Mt. Lewis Is A Small Treasure Hidden In Plain Sight

I’ve hiked from Dawson Saddle over a dozen times, but I only made it up to Mt. Lewis for the first time last Saturday. I confess I was told to go a few years ago on a day I went snowshoeing up the Dawson Saddle Trail toward the PCT. As I was getting my snowshoes on another hiker arrived at the trailhead having just finishing snowshoeing to Throop Peak. He told me that he had a great trip to the peak and was now going to take his snowshoes off and hike to Mt. Lewis (a short distance across Angeles Crest Highway from where we stood). He said that he does this often and really enjoys the juxtaposition of snowshoeing and hiking on the same trip. As we parted ways, he assured me that a quick hike up to Mt. Lewis was worthwhile. Although I also had a great day snowshoeing (only my second time), I wasn’t up to doing the additional hike afterword.

View toward the Antelope Valley from the densely forested  Mt. Lewis

View toward the Antelope Valley from the densely forested Mt. Lewis

For me, a lot goes into determining where to hike that has little to do with the beauty of a particular place in the forest. Although it always looked to me that it might be interesting to summit, the trail is only a mile round trip and is over an hours drive to reach from the 210 freeway. That’s too much driving for such a short hike to be worth doing for me on its own. Frankly, the terrain behind it is so great that I’ve only allowed time and energy to hike those spectacular areas which left Mt. Lewis unexplored by me. Now that I’ve been there, I believe this peak would be almost as popular to climb as the others close by if there was a much longer trail to get to it. I combined it with Throop Peak creating a worthwhile short day on the mountain travelling 5.2 miles with 1,728′ of gain and loss. I think the key to hiking Mt. Lewis is to hike it first and then cross Angeles Crest Highway to combine it with something much longer. Over the past few years, I’ve always ended up just going home after hiking whatever I hiked first–reaching my car after an already satisfying and tiring hike always proved to inspire procrastination.

View from the steep Mt. Lewis use trail. Note the trail goes from bottom to top on the left side of this photo.

View from the steep Mt. Lewis use trail. Note the trail goes from bottom to top on the left side of this photo.

It is important to point out that this trail isn’t for everyone. It is an un-maintained use trail that has very steep parts to it, is thin in many places, and often has a steep drop to one side. The steepest part is over the first quarter mile.

View toward Throop Peak from the heavily wooded trail.

View toward Throop Peak from the heavily wooded trail.

The trail is heavily wooded which noticeably slowed down the gusting wind as compared to what it was like at Dawson Saddle and Throop Peak on Saturday.

Mt. Burnham (Left) and Throop Peak  provide a nice background to the long view down the trail.

Mt. Burnham (Left) and Throop Peak provide a nice background to the long view down the trail.

The views from the trail are often dramatic. In many ways this is due to the trees partially blocking the long view creating many interesting panoramas as major landmarks come in and out of view. The interplay of foreground and background is often engrossing. In fact, the trail and peak are so wooded that getting a completely unobstructed view out to a desired landmark requires a significantly higher degree of focused effort than is typically the case. I’m not saying it’s hard to do. It is just a different and more nuanced visual experience than being on terrain with completely unobstructed views. In a way, it’s similar to being inside looking out.

View toward Mt. Baden-Powell (left) and Mt. Burnham from the trail.

View toward Mt. Baden-Powell (left) and Mt. Burnham from the trail.

This quasi inside feeling makes the landmarks feel a little more special when they do come into clear view. That I love seeing the forest and its landmarks from different perspectives made this quality very appealing to me. The series of glimpses out combined with the more intimate interior spatial changes of the terrain along the trail made the short half mile to the peak interestingly varied. My sense of anticipation regarding what I would see after traversing another hundred feet or so was constant.

Typically enclosing space on Mt. Lewis

Typically enclosing space on Mt. Lewis

I was pleasantly surprised when I reached the peak and found it spatially enclosed by trees. I concede that on one level I was disappointed that the unobstructed 360 degree view out I had expected didn’t exist. However, there are views in all directions, just not from the same spot and the process of seeking them out is interesting and fun. Also, the peak itself is on the larger and more flat end of the spectrum compared to other peaks nearby. So, some walking around to find these good angles is required and the possible great views are unlikely to all be seen on a single trip.

View toward Twin Peaks from one of the southern breaks in the trees on Mt. Lewis

View toward Twin Peaks from one of the southern breaks in the trees on Mt. Lewis

Unlike the super windy conditions at Dawson Saddle, there was only a slight breeze on Mt. Lewis and it was significantly warmer due to the protection provided by the trees. This level of protection combined with numerous areas of flat enough ground to pitch a tent got me thinking about camping here sometime in the future. I noticed I’m not the only person whose thought of this. Unfortunately, I saw remains of a camp fire which is not allowed in this area for obvious reasons. I sincerely hope that anyone inspired to camp on Mt. Lewis due to this post will obey the fire restrictions in place for this area which only allow the use of a portable stove etc.

The protection from wind combined with fairly flat terrain on the peak makes Mt. Lewis an interesting option for camping.

The protection from wind combined with fairly flat terrain on the peak makes Mt. Lewis an interesting option for camping.

I’ve been thinking about hiking to Ross Mountain sometime next year (a destination following the ridge down the south side of Mt. Baden-Powell about 2,000′ lower in elevation). This would be a long day hike which would benefit from my being able to start early from Dawson Saddle. The option to spend the night on Mt. Lewis and then swap gear at my car before embarking on such a trek is very appealing to me and is now the most likely way I’ll attempt to reach Ross Mountain. I also look forward to returning to Mt. Lewis to spend the time to look around more which would be a perfect thing to do on a late afternoon before spending the night.

Now Part National Monument With A Much Needed $3 Million Monument Fund.

On Friday morning, President Barack Obama designated a significant portion of Angeles National Forest (almost 350,000 acres) as San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Also, the National Forest Foundation (NFF) announced approval of a $3 million San Gabriel Mountains Monument Fund (currently $850,000 has been raised for this pledge). In addition, the NFF is working with other groups to establish a $500,000 San Gabriel Partnership Fund.

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Map

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Map

A key reason to establish this area as a National Monument is to provide the ability to gain access to grant funding and public-private partnerships. That the ability to raise money and direct it is already providing much needed economic resources to this underfunded and sadly neglected resource is encouraging for me. I am hopeful that much needed improvements are far more likely to appear with this change.

View of Winston Ridge from my hike on Thursday--the last day before becoming part of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

View of Winston Ridge from my hike on Thursday–the last day before becoming part of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

With most of the hikes on this blog no longer being in Angeles National Forest, I might need to rethink its name and edit a lot of information such as where a peak is located in my peak bagging resume etc. Worth the effort though for the difference I think this will make for the forest. As with any change, there are those who are against it. In this case, I chalk that up to a lot of misinformation floating around. Casey Schreiner has followed this more closely than I and has written a number of good posts on what this change means. If your are interested in more information, this post on his blog Modern Hiker is a good place to start as is the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument page.

Combination Lock Access To Towering Redwoods

My return to hiking after my latest injury was a worthy experience which fulfilled my hunger to explore, to get my heart pumping hard again, and to have my mind calm in a way that only comes for me with exercise. I’d been away for so long that I wanted my first hike back to be special which inspired me to try and find something unique. The timing worked out so that it would coincide with dropping my daughter off to start college at Humboldt State University. Having never hiked in that area, I was at least guaranteed to cover new ground.

The view hundreds of feet up is modestly more tangible when trees of different diameters are bunched together.

The view hundreds of feet up is modestly more tangible when trees of different diameters are bunched together.

Reading through a guide book, I found a hike (#39 in White 2014) that had an unusual set of requirements to gain access to a grove of very tall redwoods (many over 300′ in height). Having just read The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring (an account of the search for the tallest trees–many of them found in Humboldt County, the fascinating and unexpected life found in the redwood canopy, and tales of climbing/sleeping in redwoods and associated dangers); I liked the idea of journeying to a grove which was talked about in the book. The Tall Trees Grove is home of the Libby Tree (a.k.a. Tall Tree) which at one time was the tallest known tree in the world. The tallest known tree today (Hyperion at 379.1′) is in this same area (but unmarked to protect it from vandalism).

Typical densely packed and diverse vegetation combine with a subtle interplay of light and shadow.

Typical densely packed and diverse vegetation combine with a subtle interplay of light and shadow.

I began at the Kuchel Visitor’s Center to get a permit and the day’s combination for the lock to open the gate and gain access to the 6 mile dirt road leading to the trailhead. Being in the mood for something special, I enjoyed the serious conversation with the ranger who wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into–essentially a handful of things to consider that wouldn’t impact my recovering Achilles tendon at all and make a fairly easy short hike feel a little more adventurous. The act of parking my car, unlocking the gate, parking again, locking the gate, and driving down the long dirt road to the trailhead made my return to hiking feel almost ceremonial.

Emerald Ridge Trail, Redwood National Park

Emerald Ridge Trail, Redwood National Park

I took my time walking down the Emerald Ridge Trail. I stopped about every hundred yards or so to take in my surroundings. Although in the midst of towering trees, this forest feels intimate. The dense understory of diverse vegetation provides a lush human scale at the forest floor to juxtapose against the towering canopy above. The trail itself is virtually the only area not covered with some form of plant life. Numerous fallen trees covered with diverse flora combined with a complex texture of young and old trees provide a constant awareness of the forest’s old age. With abundant shade provided by the canopy and understory trees, light and shadow interplay in interesting ways. Most of the forest floor is in shadow and most of the light that makes it down that far is reflected. The small beams of direct light that do break through serve to beautifully highlight areas and feel like a treasure instead of a blinding source of midday heat.

The wide gravel channel of Redwood Creek, Redwood National Park

The wide gravel channel of Redwood Creek, Redwood National Park

Arriving at Redwood Creek provided a huge contrast. Initially, leaving the dark and cool forest for the bright and hotter creek was uncomfortable. It took me a few minutes to acclimate to such a dramatic change. There is no trail along Redwood Creek between the end of the Emerald Ridge Trail and Tall Trees Grove. I already knew that the prescribed route is to follow the creek hiking on the gravel of its banks and crossing it as needed. Standing at the creek however, having walked to it in a straight line; I looked back toward the trail I just left and couldn’t see the trailhead. I wondered if I would have found that trailhead if I had done the loop in the other direction. This made me pause and ask myself, would I see the trailhead for the Tall Trees Trail? How would I know if I passed it? It was good that I had purchased a map at the Kuchel Visitor’s Center. Studying it more carefully, it was clear I’d have at least six stream crossings and the only other creek in this stretch (Tom McDonald Creek) would drain into Redwood Creek shortly before reaching the Tall Trees Trail. With renewed confidence, I headed upstream.

Sloped wall of trees along the banks of Redwood Creek, Redwood National Park

Sloped wall of trees along the banks of Redwood Creek, Redwood National Park

Fortunately, I came across a man hiking the loop from the other direction. He told me of the weather station that makes the Tall Trees trailhead easy to spot. As I made my way up the wide canyon, I internalized how challenging it must have been to discover the tallest trees. Although I’d read descriptions of the process in The Wild Trees book, the act of trying to discern the tallest ones myself and think about how to get to them yielded in me even more respect for the accomplishments of the discoverers. With such dense forest rising up the sides of the canyon and visually creating a massive sloped wall of trees as far as my eye could see, I keenly felt the sense of isolation that wilderness can provide.

Textured but visually impenetrable boundary between forest edge and creek.

Textured but visually impenetrable boundary between forest edge and creek.

The overall feel switched from human scaled intimacy to hard to wrap my head around grandeur. The often delicate and idiosyncratic interplay of light on the foliage that I could reach out and touch within the canopy had given way to a textured but visually impenetrable boundary between the forest edge and creek viewed under the harsh light of a cloudless afternoon sky. The way forward was slow going as I walked through gravel the whole way and crossed the creek six times. However, with several changes in water depth (ranging from ankle to knee deep), width (ranging from a narrow portion of the channel to almost completely filling it) and differing conditions for crossings; the 1.7 mile segment along the creek held my interest throughout. To be treated to such contrasting experiences on such a short hike was already exhilarating for me.

Lichen covered maple trees live in Tall Trees Grove.

Lichen covered maple trees live in Tall Trees Grove.

Heading up the embankment to enter Tall Trees Grove I expected to see the same things I did coming down the Emerald Ridge Trail. To my delightful surprise, this area of the forest is meaningfully different. Lichen covered maple trees define much of the north facing boundary between Tall Trees Grove and Redwood Creek. Looking at the map, I assume this is the result of some combination of the presence of increased light due to the widening of the creek channel as it makes close to a 180 degree turn around the grove and the north facing orientation.

More enclosing space beneath the much shorter and wider maple trees provides a contrasting experience.

More enclosing space beneath the much shorter and wider maple trees provides a contrasting experience.

This edge condition provides an interesting transition between the creek and the redwoods close by (often as close as ten or twenty feet further in). With branches barely above head height spanning the trail in some spots, the much shorter and wider form of the maples overhead, and the ability to be both close to the maples and able to discern the top of them; the space felt more enclosing and human scaled.

Comparatively low arching ceiling of the maple canopy

Comparatively low arching ceiling of the maple canopy

Although in shade and much cooler than the open riparian habitat of the creek, this stretch of trail is brighter than what exists deeper in. Much more light comes in from the outer side of the trail illuminating large swaths of forest floor. Similarly, the much lower arching maple canopy produces a brighter ceiling. After hiking three other redwood trails on my way home from Humboldt without seeing anything like this; I look back at this stretch of lichen covered maples as a wonderfully unique ecotone providing a remarkable transition between creek and redwood forest.

Inner loop of Tall Trees Grove

Inner loop of Tall Trees Grove

The maples gave way to redwoods on the inner portion of the loop of Tall Trees Grove. Space became more open, taller, and noticeably darker. With a more tightly packed juxtaposition of mostly old growth redwoods and less understory trees than the Emerald Ridge Trail, the grove represented a fourth major form of scenery . By comparison, these redwoods were also typically larger in diameter and taller.

Old growth redwoods in Tall Trees Grove creaking in the breeze

Old growth redwoods in Tall Trees Grove creaking in the breeze

As I walked along this portion of the loop I kept hearing a sound that I couldn’t identify right away. Although not loud, the sound was audible enough to interrupt my thoughts. I in no way needed to listen for it. The sound lasted several seconds at a time and produced a sizable accelerating crescendo punctuated in silence. Standing under a group of redwoods, I finally realized what I was hearing was the sound of some of the trees creaking as they moved in the slight breeze. This made me think about the relationship between the diameter of these trees and their height (structurally referred to as their slenderness ratio). It was as if I could hear that some of these trees were as tall as they could be without snapping. That thought made me recall reading about how the top spire of middle-aged redwoods typically dies and falls off the tree, how a redwood responds to that by growing new trunks from its larger branches which rise vertically parallel to the main trunk, and how over centuries the tree grows an aerial grove of redwoods (some pretty large themselves) all connected to the ground via the one main trunk (Preston 2007, pp. 20-21). Looking up the whole time I was pondering that, I eventually realized that I was swaying side to side in rhythm with the trees. It was probably my most profound moment of physical and intellectual connection to any forest.

Tall Trees Trail, Redwood National Park

Tall Trees Trail, Redwood National Park

I finished the loop by hiking up the Tall Trees Trail. As I got closer to the trailhead the landscape became similar to the Emerald Ridge Trail. However, there was a fairly long transition from the grove to the trailhead that was more open, yielding longer forest views, and comprised of more taller redwoods and Douglas firs than found along Emerald Ridge. It was different enough over a long enough stretch of trail that I feel I had five meaningfully different experiences along this short 5.2 mile hike with only around 700 feet of gain and loss. Thinking about the range and magnitude of what I saw while driving back up the long dirt road, I felt this was a phenomenal choice. Closing and locking the gate behind me in order to leave felt like the act of closing a hard to put down book upon finishing it.

Additional Photos: Emerald Ridge Trail, Redwood Creek, Tall Trees Grove and Trail.