Thursday, November 13, 2014

Hike 2014.057 -- Wildhorse Creek Trail, San Bernardino National Forest

Hiked Sunday, November 9. My first hike of any significant length (>5 miles) since August 15, it felt good to finally be putting some mileage under my feet. About 10 miles for the day.

The Wildhorse Creek trailhead is off of Highway 38, just a bit west of the turn for Heart Bar Ranch, where you'd go to reach the Aspen Grove trailhead. So, if you're coming up from the Mill Creek entrance to the San Bernardino National Forest, this trailhead will be on the left, during a brief section where there are two lanes heading east. There's a sign on the side of the road.

Actually, on this day, there were a couple of possible pull-out spots near the sign, so I probably did not pick the "official" one. But both are adjacent to themselves, and if you follow either trail up, they soon merge.

Indeed even from where I parked, I could see the dirt road continue a bit further up, with several possible paths. I went on up, reached a fence, then found and passed through a small opening in the fence where the trail began.
There's minimal signage on this trail, and what signs there were were often completely faded or painted over. Still, these indications proved helpful on my return walk, which turned out to be in complete night time conditions.

The beginning section of trail is over a sandy, wash-bottom surface. Most of the trail has a firm surface, however, and it turns out it's surprisingly easy to stay on the trail in limited light (not that I am recommending that).
The mountain crest to your north doesn't look terribly far, but Wildhorse Creek trail takes its time with long, sweeping traverses upward. As you climb, views of the mountains to the South improve. I'm guessing Mount San Gorgonio is the tall one
The trail also heads westward, making its way well above the drainage of Wildhorse Creek. I didn't see or hear any water until I got all the way to the campground, though this is November; not sure how the water flows in the spring.
As you complete your westerly travels, you see the shoulder and top of Sugarloaf Mountain. I was hoping to make that ridge, and, from there, see Big Bear Lake. However, as it turns out, it was a pretty long hike just to get to the junction for the trail to Sugarloaf (and I started late). Besides, after I got home, I learned that there are not very good views towards Big Bear from there, either. The tree cover to the north is too thick.

I reached Wildhorse Camp-ground around 3:45pm. Thinking I would have daylight (or at least twilight) until about 6:15pm, my plan was to try to get as far as I could by 4:15pm. That would have meant a total of just over three hours up, and then just about two hours back. Given the slope, this seemed reasonable.

By 4:15pm, I had barely reached the aforementioned fork in the trail. I did not want to get caught in the dark, so I turned around then. I made it back past Wildhorse Campground quite quickly, then had the slightly incline back to where the ridge opens up from Wildhorse Creek Canyon and begins its switchbacks.

As I did this, I was amazed by what I assumed to be the illusion of the sun setting. I had long lost it behind distant ridges, and now the sky to the west also looked like the sun had set. I figured it must just be be the distant mountains blocking the sun early, because I was sure sunset was still an hour away.

I continued, now heading east, and slowly making my way down. The sky and the ground was getting darker, which still struck me as odd. Even worse, I was wearing my prescription sunglasses; I left my regular glasses in the car, because I wasn't thinking I'd need them on my dayhike.
So now, as it got darker and darker, I had the choice of either a clear but dark view of the trail through my sunglasses, or a fuzzy but slightly brighter view without my sunglasses.

Eventually, it got dark enough that I had no choice; I had to walk without my corrected vision. Still, the trail proved surprisingly easy to follow as the light failed. These last pictures were taken with me still needing about an hour to get back to my car.

Sometime shortly after this, it finally dawned on me that last weekend was the last weekend before the switch to standard time, and I had therefore lost an hour of evening sun. Still, no need to panic; it was dark, but it wasn't going to get dangerously cold, so, if worse came to worst, I could spend the night in the woods. It would be a miserable and cold night, but I wasn't going to freeze to death. No cliffs at this point, either.
I continued on the trail, pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to stay on the trail, and not even tripping over rocks or roots along the way. With increasing frequency as the sky darkened to "true" night, I had to use my cell phone display to check, but still remained on the trail.

Soon enough, the sound of cars on Highway 38 became louder, and their headlights closer. I passed the useless, faded signs that still told me I was successfully retracing my steps.

I was now within 100 yards of the road. Unfortu-nately, here was where the multiple possible paths appeared. Given my proximity to where I knew my car was, but could not see in the dark of night, I reached into my pack, held my car remote in the air, and clicked (didn't care if it was "lock" or "unlock.") I saw a flashing of lights and a tooting of the horn, and tried to make it in that direction. Ran into a berm that seemed unnecessarily steep to try to climb int he dark, so I backed back out, went up-trail a bit, then tried again. The third time, I finally went back far enough to catch the "true" trail. I found the opening in the fence I had passed through at the start of my hike. Now only about 30 yards from my car, but still couldn't see it. One last click of the remote, and I was there. It was 6:15pm, about 80 minutes after sunset.

Admired the sky for a few seconds. Got my regular prescription glasses out of the car, looked up, and clearly made out the autumn Milky Way, from Cassiopeia, through Perseus, Pegasus, Cygnus, and on off into the west. Yeah, it was dark by the time I got back. Still felt great with the bit of exercise under my belt. May try to get an earlier start next week and go all the way to Sugarloaf Mountain.


  1. Enjoyed the write up. So is there water at the campground then? How much?

  2. Yep, the spring trickled from well above to at least a bit below the campground. You'll probably wind up wanting to catch the water in a bottle or bucket, then purify it from there.

  3. I was planning to do this hike soon. How long from the parking do you get to the campsite? Do maybe people backpack to the camp site?

  4. Keep in mind it's been almost three years. At the time, I would have been in pretty good hiking shape, but the trail had a good climb, so I would figure I'd averaged at least two miles per hour, even going uphill. Sounds to be about five miles up, as I walked about 2 1/2 hours with just a daypack (but I do stop to take a lot of pictures). Definitely a backpack, not just a walk, if you're bringing a sleeping bag and tent.