My Ten Best Hiking Experiences of 2013

Honorable Mention: Icehouse Canyon to Icehouse Saddle and back via the Chapman Trail.

View just below Icehouse Saddle.

View just below Icehouse Saddle.

I haven’t made it back into the forest regularly since injuring myself. Of the 77 hikes I’ve done this year, only 8 have taken place after my IT band injury became too extreme to ignore any longer after finishing my Mt. Whitney hike on August 1st. Those 8 only add up to about the same mileage I did over 4 days at the Grand Canyon. My injury combined with some personal stuff kept me away from the forest and my blog.

Last Sunday I decided to go on a solo hike in one of my favorite areas of Angeles Forest–Icehouse Canyon. Part of what makes the place so great is the plethora of choices on has to continue on past Icehouse Saddle if one of three directions leading to Cucamonga Peak, Ontario Peak, or Mt. Baldy. So, I didn’t need to commit to much of anything when I started from the trailhead.

Adding to my enjoyment of just being in the forest was the fact I hadn’t hiked Icehouse Canyon before during this time of year. Some of the views opened up a bit as the deciduous trees have lost all their leaves, it was much colder, the light was different because the sun is at a lower angle this time of year, and the fallen leaves added some vibrant color to the forest floor. I spent a lot of time thinking about 2013 and what I’m hoping for in 2014. My knees handled the trip excellently, though the left one was a little sore the following day. In addition to the awesome terrain; being back in the forest, reflecting, and my knees holding up were what put this hike on this list. It’s still probably going to be a few months before I can consider hiking on back to back days. I’m hoping to be able to hike the High Sierra Trail (73.5 miles from Sequoia to Mt. Whitney and finishing at Whitney Portal) in summer 2014.

10. Car Camping Trip Staying at Upper Oso Campground

Red Rock to Gibralter Dam

Red Rock to Gibralter Dam

This was a three day-two night trip in Los Padres National Forest. If was the first overnight “training” trip for many of us planning on hiking Mt. Whitney. Over the three days, we (me, Debbie, Lorenzo, Etienne, Camila, Chloe, Olivia, and Roxanne) tested out gear and went on several short hikes. The best one was from Red Rock to Gibralter Dam where we got a great introduction to the Santa Ynez River Valley.

9. Monument Peak, Laguna Meadow Loop.

Big Laguna Trail between Noble Canyon Trail and Water-of-the-Woods.

Big Laguna Trail between Noble Canyon Trail and Water-of-the-Woods.

My friend Scott guided me on this hike. For me, It was a great introduction to the Laguna Mountains. We had lunch on Monument Peak where I fixated on a breathtaking view of the Anza Borrego Desert. We hiked along the Pacific Crest Trail for a while and by the time I was trekking through Laguna Meadow I was blown away by the range of experiences especially on a hike without that much elevation gain. At 15.1 miles with only 1750′ gain, this was our last training hike together before our Grand Canyon Trip.

8. Sequoia: Congress Trail with side trip to the Lincoln Tree

Near junction between Congress Trail and Alta Trail.

Near junction between Congress Trail and Alta Trail.

I found myself in Sequoia a lot this year. I find hiking through a forest filled Giant Sequoia’s to be one of the most spectacular experiences I’ve had hiking. The fact that these huge trees are living organisms can be tough to wrap one’s mind around. The Congress Trail is a very easy hike. In terms of high reward for little effort, it’s pretty hard to beat–which is why I wanted to take my daughter there. We had an great time father-daughter bonding, car camping at upper stony creek campground and trekking through this part of Giant Forest.

7. Mt. San Jacinto

Mt. San Jacinto Peak Scramble

Mt. San Jacinto Peak Scramble

This was an overnight backpacking trip where we (me, my wife, and Lorenzo) spent the night at Little Round Valley Campground which we all thought we excellent. We hiked up the Marion Mountain Trail, ate dinner at the peak under moonlight, and hiked back down to our campsite training for our planned 3:30 am start for our upcoming Whitney Trip. My wife pulling off peak scrambling down from the summit at night (a first for her) was almost as impressive as the terrain.

6. A night alone on the summit of Mt. San Gorgonio.

Sunset from in front of the bump on Mt. San Gorgonio where I ate dinner.

Sunset from in front of the bump on Mt. San Gorgonio where I ate dinner.

Among the advantages of hiking on a weekday is it is possible to find yourself alone in some amazing places in nature. The summit of Mt. San Gorgonio is one of them and I was treated to a truly spectacular evening. The following day I hiked down the remarkable Sky High Trail (still covered in patches of snow) meeting my friend Scott at Dry Lake which offered me the amazing opportunity to traverse the mountain range.

5. Little Lakes Valley

Little Lakes Valley

Little Lakes Valley

This trip was another great car camping experience with my daughter. We stayed at Rock Creek Campground–which was excellent. In my view, Little Lakes Valley is a phenomenal introduction to the Eastern Sierras. The trail from Mosquito Flat to Morgan Pass is remarkable in how much of the terrain is lake, stream, and/or meadow. Starting out at over 10,000′ in elevation and making it up to over 11,000′ on a fairly gradual 3.5 mile one way trip to Morgan Pass yields an incredible opportunity to experience the high country of the Sierras with comparatively little effort.

4. Alta Peak

Alta Trail, JCT Alta Meadow to Alta Peak

Alta Trail, JCT Alta Meadow to Alta Peak

We (my wife, Etienne, and I) did this as a training hike for Mt. Whitney. For those living in the LA area who hike San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, and Mt. Baldy as Whitney training, I would add this to the list or replace any one of the above with this one–especially if your Whitney plan is multi-day. We started at the Sherman Tree Trail, hiked up the Alta Trail where the view at Panther Gap is stunning. We spent the night at Mehrten Meadow (though in the future I’d try to make it to Alta Meadow) and the following day hiked to the peak and then back down taking the trail to Lodgepole. The view from Alta peak was incredible and includes a view of Mt. Whitney for appropriate inspiration.

3.Snowshoeing in Giant Forest.

Moro Rock Crescent Meadow (road) January 2013

Moro Rock Crescent Meadow (road) January 2013

This was my first return to Sequoia since the mid 1970’s. Scott and I car camped at Potwisha Campground (where it got freezing cold at night). In January, with a temperature reading of 6 degrees at the trailhead, Scott and I were treated to phenomenal experience snowshoeing through Giant Forest. I was completely blown away and saw the place as Nature’s Version of New York City.

2. Mt. Whitney via Whitney Portal

Mt Whitney 2013.

Mt Whitney 2013.

This was a truly remarkable trip. It ranks second only because I went last year as well. Otherwise it’s really a coin toss with number one. This was the culmination of a lot of intense training with my wife for over a year as she went from novice hiker to backpacker. We we joined by our good friends Etienne and Camila. I never got around to blogging about it. The experience was radically different than what I had the year before. This more than any other hike instilled in me the impact of what we bring to a hike as a key component toward what we experience. I added lots of photos and dated them so it’s easy to see what was from 2012 versus 2013. Of potential interest to others is the scouting I did for campsites near Consultation Lake, where I might stay at the end of my hoped for High Sierra Trail trip in summer 2014.

1. The Grand Canyon rim to rim and back again.

The Grandeur of the  South Kaibab Trail as seen just below the Tonto Platform.

The Grandeur of the South Kaibab Trail as seen just below the Tonto Platform.

This was a four day backpacking trip I did with my friend Scott. It was a phenomenally diverse experience. I was a surprised by it’s intimacy as I was impressed by all the big things it’s been described as being. For me, the best stretch was the North Kaibab Trail, but in many ways that’s also a coin toss. It is clear why it is regarded as one of the “wonders of the world”. I wrote about 13 things that I think make it so, but there are significantly more than that …

Snow Hiking in Los Angeles: The Baldy Bowl Trail

This is the second post in a series on snow hiking in Los Angeles.  My first post in this series emphasized an opportunity to hike at relatively low elevations closer to the edge of the city where a recent storm is required for snow to be present and no chains or special equipment are needed.

This one goes to the opposite extreme where snow is guaranteed until sometime in spring.  At 10,064 feet, Mt. Baldy is the highest point in Los Angeles County.  The trailhead from Manker Flats is above 6,100 feet and can often be in snow as well.  There is a ski area and restaurant up at Baldy Notch (elevation over 7,800 feet) and it’s worth taking a look at the weather conditions posted on their website (which typically includes an update on road conditions) before making the trip.  Unlike treks at lower elevations, it is important to carry chains.  It is also important to have microspikes, crampons and/or snowshoes as deep snow and icy conditions are common.  Due to over 3,900 feet of gain on this hike, conditions can change dramatically from a thin layer of mostly slippery ice to snow knee deep or more.  Therefore, I now carry both microspikes and snowshoes.

View of West Mt. Baldy from Mt. Baldy with Catalina Island in the distance.

View of West Mt. Baldy from Mt. Baldy with Catalina Island in the distance.

Interestingly, both times I’ve hiked the Baldy Bowl Trail (aka The Ski Hut Trail) in the snow it was with someone I met on Mt. Baldy last summer while I was training to hike to Mt. Whitney.  If I didn’t write this blog, I wouldn’t have stayed in contact with either of them.

The first hike was with Charles.  At that time, I only had snowshoes and the terrain from the trailhead to the ski hut was mostly soil with patches of ice and some stretches of shallow snow and I was better off carrying my snowshoes up to the ski hut on my back pack.   So, this portion of the trek was slow going and a little slippery for me.  Charles had crampons and experienced no problems.

Mt. San Antonio Ski Hut

Mt. San Antonio Ski Hut

At the ski hut, it didn’t look good from a time perspective for me to make the summit.  There were others there who all had crampons.  One of them had an ice axe and was about to head straight up the bowl.  Another had hiked the bowl in snow numerous times.  It was getting late and we all had concerns about the safety of my hiking the trail without crampons as it would get more icy and slippery after the mountain began to block the sun shining on the trail.  Charles could easily make the summit because his crampons would make it easy to negotiate the trail after dusk.  So, Charles and I agreed that he would go on ahead while I put on my snowshoes.  I would turn back after around 2:00 pm and talk to him later.  After everyone else left and I had my snowshoes on, I met a couple skiers who trekked up to the ski hut (which is nowhere near the maintained ski slopes) and were eventually planning to ski down a ridge that had been very good to them in the past.  At this point I realized that there were at least as many people hiking this trail in the snow as there are without it and that there is a large range of equipment used and activities pursued.

A good thing about so many people hiking this trail in snow is the trail is made clear by those who arrive early.

A good thing about so many people hiking this trail in snow is the trail is made clear by those who arrive early.

It was a pleasure to get my snowshoes on and start snowshoeing in deeper snow as I made my way up the trail.  It turned out to be quicker for me to hike through the rocky base of the bowl in snow than it is in normal conditions as enough snow filled in the space between rocks and made a more uniform surface.

Looking up at the ridge from the base of Baldy Bowl.

Looking up at the ridge from the base of Baldy Bowl.

After passing through the comparatively flat base of the bowl the trail gets steep and the snow became much deeper.  As a result, the advantages of snowshoes on this part of the trail became apparent.  My feet didn’t go as far into the deep snow and the Televators on my snowshoes which support raising my heal while keeping the snowshoe flush with the terrain made it significantly easier to handle the steeper slopes.

One of the steeper portions of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

One of the steeper portions of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

With my new found speed, it didn’t take long to pass Charles.  It soon became clear that I would have a shot at making the summit after all.  I caught up with another hiker named Jim and joined him for the last part of the way to the summit.

Kyle Kuns at Mt. Baldy (photo by Jim).

Kyle Kuns at Mt. Baldy (photo by Jim).

There were excellent views all the way down the mountain.  I was once again slowed below the ski hut allowing Charles to catch up with me after he also made the summit.

View looking down the Baldy Bowl Trail and across toward Thunder Mountain, Telegraph Peak, Timber Mountain, Cucamonga Peak, and Ontario Peak. (click to enlarge).

View looking down the Baldy Bowl Trail and across toward Thunder Mountain, Telegraph Peak, Timber Mountain, Cucamonga Peak, and Ontario Peak. (click to enlarge).

The next hike with Scott was significantly different and he also blogged about it.  Learning from my last trek, I bought a pair of Kahtoola microspikes  which worked fantastically on the lower part of the trail where there was more soil and slippery ice than snow.  These are lightweight enough (and would have been very helpful on my trek to Mt. Whitney) that I’ll be bringing them on this year’s summer trip to the High Sierras.  A key component of this hike was the weather.  The hike began under clear skies with clouds off far in the distance below us.

Clouds off in the distance as seen from the Baldy Bowl Trail below the Ski Hut.

Clouds off in the distance as seen from the Baldy Bowl Trail below the ski hut.

We saw the clouds rolling in as we made our way up the mountain.  After we crossed the base of the bowl and started making our way up the steeper part of the mountain, the clouds started reaching our level.  The view south began to be completely blocked by incoming clouds.

Clouds rolling in along the steeper part of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

Clouds rolling in along the steeper part of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

When the trail met the ridge the view was split between clouds coming up quickly from the south and clear skies to the north.

Clouds to the south, clear skies to the north along the Ridge of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

Clouds to the south, clear skies to the north along the Ridge of the Baldy Bowl Trail. (Click to enlarge)

As we moved higher, the clouds continued moving in quickly and began to darken causing me to start to think about the possibility of getting caught in a snowstorm.

View south from the ridge along the Baldy Bowl Trail.

View south from the ridge along the Baldy Bowl Trail. (click to enlarge)

As impressive as the speed that the clouds were overtaking us was their depth.  At least a few hours from the trailhead, it became unclear whether or not we could summit and make it back down the mountain before snow started.  In addition, Scott was breaking in new hiking boots and it was his first time snowshoeing causing him to be more tired than on his previous summit.  So, we both decided that we wanted to head back.

Tall clouds starting to overtake the higher elevations.

Tall clouds starting to overtake the higher elevations. (Click to enlarge).

The way down was filled with amazing views of fast swirling clouds.  The sky was so turbulent that the scene would usually change before I could snap a photo.

Swirling and turbulent clouds made an amazing trek down to the trailhead.

Swirling and turbulent clouds made an amazing trek down to the trailhead.

At times it felt mostly sunny with only a hint of the cloud formations.

View along the base of the bowl just above the Ski Hut.

View along the base of the bowl just above the Ski Hut. (click to enlarge)

At others we were in the mist of the clouds.

Scott Turner photographing the mist just below the Ski Hut.

Scott Turner photographing the mist just below the Ski Hut.

Once we got below the clouds we were treated to a pretty clear view out to the ocean.

View out toward Catalina Island down near the bottom of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

View out toward Catalina Island down near the bottom of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

I had two very different days where I thought about different challenges.  Hiking in the snow can require special equipment like snow shoes to be safe.  The trail looks different in the snow and will be significantly harder to follow in a storm where lack of visibility can become a serious issue and the trail can disappear with snowfall.  Driving home could become a problem without chains.  All this and more should be considered in determining when to turn back.  The mountain will be there another day.  As recently as last Sunday someone died on this mountain.  This is a hard climb without snow.  If you go, be careful and be willing to turn back too early rather than too late.  That said, this place is amazing and I’ve taken numerous photos of the Baldy Bowl Trail these past two years on over ten assents.  If you’re ready for it, it’s a must do.

Snow Hiking in Los Angeles: Echo Mountain and Inspiration Point

Los Angeles has numerous places to hike in the snow during winter.  Of course, it’s the LA version of being in the snow; we need to drive to it—which I guess makes sense as even our subway stations have parking lots.  To be clear, I’m not talking about the Hollywood version; the snow is real.  Surprising as it may sound to some, getting to snow in Los Angeles is easy and numerous opportunities exist that don’t require special equipment (like tire chains) to make the journey.  For most residents, the drive time to find snow is similar to the time it takes to commute to work.

Having lived in Los Angeles my entire life, I didn’t realize how easily I could get to snow until a few years ago—at least as easy as getting to the beach from most of the places I’ve lived in LA.   I didn’t learn about snowshoeing until last year, and I didn’t learn about microspikes until a couple weeks ago (thanks Chris, the Kahtoola microspikes you told me about work great).  I’ve now become part of the subculture of Angelenos who own some array of snowshoes, crampons, and/or microspikes primarily for hiking in our local mountains.  I’ve already snowshoed twice this year and I’m looking forward to getting to the snow every week or two for the rest of winter.

Standing on Mt. Baldy in snow (for the first time) a few weeks ago, I thought about how much I enjoy snowshoeing and how much the places in the forest that I’ve hiked numerous times in the other three seasons look and feel different in snow.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about all the spots I want to get to this year that I haven’t seen in snow yet, as well as those places I’ve already been in snow.  I realized I could create a winter series (of undetermined periodicity) about snow hiking in Los Angeles to share my experiences and perhaps inspire others to give some form of hiking in snow a try.

On New Year’s Day, my family and I went to the Long Beach Aquarium.  As we got further away from the mountains it became easier to see how much snow had accumulated on them.  I thought about the Rose Parade and wondered how many people realized that the parade was taking place closer to the snow than the beach.

View toward Downtown LA from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail just below Echo Mountain.

View toward Downtown LA from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail just below Echo Mountain.

For this first post of the series, I’ve decided to highlight the ease of getting to snow by starting with a hike that is about a 15 minute drive from Pasadena.  It is also a good introductory hike because driving conditions will not be an issue as they can be on other hikes in Angeles Forest because this hike starts below snow level.  The cost of starting at a low elevation is that it requires somewhere between a 2 and 3 mile hike to reach the snow.  This is one of the most popular hikes in the forest (probably due to easy access).  As a result, lots of people are guaranteed to be there. This hike starts from the Cobb Estate Trailhead where most people hike to Echo Mountain.  Many people continue up from Echo Mountain and hike to Inspiration Point via the Castle Canyon Trail, or  they hike to Inspiration Point via the Middle Sam Merrill Trail, or they do a loop hiking up one trail and down the other.

Zoom in view looking down on a lightly snow covered Echo Mountain with Downtown Los Angeles in the background from the Castle Canyon Trail.

Zoom in view looking down on a lightly snow covered Echo Mountain with Downtown Los Angeles in the background from the Castle Canyon Trail.

Being on the south face of the San Gabriel Mountains and at comparatively low elevations, the snow will probably only last a day or two after a storm on Echo Mountain (elevation 3,207′) and not much more than a week after a storm near Inspiration Point (elevation 4,510′).  Therefore, I suggest checking the snow levels after a storm to determine if these spots have snow.

Castle Canyon Trail

Castle Canyon Trail

In the past when I’ve hiked the Castle Canyon Trail in snow (as far back as February 2011 when these pictures were taken), I’ve done so without snowshoes, crampons, or microspikes because I didn’t have them.  The depth of snow on the trail rarely had my normal hiking boots deeper than about 8″ in the snow.  So, this hike is achievable without special equipment, but would be made a little easier if you happen to have one of the above mentioned boot accessories.

View toward west hump of Mt. Muir as seen from the Castle Canyon Trail near Inspiration Point.

View toward west hump of Muir Peak as seen from the Castle Canyon Trail near Inspiration Point.

View from the Castle Canyon Trail near Inspiration Point.

View from the Castle Canyon Trail near Inspiration Point.

View toward Mt. Lowe (partially blocked by clouds) from Inspiration Point.

View toward Mt. Lowe (partially blocked by clouds) from Inspiration Point.

View toward Mt. Wilson (blocked by clouds) from Inspiration Point.

View toward Mt. Wilson (blocked by clouds) from Inspiration Point.

View down Castle Canyon from Inspiration Point.

View down Castle Canyon from Inspiration Point.

If I hike up to Inspiration Point via the Castle Canyon Trail, I typically hike down using the Middle Sam Merrill Trail which goes around the north side of an unnamed peak.  This means its snow lasts longer and is often deeper.

Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

Making it around to the west side of the unnamed peak yields excellent views of the Pacific Ocean on a clear day, JPL, and the city below.

The Middle Sam Merrill Trail on the west side of the unnamed peak with the Pacific Ocean in the background.

The Middle Sam Merrill Trail on the west side of the unnamed peak with the Pacific Ocean in the background.

Middle Sam Merrill Trail

Middle Sam Merrill Trail

Another good thing about the Middle Sam Merrill Trail is it has a fairly unobstructed view back into the forest looking northwest toward Brown Mountain.

View toward Brown Mountain from the Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

View toward Brown Mountain from the Middle Sam Merrill Trail.

Weekly Gallery Update #5: Trees From Below

My Weekly Gallery Updates are about sharing photos I’ve added to the gallery section of this site.  The galleries are my way of creating a visual approach to searching for hikes by having collections of photos that link to information about hiking to where each photo was taken.

This week I’ve added five photos to my new Trees From Below Gallery.  Trees are typically the first image that pops into my mind when someone refers to a forest.  They are one of my favorite things to photograph.

December 2011

December 2011

Above view from the Lower San Gabriel Peak Trail

February 2012

February 2012

Above view from the Dawson Saddle Trail

November 2012

November 2012

Above view from the Mt. Hillyer Trail

April 2012

April 2012

Above view from the Mt. Waterman Trail

May 2012

May 2012

Above view from the Islip Ridge Trail

Weekly Nature Question #4: What Species Of Frog Is This?

My Weekly Nature Question is about my asking for help from the blogosphere (and other internet users) to learn about species living in Angeles Forest and to share that learning with others.  I’m really hoping that this turns out to be a viable and meaningful way to share knowledge.

The answer to last week’s tree question turned out to be a  Great Basin Collared Lizard.  As more information is shared, it will appear on the Great Basin Collared Lizard Forest Life Page.

I’d like to extend thanks to:

Alex Gurrola for being the first to correctly identify the species and providing a link to more information and to Eric Kuns (my brother) for confirming the identification and providing a more specific link.  I also want to say thanks to blogger Henry Mowry of the blog Mowry Journal for checking with his naturalist son to confirm the identification and to verify that the species was within its home range and therefore unlikely to be someone’s former pet.  Thanks also to everyone else who commented on this question.

This week nobody sent me any links to blog articles and I was unable to find any through the search feature in the WordPress reader.

This Week’s Question:  What species of frog is this?  I saw several dozen of these frogs on a hike through Shortcut Canyon on the Silver Moccasin Trail with my brother.  We shared the camera that day, so I’m sure some of the photos below were taken by him (I’m just not sure which ones).

August 2011

August 2011

Photo taken on the Silver Moccasin Trail

August 2011

August 2011

Photo taken on the Silver Moccasin Trail

August 2011

August 2011

Photo taken on the Silver Moccasin Trail

August 2011

August 2011

Photo taken on the Silver Moccasin Trail

August 2011

August 2011

Photo taken on the Silver Moccasin Trail

August 2011

August 2011

Photo taken on the Silver Moccasin Trail

August 2011

August 2011

Photo taken on the Silver Moccasin Trail

August 2011

August 2011

Photo taken on the Silver Moccasin Trail