Snow Hiking In Los Angeles: Angeles Crest To Mt. Hillyer

I made it up the mountain for my first snowshoeing hike of the year last Friday (January 8th). Not knowing exactly what to expect, I left my house without a concrete plan of where I wanted to go. Basically, I wanted to go somewhere I had not been before in the snow. I also wanted to go somewhere lower than the places that are almost guaranteed to be in snow most of the winter (e.g. Mt. Baldy). This being an El Nino year, I expect to get out to the snow often and on this day I really wanted to snowshoe from start to finish.

Upper Gate area of Chilao Flats. If it's deep enough to snowshoe there, it will be deep enough all the way to the summit.

Upper Gate area of Chilao Flats. If it’s deep enough to snowshoe there, it will be deep enough all the way to the summit.

So, I headed up Angeles Crest Highway hoping something great would reveal itself and it did. As I passed the lower entrance to Chilao Flats, I noticed the gate was open. This got me thinking about going to Mt. Hillyer. When I drove past the upper entrance, it was clear that the snow was deep enough to snowshoe from Angeles Crest Highway. Although the upper gate was also open, the road wasn’t plowed and it probably was not driveable without snow tires or chains. As a result, I doubled back a bit and parked in one of the plowed areas off Angeles Crest Highway between Devil’s Canyon (not plowed) and the upper gate.

First one up the Silver Moccasin Trail, I enjoyed making my way through the fresh powdery snow.

First one up the Silver Moccasin Trail, I enjoyed making my way through the fresh powdery snow.

Although a couple other people also were snowshoeing the road down to the trailhead, I was fortunate enough to be the first person to head up the Silver Moccasin Trail toward Horse Flats. Normally, numerous people beat me to the trailhead and I have their tracks to follow. Since I only hike areas in the snow that I’ve hiked several times before, I had the confidence to proceed knowing I wouldn’t get off trail (or at least not too far off trail). It’s also true that this area is much flatter and comprised of more rolling type hills than most other areas in the forest. Therefore, even if I ended up off the trail I could have a great day wandering around and find my way back by retracing the footsteps I was creating in the fairly deep snow. So, I thoroughly enjoyed the crisp sound of creating fresh footprints and the pristine visual of undisturbed snow.

One of the narrower parts of the trail. Note the vegetation that serves as somewhat of a guardrail.

One of the narrower parts of the trail. Note the vegetation that serves as somewhat of a guardrail.

This is a great area to visit in the snow because the terrain is comparatively flat for the San Gabriel Mountains, it is reasonably wide in most places (so you can snowshoe effectively and if you fall it won’t be down the side of a mountain), and is fairly well protected when narrow. I forgot my trekking poles and ended up falling a few times when my snowshoes got tangled up (it’s amazing how subconscious fixing that situation without falling has become for me when I have my poles). As a result, this is also a significantly safer area to traipse through the snow than the narrower trails with steep drop-offs to at least one side.

An expansive view from the Mt. Hillyer Trail looking toward Mt. Waterman and Twin Peaks. That I could look back and see each of my footprints defined in the snow instead of a rugged long depression recording multiple journeys by others before me made stepping in the undisturbed snow feel even more special.

An expansive view from the Mt. Hillyer Trail looking toward Mt. Waterman and Twin Peaks. That I could look back and see each of my footprints defined in the snow instead of a rugged long depression recording multiple journeys by others before me made stepping in the undisturbed snow feel even more special.

The Mt. Hillyer Trail between Horse Flats and Mt. Hillyer is among my favorites in the forest. I like the expansive views across long distances to peaks in all directions.

The prevalence of partial snow covered large boulders, snowy trees, and constantly changing great views make the Mt. Hillyer Trail continuously inspiring all the way to the summit.

The prevalence of partial snow covered large boulders, snowy trees, and constantly changing great views make this trail continuously inspiring all the way to the summit.

I find the seemingly endless outcrops of boulders to be magnificent. In snow, the varying degree to which the boulders become snow covered and emphasize the color of the rock combined with the melting water lines (and sometimes icy stalactites hanging down) create a natural sculptural garden of immense beauty. It feels as though each turn in the trail yields something new and beautiful to behold. To provide a sense of scale, the boulders are large enough that mountaineers (I’m not sure of what level) come here to practice rock climbing. I’ve been on the trail at times where I saw more people climbing rocks than hiking.

One of my favorite outcrops which helped guide me up the mountain in the snow. There is a great ledge with a magnificent view on the other side that is fun to climb up to (even for a non-mountaineer like myself) when it's dry.

One of my favorite outcrops which helped guide me up the mountain in the snow. There is a great ledge with a magnificent view on the other side that is fun to climb up to (even for a non-mountaineer like myself) when it’s dry.

I should point out that previous knowledge of the various boulder outcrops (the one pictured above being one of my favorite places in the forest) helped guide me up the mountain to my intended destination. I’m not sure how I would have done without that prior knowledge. Although I think I would have made it anyway, I also believe anyone journeying up this part of the trail would have a great time even if the peak wasn’t reached.

View from Mt. Hillyer.

View from Mt. Hillyer.

As much as I love the trail to the summit, I’m the first to admit the peak itself is a bit of a disappointment–especially when compared with most other peaks in the range. For myself, however, snow manages to improve the experience significantly because the surrounding views stand out more due to contrast provided by the temporary whiteness, tracks in the snow add some nice texture to the fire charred and somewhat barren peak, and the vegetation that rises above the ground pops against the whiteness instead of blending into the dirt. As a result, the snow cover yields a meaningfully less cluttered look than the somewhat clumpy dry landscape filled with a prevalence of scattered burnt tree branches that normally provides groundcover in this burn area.

One of the long views across one of the flatter portions of the Mt. Hillyer Trail.

One of the long views across one of the flatter portions of the Mt. Hillyer Trail.

As I made my way back down the trail, I enjoyed the intermixing of flat parts, mildly graded parts, somewhat steep parts (but not steep enough to require me to use elevators on my snowshoes on the way up), parts with boulder formations, parts without and so on. For such a short trail between Horse Flats and Mt. Hillyer, I found the almost checkerboard degree of variation–especially in snow–to be so stimulating I was almost disappointed to make it down the mountain.

The Silver Moccasin Trail in the late afternoon showing the record of trips made by others during the day. Without snow I wouldn't have known anyone else was on this part of the trail on this day.

The Silver Moccasin Trail in the late afternoon showing the record of trips made by others during the day. Without snow, I wouldn’t have known anyone else was on this part of the trail on this day.

Until about half way down the Mt. Hillyer Trail, mine were still the only footsteps I saw (except for wildlife). When I did see others (a few humans and a dog–perhaps just one small group), the snow still remained deep enough throughout to enjoy snowshoeing. When I made it back down to the Silver Moccasin Trail, the beginnings of a long rugged depression recording the journey of many others had formed. In a few spots (perhaps 5 steps at a time), the combination of south facing terrain and enough people walking on the trail yielded a depression deep enough to reach dirt. Aside from 20 to 25 steps overall at the end of the day, I was really happy to be wearing my snowshoes throughout.

Track map from Angeles Crest Highway to Mt. Hillyer using Backcountry Navigator (US Forest Service-2013 map) from my phone.

Track map from Angeles Crest Highway to Mt. Hillyer using Backcountry Navigator (US Forest Service-2013 map) from my phone.

Follow this link for step by step instructions from the obvious trailhead found by following the road down as shown on the map above. Follow the links below for additional photos:

Silver Moccasin Trail: Upper Chilao Flats to Horse Flats

Mt. Hillyer Trail

Mt. Hillyer

Impressive Regrowth Throughout Shortcut Canyon

Shortly after Angeles Crest Highway re-opened about 18 months after the Station Fire of 2009, I went on my first hike of the Silver Moccasin Trail through Shortcut Canyon. At the time, some regrowth was already visible largely due to the presence of water through the canyon. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I hiked this trail for the fifth time and found the changes so impressive that I continually felt hopeful that the burn areas would significantly recover much sooner than I had previously thought possible.

Shortcut Canyon near the San Gabriel River, November 22, 2015.

Shortcut Canyon near the San Gabriel River, November 22, 2015.

I was so surprised by the degree of change that I began looking through photos I’d taken on past hikes. For example, in some spots where there was no vegetation above ankle height, there are now trees that are at least eight feet tall. Fortunately, I’d unintentionally taken some photos from similar spots which allowed me to make comparisons tangible. There are three areas that I think are good enough to be worth sharing 1.

View down Shortcut Canyon on June 29, 2011

View down Shortcut Canyon on June 29, 2011

First, is a vista looking down Shortcut Canyon toward Mt. Wilson. In June of 2011, the mostly dry stream bed was visible with patches of regrowth intermixed throughout the wetter parts of the rocky bed.

View down Shortcut Canyon on April 29, 2012. Note the slight pan to the left to capture Oak tree regrowth.

View down Shortcut Canyon on April 29, 2012. Note the slight pan to the left to capture Oak tree regrowth.

In April of 2012, passing by the same area I was interested in the Oak trees beginning to show signs of regrowth taking place. While nice to see, this didn’t feel to me to be a major change yet.

View down Shortcut Canyon from November 22, 2015.

View down Shortcut Canyon from November 22, 2015.

Now, there are fairly tall trees displaying some nice fall color and blocking any view of the stream bed. I look forward to returning after this coming year’s El Nino season to see what it feels like to walk through here with water flowing through at a level comparable to or hopefully higher than I experienced in 2011.

No trees by the stream on August 10, 2011.

No trees by the stream on August 10, 2011.

The second set is from an area next to a rock wall along the stream. In 2011, there’s no evidence of trees next to the water with vegetation being ankle high at best.

A wall of trees now dividing the canyon on November 22, 2015.

A wall of trees now dividing the canyon on November 22, 2015.

Now, trees are typically over eight feet tall and block the view across the stream bed. In many places, with essentially a wall of trees dividing Shortcut Canyon, the canyon feels much narrower with newly constrained views.

Compared to 2011 when the stream was essentially vegetation free, this photo from March 30, 2014 shows significant change.

Compared to 2011 when the stream was essentially vegetation free, this photo from March 30, 2014, shows significant change.

It isn’t just the change from 2011 to now that I find so impressive. I hiked through here at the end of March in 2014. I almost wrote a similar post back then, but just didn’t have the time. The change is more dramatic now as illustrated by the photo above and below. While they are from somewhat different angles, there are a couple of trees (indicated by orange arrows on the photos) that provide a helpful yardstick to the growth between then and now. In 2011, one could easily look over the tops of the trees, now one cannot.

By November of 2015, the regrowth now forms a wall of trees in several areas visually dividing the canyon.

By November of 2015, the regrowth now forms a wall of trees in several areas visually dividing the canyon.

 

There are numerous other changes. Particularly noteworthy is the almost complete elimination of poodle dog bush. Pretty much everywhere one travels once making it down to the stream is dramatically denser with vegetation. I wouldn’t characterize it as overgrown (a group of four mountain bikers made it through when I was there), it could easily become overgrown soon without maintenance. The Station Fire’s impact is still keenly felt. There are currently a few fallen trees to negotiate around, over, or under to make it through. If you haven’t been in a while, it’s worth another trip to experience the changes. If you’ve never been, be sure to bring extra water for the trek back up to Angeles Crest Highway 2

Significantly more vegetation most everywhere along the stream in November 2015.

Significantly more vegetation most everywhere along the stream in November 2015.

Notes:

 


  1. For more photos showing similar transformations, see my photo page for this segment of trail. I’ve now organized the photos into separate galleries by year. 
  2. For step by step instructions for this hike, see my Silver Moccasin Trail from Angeles Crest Highway to West Fork Trail Camp page. For a map of the hike, scroll down to hike #46 on my 2015 hikes page. 

Feeling Better on Vetter Mountain

I’ve been sick with the flu for the past couple weeks. Last Sunday I finally felt good enough to exercise and was joined on a short hike of the Silver Moccasin Trail to Vetter Mountain with my friends Etienne, Camila, and Chloe. Although I was still coughing up mucus (aka lung cookies), it felt fantastic to be in the forest again. Barring any other setbacks, I think I’ll be able to work in two hikes a week for the foreseeable future.

View from Vetter Mountain

View from Vetter Mountain

Whenever I look out and can’t see any peaks from my house because the clouds are too low, there’s a great chance that I can go above the clouds by getting myself up to 4,000 or 5,000 feet. It’s an experience I can’t seem to get enough of and looking down on the clouds made my hike even better. There’s something about deciding to be in different weather by simply going into the mountains that appeals to me–especially on days when I can see the difference. Although I was already tired by the time I made it to Vetter Mountain, I felt so much better physically and mentally than I have in weeks that it was very uplifting to be there (especially with such great friends). Vetter Mountain is a fire lookout (that burned in the Station Fire) and a high point with an expansive 360 degree view towards taller mountains that surround it off in the distance (an unusual view in the San Gabriel Mountains).

View toward the Mt. Wilson Crest including Occidental Peak, Mt. Markham, San Gabriel Peak, Mt. Disappointment, and Mt. Deception from the Silver Moccasin Trail.

View toward the Mt. Wilson Crest including Occidental Peak, Mt. Markham, San Gabriel Peak, Mt. Disappointment, and Mt. Deception from the Silver Moccasin Trail.

From the summit and along the Silver Moccasin Trail, there are views of so many of the peaks I plan to hike (from Mt. Wilson to Mt. Baldy) this year that I began planning out my training to get ready to hike the High Sierra Trail in July. In addition to distance and gain, a key consideration is season. For example, the stretch of the Silver Moccasin trail I was hiking was extensively burned by the Station Fire and has no shade making it a hike for cool days only. I found myself hoping that we would get some snow. This has been another very dry winter so far in Southern California. With that in mind, it was nice to see some water flowing in Tujunga Creek.

Tujunga Creek crossing along the Silver Moccasin Trail.

Tujunga Creek crossing along the Silver Moccasin Trail.

 

Gallery Update #11: Snags

My 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 added a new Snags Gallery. One of my favorite blogs (Backyard Biology) recently posted a piece (Dead tree wildlife condo) describing the role that snags (dead or dying trees that are still standing) play in nature. Previously I didn’t know there was an ecological term for the many standing dead trees I photograph. Here’s a few in different contexts.

September 2011

September 2011

Above photo taken from the Devil’s Backbone Trail.

May 2012

May 2012

Above photo taken from the Islip Ridge Trail.

December 2012

December 2012

Above photo taken from the Mt. Hillyer Trail.

February 2012

February 2012

Above photo taken from the Silver Moccasin Trail near Little Pines Loop.

May 2012

May 2012

Above photo taken from the Pacific Crest Trail between Islip Saddle and Little Jimmy Campground.

Gallery Update #10: Trails

My 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 added five photos to the Trails gallery.

February 2013

February 2013

Above view from the Tom Sloan Saddle Trail.

November 2012

November 2012

Above view from the Upper San Gabriel Peak Trail.

November 2011

November 2011

Above view from the South Fork Trail.

October 2012

October 2012

Above view from the Silver Moccasin Trail between Three Points and Bandito Campground

November 2012

November 2012

Above view from the Valley Forge Trail.