhart TrailAll in all we did about 6.5 miles with 3,000ft of elevation, with our highest point around 6,300ft. The route is basically invisible with snow on it. The only way we were able to do this hike is because others had trodden the path before us. There are occasional signs, but if you haven’t done it before, and don’t have a GPS route to follow, definitely don’t do this after a fresh snow. You can see my tracking here.The route was pretty moderate. Some sections were a little scary, having to kick your shoes into the snow for grip on fairly steep hills. Not for someone who’s scared of heights. If you had snow shoes, those would definitely have helped. We saw about 4 other people on the route. But for the most of the time, our group of three was alone.We had a lot of fun exploring the Angeles forest a bit. now that we have a car and know about how many routes the forest holds, we’ll definitely be back for some more, maybe in the summer.

Cooper Canyon Falls

A permit is required to park anywhere in the park. Day permits were available at the Clear Creek Info Centre on the way in for $5 (cash only), but NPS permits are also valid.

Holidays! San Fran, Yosemite and Sequoia

It’s the end of the year, and although I don’t have holidays per se, I took a break to have some fun while my wife is on holiday. Her and a friend attended a conference in San Francisco, so at the end of the week I joined up to form our touring group of four. With a new set of second-hand wheels, our trip was planned and ready to go.

San Francisco Bay, with Alcatraz in the background

I took the PCH1 all the way up from LA to San Fran to meet them there. I overnighted in Monterey at the HI hostel located near the aquarium. It was a beautiful drive, although it rained the entire way, including a few manoeuvres to dodge the fallen rocks. Definitely on the list to do again in the summer, with a number of national parks and other places to stay along the way.

Monterey also looked like a stunning town, and the Aquarium is highly renowned, also on the list for next time. I donned my rain jacket and made a few loops of the former fishing town, before withdrawing to the warmth of the hostel.

Down Lombard Street

The next two nights were spent at the HI hostel in Fisherman’s Wharf (north SF). Located on the grounds of a former naval base, this is a very popular hostel, located in a beautiful section of LA with great views over the bay, Alcatraz (not Azkaban) and the Golden Gate Bridge.

We did a lot of walking, but this let’s you see a lot. From the hostel we walked down to pier 45 to see an old submarine, from there we carried on to the top of telegraph hill to view the Coit Tower. All the way down Lombard Street, we climbed to the top of the Crookedest Street. From there we found a bus that took us to the Golden Gate bridge, which we promptly walked in both directions. From there we followed the coast all the way back to Fort Mason and our hostel.

Not particularly Golden, red yes.

We didn’t have much time in SF, and have left a lot to return to. We had wanted to visit Alcatraz, but this apparently requires advanced booking as demand is quite high. After the initial rain, the weather cleared up, and although it was cold, the sun shone all day. This weather persisted for the rest of our trip.

From San Fran we took a direct route to Yosemite National Park, and camped three nights at the Upper Pines camp-ground, in the Yosemite Valley. The campsite was probably about a third full and very cold, dropping to about -5C most nights, and not getting much above 5 during the day, being mostly in the shade.

Our new wheels in Yosemite and Sequoia

It wasn’t our first camping foray in negative temperatures, but the low daily average was something to contend with. On our first full day in Yosemite we did the short trail out and around Mirror Lake. At the base of the Half Dome, it was a cold dark hike, although flat, with a brief sunny respite for lunch. Stunning scenery and breathtaking landscapes were to be the order of the next several days.

The next day we decided to get out of the valley and into the sunlight and chose the steep and switchback full route to the top of the Yosemite Falls. Climbing about 800m, the route takes you up the western part of the falls offering some amazing views of the Upper Yosemite Fall and placing you up top with a view down.

Views atop Yosemite Falls

You follow the same route down, and as the sun set we were greeted with an array of new colours, lighting up the mountains around us. On our way out the following day we headed south towards Fresno. This gave us new views looking back over the valley with a view of El Capitan, Yosemite Fall, Bridalveil Fall and Glacier Point, truly a magnificent sight.

Shortly thereafter we had our first run-in with the law as our newly registered vehicle did not yet have number plates (perfectly legal for 60 days), and after a very orderly interaction with the po-po we were free to continue our journey to Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park.

Yosemite Valley and Mirror Lake

Another beauty in it’s own way. Yosemite’s glacial basin made way for rolling hills, an increase in altitude and massive trees. Having visited in the summer, it was nice to visit again in the winter. We had expected colder than Yosemite temperatures, and thus booked into a cabin. Temperatures however increased between the storms, but our enjoyment of the cabin’s heating was no less diminished.

As we arrived we swung past the General Grant tree. Although snow-chain laws had been in place, and we were suitably equipped, the weather had improved to an extent that they were not required. While the General Grant is not as big as the General Sherman tree we had seen previously, it is suitably impressive. Later that evening while prepping supper, we were visited by a swarm of raccoons who proceeded to tear apart a nearby pine tree but seemed to mostly leave us alone.

Yosemite Upper Fall and view of the valley

After much debate on what to do the following day, we opted for a shorter hike to allow us time to drive through King’s Canyon. We chose and enjoyed the Big Baldy route. Taking you up to 2500m, this gentle route offers outstanding panoramas. With the snow-capped Sierras close on your one side, your view stretches out over the Central Valley with the peaks of the Coastal Ranges just sticking out in the West.

After a brief lunch break we headed back and on towards King’s Canyon, intending to drive to the Roads End, we were instead greeted with ‘Road Closed’ signs, and our map confirmed that the road closes in winter. As such we took a detour back past the Hume Lake (which is actually a dam) back towards Grant Grove village where our cabin was located.

Big trees in Sequoia

With a storm headed our direction, we decided to make an early escape via the General’s Highway, past the Sherman Tree, and out the Ash Mountain entrance. The CHP and park rangers had other plans for us though, and decided to close the road in anticipation of the storm, thus our nice long drive out was summarily curtailed within minutes of leaving camp. Understandable, but disappointing. We did at least experience a few light flurries of the impending snow as we dropped our altitude.

Although we really wanted snow on our trip so we could do some skiing, the warm and dry weather we were greeted with did make several aspects of the trip (like camping and driving) much easier and more pleasant (and drier). That being said, regardless of the weather you receive any of these places are a great place to take a holiday, and all of them remain on our list of places we want to visit (again).

Views of Sequoia

We were also amazed at the large portions of the parks which are not accessible from roads, but open to hikers to camp out in the wilds (best done in the warmer months).