Friday, June 15, 2012

Hike 2012.034 -- Mountain Station to Skunk Cabbage Junction

Hiked Sunday, June 10. Directions to the trail head were included in my previous hike from Mountain Station.

I just wanted a day spent in the mountains. Also, my desire to "get my money's worth" from my summer seasonal pass for the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway attracted me once more to this island in the sky.

My wife and I made the drive across the desert, and the ride up the tram. Then she spent the afternoon reading and relaxing in and around Mountain Station while I went off to figure out how far I could get out and back in five hours.

The nice thing about this particular island in the sky is that it's a big "island." The flora is not all that different in appearance to what you get as you climb up Ice House Canyon and around either Mt. Baldy or the Three Ts. However, unlike those mountains, which rise steeply and narrowly, and so have only narrow rings of timber (much of which burned or have been killed by disease), the forests around Mt. San Jacinto roll over many a hill. I haven't quantified this, but the forested high country between 7 and 10 thousand feet just feels very broad out here. It has a more Sierra feel, although, even in June, it feels like the Sierra of August. Or maybe a little bit like Nevada's Great Basin National Park, though even drier than that. Still, there are numerous narrow, trickling creeks that meander along meadows or between draws.

Not a whole lot of wildflowers, yet. Either they're still later in the summer or there just aren't going to be very many this year.

From Mountain Station, I wound down the concrete switchbacks that descend the back side of the development and made my way into the woods.

It's about 1/4 of a mile to the west to reach the ranger station where one must acquire a state wilderness permit. They're free, but required if you're going beyond the short nature trails immediately around the tram station.

After chatting with the ranger in there for about five minutes, I settled on Saddle Junction as my destination for the day. I actually wound up turning around 1/2 mile short of Saddle Junction, at Skunk Cabbage Junction. There and back was about 10 miles roundtrip.

The Willow Creek Trail branches off from the "Low Trail" just 1/4 mile or so west of the ranger station. (The Low Trail is the one you'd follow on your way to Mt. San Jacinto). You cross a wooden segment of bridge across tiny Long Valley Creek. From there, it's a brisk 600 foot gain in just a mile or so, until you enter Hidden Divide Natural Preserve. Several sections of exposed granite look like they could have been glaciated (don't know if they were--they just look like it to my untrained eye). Occasional large boulders could also be glacial erratics, though it's also possible they just got eroded off of the towering granite cliffs around you here, and rolled down to they are today.

Just before you enter Hillman Preserve, the High Trail comes in from the right. One could link the High Trail, the Low Trail, and the short mile you just walked on the Willow Creek Trail into a roughly four-mile loop.

From the pass at Hillman Preserve, it's then about a 600 foot descent to a small creek that is not labeled on the map.

Along that segment, you have some wonderful views to the south, looking over granite outcroppings and rolling forests. There's then a slight ascent on your way to the junction with the trail to Laws Camp. The sign pointing down the trail that heads south from here just says "LAWS."

However, continuing east, it's about 1/2 mile to the crossing of Willow Creek, and another mile to yet another trail junction. The sign at this junction says "Skunk Cabbage Junction." It's another half mile straight ahead to Saddle Junction. Alternatively, 6/10ths of a mile south from here would take you into Tahquitz Valley. However, it was now 2:30pm, and I told my wife I'd be back around 5:30pm. Given the amount of altitude I felt like I had given up from Hillman Preserve, I was thinking the return hike might take even longer than the hike out.

I thus spent just five or ten minutes in the midst of Skunk Cabbage meadow. On the day I was there, I didn't see any skunk cabbage. I did see a lot of ferns just starting their growth after the snow melted off them about a month ago.

Turns out the return went faster than I thought it would. I was back at the base of the tram station by about 4:15pm.

I then slowly made my way up the switchbacks. Along the way, squirrels tried to make themselves obvious, hoping to get a handout that many signs along the path said they should not be offered.

Once back in the station, and with no wife in sight, I walked on up to the third level, through the restaurant, and out the door on the west side of the station. From there, I was in the shade, with some benches I could sit in while I called and texted my wife to let her know I was back.

With the text sent, continued up the steps to Grubb's View. This is a bit higher than the view you get from the restaurant, and high enough to provide a nearly unimpeded, 360 degree view of the desert to your east and the high country to your west. Mount San Jacinto rises to the northwest. Divide Peak, topped by tower of granite, is just south of west.

As I made my way around Grubb's View, I read the many little informative signs posted around the perimeter fence. One of the signs claimed that, on a clear day, you could see 170 miles to the northeast, all the way to Mt. Charleston. That's the 10K+ mountain that's a bit northwest of Las Vegas. My last week in Las Vegas (before I moved from there to southern California, back in the summer of 2002), I finally summited that peak. That was a tough one.

Nothing so tough for me today. Just ten miles, maybe 850 feet of gross altitude gain. No idea what Mt. Charleston's supposed to look like from Mountain Station. I saw mountains in the distance, and more mountains beyond that. But the air was not that transparent, and I serious doubt I was seeing even half that distance. I wish they had a shot of Mt. Charleston from there, so I would know if what I saw was Mt. Charleston or not.

While waiting up near Grubb's View, I saw the tram begin it's descent, and fired off several shots down the valley. It really is a steep and impressive escarpment between Mountain Station and Valley Station.

As with my last hike from Mountain Station, the degree of difficulty is mainly a function of altitude. If you handle altitude well, the hike is easy. If not, it'll be a killer. For me, I was feeling less in shape this week than a few weeks ago. I moved slowly, but still enjoyed the work out, Definitely worth a visit.

Shortly after I finished my shots of the tram, my wife popped out towards Grubb's Peak. We caught up for a while, and I spent a few minutes down in the visitor center museum, which has a number of taxidermy examples of local fauna, and an interactive kiosk with information about the area. Then we got on board the next tram and returned back to the Los Angeles area.

The aerial tram provides a quick and easy access to a Sierra-like (or Sierra-light?) experience. Anything from a short, less than 2 mile nature loop to an 11 mile hike to Mt. San Jacinto, or even longer loops and one-way trails through the state park and surrounding national forest lands make this a great (albeit potentially costly) excursion for hikers of any ability, provided you can handle the 8,500 foot altitude at the top of Mountain Station.

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