Friday, July 9, 2010

Surviving Mt. San Jacinto

OK, nothing quite so dramatic. However, I did manage to conquer this peak on the same day (Weds, July 7) and time the earth was shaking. I didn't feel anything, but I was walking. People who were sitting reported a pretty strong swaying.

On Wednesday, July 7, I hiked from the Marion Mountain Trailhead to the top of Mount San Jacinto. The trailhead sign indicates it's 5.25 miles each way. Despite the relatively short distance, it took me all day. Well, not ALL day, but a really long day. I left the car at 10:30am and did not get back until almost 8:30pm. That's almost ten hours of really slow walking, lots of picture taking, and about 20 minutes of recuperation at the summit. It was nearly six hours up and over three hours back. Whew!

Let's start at the beginning: I took I-10 east. I exited in Banning. The 8th Street exit is also CA-243. After a few miles and a couple of turns, the highway heads steeply into the San Bernardino National Forest. I'm not sure what the speed limit is, but I was comfortable going 45mph, and didn't get passed by anyone, nor catch up to anyone.

Because the San Bernardino NF website was down the previous weekend, I wasn't able to confirm where I could pick up a wilderness permit. The only places I knew for sure were way down near Idylwild. The CA state park HQ for Mt. San Jacinto is at the north end of town, on your right as you enter town. I filled out a form and chatted with a ranger, who confirmed the directions to the Marion Mountain Trailhead. To get there, I headed back north on CA-243 just about five miles from the park HQ. There, I turned right at the sign that indicated the direction to four different campgrounds (on the other side of the street was a small development, and just beyond that, the Allendale USFS fire station).

After about .25 mile, a sign indicated I needed to take a left to the Marion Mt. camp-ground. After following signs indicating several more turns, I came to an area with a small clearing and parking lot on the left side of the road, and a sign for the Marion Mt. Trailhead on the right side of the road. I hung my adventure pass on my rearview mirror and headed out.

The rough topographic map I picked up at the park HQ places the Marion Mt Trailhead at about 6,300 ft. (I didn't check this until several days after I got back home--I had assumed I was starting out close to 7,000 feet). I did know that Mt. San Jacinto was somewhat over 10,000 feet tall (10,834, according to the sign at the top). So I figured I had about a 3,500 foot gain to surmount. Turns out it was actually a 4,534 net gain. Dang. No wonder it took me so long! :D

The one thing I did do right was I brought more liquids to drink than I had in my past few hikes. I carried two 1-quart bottles of Powerade from home. I intended to toss a few .5 liter bottles of water, but I forgot to get those from the case in the garage before I left. Instead, I bought a one-liter bottle of water from a small convenience store between Idylwild and the trailhead. That's just over 3/4 a gallon of drinkables in my pack. Turned out I drank it all, too.

This, despite the fact that it wasn't all that hot, and the trail is at least partially shaded nearly the whole way. It's quite different from going up Baldy, where most of the hike was open to direct sunlight. Here, you have some oak at lower elevations, and conifers the rest of the way up. In most areas, the conifers (I read they're sugar pines at lower altitudes, and limber pine higher up) are in thick, healthy stands. At lower altitudes, however, they're either doing some serious thinning or dealing with some fire and disease issues, because there were many downed trees and a few places where logs were stacked and waiting to be carried out.

It was also a lot wetter up here. There were only a few small patches of snow remaining on the ground, but small rivulets of water crossed the trail at several points. It was definitely very Sierra-like in that respect.

Wildflowers were blooming all over. Some were familiar, like the one I think is a Humboldt lily. Indian Pink and Indian paintbrush were also common, as were several that were either new to me or unknown to me. The one I keep thinking is a wild sweetpea was also common.

The Marion Mountain trail does a LOT of climbing. One of the few areas where you're not climbing is when the trail runs just above and to the south of the Marion Mt campground. Turns out that if you were to start your hike from the campground, you could knock off about 2/5 of a mile. Oh, well.

At about 1.3 miles from the trailhead, there's a sign indicating you are entering Mt. San Jacinto State Park (the trail started in the San Bernardino National Forest--A wilderness permit from either the state park or national forest authorities will let you legally pass hike through both areas, but if you plan to camp, you need a state camping permit to camp in the park). The sign informs you of the need for a wilderness permit, and the possibility of being turned around or fined or both if you continue without a permit. No dogs are allowed in the state wilderness, either.

At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the Deer Springs trail comes in from your right. If you were on a through-hike along the PCT, this would be a spot where you could walk right into "civilization," as an 8.5 mile detour along the Deer Springs trail would bring you to CA-243 just 1/2 north of Idylwild). Instead, I continued straight ahead, which meant now I was on the PCT.

However, very much unlike my last few PCT segments, this one had NO indication that I was on it. Either through neglect or vandalism, every single little shield that would demarcate the Pacific Crest Trail was missing. Very odd.

About fifty yards past the Deer Springs/PCT junction with the Marion Mt. Trail, the Seven Pines trail spun off off the left. Less than 1/2 mile later, the PCT/Fuller Ridge Trail pealed off to the left, as well. I continued going straight, continuing on the Deer Springs trail, towards San Jacinto Peak. Sadly, distance remaining to Mt. San Jacinto as indicated on the trail signs was shrinking very, very slowly. Indeed, it was around here that I realized that I was only making about one mile per hour.

One mile after the Fuller Ridge/Deer Springs split, I arrived at Little Round Valley. A small creek cut through a pretty meadow of green. A couple of unsigned trails cut off from the main trail in this area. I assume they went to likely campsites. One trail headed to a pit toilet. Another had a signed indicating a seasonal ranger station was off to the left. Sadly, the next sign I saw told me this was Little Round Valley, elev. 9,700 feet, and that the remaining distance to San Jacinto was 1.6 miles!

This part of the trail was relatively level, but I was soon climbing, once again.

After another 1/2 hour, I could see blue sky above the ridgeline I was heading for, indicating I was appraoching a saddle. Once there, a cluster of signs pointed me the remaining .3 miles to the summit, as well as distances to a number of other destinations, including 4.8 miles to the tram station (that comes out of Palm Springs, on the other side of the mountain from where I began). I gave some thought last week to taking the tram up and hiking Mt. San Jacinto from that end. But that would have been as a "short" (actually, just about as long, but much flatter) way to get to the top, as a detour on the way to a night of dark-sky observing east of Indio. By this week, my cheaper side convinced me of the merits of hiking from Marion Mt. trail and saving the $23+ tram fee for gasoline.

The last .3 miles is about 2/3 off-trail, with simple boulder hopping up numerous, equally easy routes to the top.

At the top, there's a number of USGS surveyor marks. Also, someone rigged a small American flag.

I relaxed up there for a while, drank some, then decided I had better start down. Not far from the top, I tweaked my left knee a bit. I took it easy on the left knee for a while, which meant trying to walk down hill without letting that knee bear much of a load. Yes, it slowed me down some. But I still thought I could get down in about 2 1/2 hours. Instead, it took just over 3 hours. Since I got to the top just around 5pm, that meant the previously-mentioned return time of about 8:15pm at the trailhead.

One nice side effect of the late return is you get some magical light as the sun's rays get longer. It's a wonderfully warm tint of alpenglow, the same as you get the in the Sierra Nevada. I took advantage of that for some nifty flower shots as I neared the end of my journey.

I hadn't really timed it on the way in, but I did notice it took me just about 45 minutes to get from the trailhead back to Banning. I drove a little slower going home in the dark than I had in the late morning light of my arrival, but that means it's still 30-40 minutes from there.

Ate dinner in Banning at a burger place, then hopped back on the I-10. Home is about 90 minutes west of Banning. Construction delays meant I didn't get home until nearly 11pm, about 13 hours after I pulled out of my driveway that morning.

I'll post some pictures later tonight.


  1. Awesome! Glad that snow is finally melting. Nice shot of the Columbine...

  2. Mark! You've got computer access!

    I've been enjoying the occasional update that either you or your brother get written up regarding your PCT trek, although I expect access is pretty spotty. Keep up the good work!

  3. I think our San Jacinto hike took even more time than yours... it felt so much longer than 10.5 miles!

  4. It absolutely did! That's why, I'm a little skeptical of my being able to hike Gorgonio in a day. It isn't that long of a distance (shorter than Mt. Wilson), but it is at high altitude. I've never tried to get a super-early start on those long hikes like you have, but even if I had the time, would I have the energy to finish the hike? Don't know. It's a moot point until next summer, though!