Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hike 2012.022 -- San Gabriel Canyon to Smith Saddle and North to Jeep Trail

Hiked Sunday, April 8.

Initially planned on hiking to Smith Mountain. But when I got to the saddle, Smith Mountain looked too steep and far to do in the time allotted. Turns out the thing I actually did was longer and had more vertical gain.

From the Foothill Freeway (I-210), exit north on Azusa, drive through old downtown Azusa, pass some residential areas, and about 15 miles to mike marker 32 on Azusa Canyon Road. There's a "30 mph Zone Ahead" sign just before this parking area, and there's a portapotty and informational bulletin board here.

The drive to the trailhead, which I arrived at around 10am, was somewhat slow. The number of cars parked along the road, especially at the San Gabriel River's West Fork confluence with the North Fork, was already looking ridiculous. Folks were wheeling their ice chests and assorted other picnic supplies towards the West Fork road (closed to traffic, but open to bikes, horses, hikers, and picnicers with their rolling ice chests), where they would presumably continue east to find a picturesque spot, and eat. A disappointingly large proportion of these picnicers seem unable to cary out what they bring in, however. The West Fork after a warm weekend is really a sad sight.

Fortunately, once I got a mile or so past the West Fork, the cars thinnned out, and soon it was just me. The trailhead lot was empty. Oh, sure, I could still hear the rumble of motorcycles and tweaker econo-boxes, but the density was pleasantly low.

So I began my hike.

The sign at the trailhead says its 3 miles to the San Gabriel Wilderness boundary, which is at Smith Saddle.

This trail begins by heading more or less southerly, gaining altitude as it works its way along the canyon wall. Eventually, the trail curves west, into a canyon (Lost Canyon) and runs along the perimeter of several side canyons as it makes its leisurely trip towards Smith Saddle.

Views of Smith Mountain greet you almost as soon as you start your hike, and you can see the saddle for most of the way towards that target. Smith Mountain and Saddle both appear deceptively close, because your round-about route adds substantially to the line-of-sight distance. By line of sight, it's probably only a bit over a mile from the first trail view. To keep your distance travelled in perspective, there are stakes at one mile intervals to measure your progress.

The views looking back at where you came are as pretty as the ones looking forward. Looking down Lost Canyon, or the San Gabriel River Canyon, or across and beyond the San Gabriel River Canyon towards Mt. Baldy, or up the Canyon are all pretty views.

During one of my looks back, across Lost Canyon, I saw a couple of fellow hikers, probably a mile behind me. Don't know when they started walking, but obviously it was some time after me.

I also came across a small patch of desert poppies. They're like California poppies, only more yellow. They were an unexpectedly large splash of yellow on the hillside near the trail. Just before the patch, I saw a single poppy, and thought it looked lonely. Didn't realize he had friends right down the trail.

Despite the 3 mile indication to the San Gabriel Wilderness that is posted at the start of the trail, it seems somewhat less than one mile after you pass the 2 mile marker that you reach Smith Saddle. There's a place to tie up your horse, if you had one.

The remains of an old fire break run both north and south from here. South (left) would take you up Smith Mountain. North (right) heads up the opposing slope. Incidentally, continuing straight would drop you into Bear Creek canyon. There's a trail that continues along Bear Creek all the way to the West Fork of the San Gabriel River. It is clearly possible, since, just before I reached the saddle, I ran into two hikers heading the other way. They had started the previous day from the West Fork Trail head.

However, my own effort (once from the north and once from the south) to link the two ends of Bear Creek's trail were unsuccessful; I lost the trail both times, probably half a mile before they should have met. Indeed, the hikers I chatted with here told me that following the trail was difficult, and it required multiple stream crossings. I didn't ask, but I suspect not all of those stream crossings end with your feet dry, even with the water level low.

In any event, back to our saddle. The trail towards Smith Mountain looked uncomfortably steep and far given the time I had to hike on Sunday. So I foolishly decided to see where the firebreak heading north would take me.

Well, it's not *really* foolish to explore like this. It was only in retrospect that I determined that hiking to Smith Mountain would probably have been quicker and easier than the route I took.

How do I know going the other way would have been quicker? More about that, later.

In the meantime, I started heading north. In some places, the way was level, but most of the way was very steep, up a slope that had very little traction. I'm figuring it took me at least half an hour to make it up to the final ridge level.

Once there, I encountered a weather station and a jeep trail.

Yeah, it turns out the ridge jeep trail would run pretty much due north, hitting the CA-39 just over a mile away. It appeared this would be right after the turn towards Crystal Lake, so I'm pretty sure I've even parked my car at what would be the other end of this jeep trail. It was obviously double track, so this trail gets at least some use by the folks maintaining the weather station.

More nice views from up here. The high, rocky, and steep walls that surround Crystal Lake were to my north. Twin Peaks was to the west, and the San Gabriel Canyon and opposing mountains were on the east. To the south was still Smith Mountain, though it seemed clear to me I was now higher than Smith Mountain.

I turned around and headed back towards the saddle. Seemed to take at least 20 minutes to get back, so I'm figuring on about 3/4 of a mile up this steep fire break.

Just before I got back to the saddle, I heard the voices of several hikers, and saw them, just below. I assumed they saw me, but apparently not. Once back on the trail back towards my car, I caught up to the two hikers within about five minutes. They were moving pretty quick, but not quite as quickly as me (because I was running late and needed to get back to town, stop at a grocery store, buy some food, and cook a dish for a family gathering later that afternoon).

Judging by the yellowish brown, broad-brimmed hat the taller of the two women was wearing, I'm pretty sure these were the same two hikers I saw about a mile behind me on my way up to Smith Saddle. Depending on how much resting they took on the way up, they probably got to Smith Saddle between 15 and 30 minutes after me. (I did not see anyone reach Smith Saddle as I made my way up the other way, although obviously I was spending more time facing away from the saddle than towards it--but I still spent a fair amount of time huffing and puffing and resting and looking back as I climbed).

Despite my head start, they got back to the saddle about 5 minutes before I did. So I conclude that I could have gotten to the top of Smith Mountain and back faster than I got to the ridge top I selected and back.

Hiked briskly back down the trail, passing one additional hiker as I did. That made exactly five hikers I crossed paths with during my 4+ hours on the trail. Also ran into about a half-dozen more at the trailhead. There were a number of other cars at the trailhead, so I don't know when they got there or where they went, but they did not cross my path.

As I neared the highway, I looked down the canyon and saw several patches of purple. The mountain lilac trees are in full bloom.

I'm estimating I'd estimate at least 7 miles for the day, which wasn't bad.


  1. I've not hiked the north route from the saddle. The climb to Smith Mountain is steep but quite doable if you just take one step at a time. The peak is worth bagging. You're wise doing this hike in the's not a summer hike.

  2. Thanks for the confirmation, Dan. I kinda want to head up Mt. Wilson soon, too, but that can wait until later in the year. If the weather cooperates, I'll probably try it this weekend.

  3. Looks like it was an awesome hike.

  4. It was a nice hike. I pretty much took the same hike today (Sunday, April 15). Haven't written the post, yet. The big change from last Sunday was that there was a lot more snow in the mountains to the north today. We got a little bit of snow on Wednesday, then more overnight Friday. It was pretty cool on Saturday, so a lot of the snow is still there, at least above 6,000 feet or so.

    Hope to get this post written up by Tuesday.

  5. Found your write up as I was searching for info on the firebreak north of Smith Mtn. Did the hike yesterday, 2/13/20 as a loop from Bear Creek trailhead up the firebreak heading north towards Hwy 39, (closed section) and hiking back down 39 to Bear Creek trailhead. Turned out 12.5 miles in 5.5 hrs.

  6. I've heard it referred to as Firebreak 5478. Possible 5,478', as it is higher then Smith at 5,111'

  7. Nice hike you did there. Thanks for the comment. It's often only when I see a comment that I go back and read an old hike. This one was a while ago. I had forgotten about that adventure!