On our first trip to the Sequoia National Park back in September 2008, we tried to day-hike from Lodgepole to Twin Lakes and back. Whoever's been there knows what a stupid idea that is. Of course we didn't make it, but after we started doing backpacking trips, with varying results, we decided to go back there and spend two nights at the lakes, maybe even go over Siliman Pass to Ranger Lake. However, 2010 was a really high snow year (the last until 2017). In the spring, we reserved a campsite at Lodgepole and a permit for the Twin Lakes trail for the middle of June, but two weeks prior, I read some really scary snow reports, and the ranger told me on the phone that there's 5-6 feet of slush everywhere, and we should seriously think about postponing this trip. I looked around to see what else we could do, and zeroed in on Mount San Jacinto. I heard of it before, but never did any research on how to get to the top, where you can camp, etc.
Turns out there are many routes to the top, but really there are three major options: one via the tram from Palm Springs to Mountian Station, and then a 11-mile round-trip hike to the top. The second is from Idyllwyld, via the Devil's Slide Trail, around 13 miles round-trip with a lot of elevation gain. Eventually we did both of these (see here and here), but we have this natural aversion to everything too touristy (the tram) and too popular (Devil's Slide), so we went for the third route, which is via Fuller Ridge from Black Mountain. From the 243, there's a dirt road that goes up the mountain, dead-ending in a small campground at almost 8,000'. Several descriptions said that the road is in bad condition, but if you drive carefully, you can get almost any car up there. We ended up taking our old Honda DelSol, which has very low clearance.
Now the problem was camping. There are several wilderness campgrounds on the mountain, the most popular being Round Valley, which is close to the tram and it's the only one with a steady water supply year-round. The others can dry out quickly. They are all completely wild places, no facilites of any kind, but camping is permitted in these designated spots only.
From the Black Mountain side, the logical campground for us was Little Round Valley, a 5-mile hike from the Fuller Ridge trailhead and 1.6 miles from the peak. The reservation system for these spots is either through the mail, or in-person in Idyllwyld (or in Long Valley, close to the upper end of the tram). I called the rangers, trying to figure out what to do. There was no time for the mailing procedure, and they said if we show up Saturday morning in Idyllwyl, trying to get a spot in Little Round Valley for the night, there's a very good chance it will be full (as good news, he also confirmed that there will be plenty of water because of the high snow). The only way they can guarantee us a campsite if I drive over there and do the reservation in person. Em had to work, but I could take some free time, so on a late morning (less raffic), I jumped in the little Honda, and went and got the permit. The drive itself is really cool, the 243 up from Cabazon to the mountains is a very scenic road and a lot of fun to drive, especially in a somewhat sporty car.
In Idyllwyld, there are two ranger stations, one for the California State Parks, and one for the National Parks Service. Of course, I got to the wrong place first, the one you need for the permits is the State one, in the campground in the pine forest, not the one on the street. Anyway, I picked up the permit, got some friendly advice from the ranger, then on the way home, stopped at Fulmor Lake for a nice walk and to eat my packed lunch. This is a very neat little lake right next to the 243 - not a destination in itself, but a nice rest spot. You'll need a Forest Adventure Pass or a National Parks yearly pass to park there (I know this is confusing, part of the mountain is the San Bernardino National Forest, but the campgrounds and the peak is on State Park land).
So, instead of going to the Sequioas, we were all ready to go to San Jacinto. This was to be an important trip in several ways, as we finally got a real backcountry tent, a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, and some other lightweight gear we wanted to test. We put up the tent in our neighborhood park, just to see how it works and not to fumble around with it on an actual trip. Also, in fall 2010, I did some work for a knife distributor who launched a new company to sell the creations of a European master knifemaker, and I took the pictures and made the website. As part of the deal, my client put me in touch with the knifemaker, and he made me a special knife, according to my specs, at cost. I wanted something relatively light, but strong, with steel that keeps its edge for a long time and a handle that doesn't come apart easily. We went with stainless Damascus steel and a stag handle. I received the knife only 10 days before this trip, and I couldn't wait to take it into the wild. Em also got a very nice, full-integral knife from my client. The knife was an older, German model, which fit her grip perfectly. As another first, this was to be the maiden wilderness trip of the Canon 20D as the main camera.
The drive from the 243 up to Black Mountain is indeed pretty steep and not in good shape. We took it very slow, and the Honda had no trouble. The road passes several group campgrounds, all of which had a few people each, then comes to the "yellow-post" campground at the very end. There was nobody else there, and it was early, so we pitched the tent, put out the hammock, and wandered around the area. This is a spot where the PCT comes trough — I kept teasing Em that we'll hike our first five miles of the PCT tomorrow, though all of it in the wrong direction.
Somewhat later, two lady PCT-ers showed up, they said they were doing the trail in sections, a few hundred miles each year. They were running low on water, and there was nothing at the campground. However, we prepared for this, and the Honda's trunk had several gallons worth, so we filled them up, and after a nice rest and a chat, they were on their way.
The wind picked up in the evening, and we moved the tent into a much better spot, then spent our first night in the brand-new tent. It's not big, but it was comfortable. There was still nobody else around, and we had a really nice and quiet night.
True to our form, it took us forever to get ready. We got up around 8am, but by the time we hit the trail, it was 11. There was no point in hurrying anyway, we had about 5 miles to go to the campground. First the first 1.5 or two miles, the trail keeps to Fuller Ridge, offering spectacular views of the desert valley, San Gorgonio, and Joshua Tree National Park in the distance. Then the summit of San Jacinto comes into view, along its fabled north face, which I hear is a prime climbing target for ice climbers in the winter.
Here it crosses a small ridge, drops a few hundred feet in elevation and enters the forest on the other side, gently climbing again. We took it very slow, breaking often to catch our breath, eat a snack and take pictures. Around 2:30pm, we came upon a small stream in the forest, and we took a nice, long lunch break, filling our Platypuses (or Platypi, what's the correct plural?) and soaking our feet.
Then we came to the junction, and turned left from the PCT, climbing sharply for about a mile to Little Round Valley. This last part is pretty steep and it took us quite a while. It was past 5pm when we got there. The campground is huge, but it's not a campground in the traditional sense, it's a nive big area in the sparse forest with nice big boulders and spots designated by yellow posts. On the right side of the trail, most of it was under 2-4 feet of snow, but on the other side, being sunnier, it was completely dry. We set up camp here and had a nice chili dinner.
Just after going to sleep, we heard a some poeple trudge into camp and pitch their tents pretty close to us. For how many they were, they were very quiet. Then the night got surprisingly cold, but there was almost no wind, and we were nice and cozy in our synthetic-filled bags. I knew, however, that we'll have to get lighter and better bags than these.
In the morning, we tried to sleep in, but of course that was impossible, as the sun started hitting the tent at 8am. We slowly got up, met the neighbors, a group of one adult and four kids. They apologized for setting up so close, they had a very late start, and then couldn't see too much in the dark. By the way, I'm sure the ranger knew what he was talking about when he said this place can fill up on most weekends, but this time, there was only one more guy (camped pretty far away) besides this group and us.
We had a crazy plan for the evening, so there was nothing for us to do than walk around, pump water, eat lunch, walk around some more, try to take a nap, etc. I got really mad at some idiots who must have camped there earlier: they buried all their trash, mostly chips bags and other junk food wrappers, but of course the squirrels and other animals dug them up and there was a huge area littered with all that. We picked up what we could, but the wind carried most of it in all directions.
Around 4pm, we gathered up quite a lot of gear, including warm clothing and food, and headed for the summit. From Little Round Valley, there's a 1.3 mile climb to the junction where it meets the trail coming from Wellman's Divide, and from there's another third of a mile to the summit. Not much below the actual summit, there's an old moutaineer's hut with emergency supllies and even some old sleeping bags. If you're in trouble, you can spend the night there, but the sign warns that a good tent is almost always warmer than this hut. You can't even make a fire, the fireplace is cemented shut. It's a really cool place, though, worth checking our. The summit register is also here, as opposed to the real summit. We met a couple here, they were pretty weird, they lugged up a huge load of non-lightweight gear and then they said they'll spend the night in the hut. Their equipment reminded me of ourselves only a year earlier, but there was something odd about them, like they didn't belong there. Anyway, they were looking for the turnoff from the main trail towards Little Round Valley, and they couldn't find it. For this, I couldn't blame them, the turnoff was covered in 4-5 feet of snow. We only saw it because we came from that direction. I hiked back with one of them and showed them the way, while Em waited at the hut and had a snack.
From the hut, there's no marked trail to the summit. For the most part, it's a short scramble on some big boulders. If you know your way, you can even get up there without any scrambling, but of course we didn't know, so we did just that. If was fun. We summited at 6pm. John Muir once said "The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!", and I couldn't agree more. The air was pretty clear, though the Los Angeles basin was filled with low clouds. The day before, we caught a glimpse of the ocean, but there was nothing of that now. However, the sky was filled with some lenticular clouds looking like UFOs. After taking the obligatory pictures, including a 360° panorama, we settled down a few feet below the summit in the lee (someone even constucted a little windshade), had dinner and relaxed.
Slowly, it was getting dark around us, but we just waited, according to plan. Of course, it got colder by the minute, and the wind picked up a bit, but for being at almost 11,000', it wasn't even that cold. The sunset was spectacular, and the mountain cast a very impressive penumbra to the east, which along with the lens-clouds looked pretty otherworldly. After night fell, even the light cone of Las Vegas could be faintly seen in the distance. We enjoyed the overall view for quite a while, then around 9:30pm, we started down towards the cmapground. A bit earlier, still by daylight, I scouted a non-scrambling route off the summit, so that's what we used in the dark, then hiked back to Little Round Valley. I really like hiking in the dark, though I haven't done it in a while, and Em likes it a lot, too. We were back at the tent in no time. After another snack and some night pictures, we were soon fast asleep.
Like before, the sun woke us up early, so we dragged ourselved out of the tent and gathered all the gear. By 10am, we were on our way, and it took us over three hours, but we got back to the car around 1:30pm, had lunch, and then drove home. My soles hurt from the crappy hiking boots I had - we bought them a few months before, and I knew they weren't very good. We wanted to the a pair of Treksta Evolution for both of us, but only Em's arrived, the men's version was out of stock as the shoes won some award and were very popular. Anyway, we were OK for now and I knew the next adventure, our bold 25-mile "Mini Trans-Sierra" was just around the corner.
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