Adventure16 3-Peak Challenge
Devils's Backbone Trail on Baldy. Use your mouse to move around.
In 1995, a cool guy named Mark Fulton came up with a crazy idea: hike Southern California's three tallest peaks, the Three Saints (San Antonio - Baldy - , San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto) in 24 hours. The total is around 40 miles with 12,000' of elevation gain.
Since, this event evolved into a yearly challenge open to employees of the outdoor industry, raising money for Big City Mountaineers. You can find more info on the official website: threesaintsoutdoor.com/
A few years ago, our favorite outdoor equipment store, Adventure 16, came up with a civilian version of this challenge: hike the three peaks in several different timeframes while raising some money for charity and earn cool prizes. The timeframes are: three months, three weeks, three days and 24 hours.
It's simple: you sign up at any of the A16 stores by filling out a form and donating a bit of money to Donate-A-Pack. They give you a small A16 flag, and on each summit, you're supposed to take a photo of yourself with it. After completing all three mountains, submit your details and the photos for your certification and prizes. Details on their site here.
We signed up in 2016 and completed the challenge at a leisurely pace of three months. Originally, we planned on three consecutive weekends, but scheduling issues prevented this. It was great fun, though, it was our first time on San Gorgonio, for example. We did that as a two-day backpacking trip and had a great time. San Jacinto we did via the Devil's Slide Trail, a much longer route than the tram's way, just for the heck of it.
When we signed up again in 2017, Em had the great idea to try it this time in three days. It seemed daunting, but hey, why not try?
In July, we did a one-night trip to San Jacinto via Fuller Ridge, one of our favorite routes. Just to make sure, we took summit photos with the A16 flag in order to have a summit bagged as a three-month segment if the three-day itinerary doesn't work out.
With all the other things going on in our life, we almost forgot about this until late in the summer. Come September, we went on a long-shot trip to Mt. Whitney, but soon as we got home, the decision was made to try and get this over with soon. I quickly stared doing research about camping, permits and other logistics issues.
Eventually, we had to push it to the first weekend of October. The idea was to camp two nights around San Gorgonio, and - as a reversal of the usual order - hike San Jacinto first, then San Gorgonio and finish with Baldy.
Camping was an issue, according to the San Bernardino NF website, all their campgrounds were already closed. When I talked to the ranger, he confirmed this, but recommended the "yellow post" campsites in the Coon Creek area. These are free, open all year round, and they shouldn't be very crowded on an October weekend.
As far as the permits go, the good news was San Gorgonio did away with the day-hike quotas, you can fill out the day-hike permit at home and email it to them. Baldy does not need a permit, and San Jacinto is self-service at the kiosk in Long Valley (by the tram).
Day 1 - L.A. to San Jacinto and Coon Creek
This was a Friday, and the first tram up to San Jacinto was leaving only at 10am (weekends they start at 8am). At least we didn't have to wake up that early. We were by 9:30am, ate a sandwich in the parking lot, then put our daypacks on and up we went with the first tram.
The weather was perfect: cool and sunny. After filling out the day-hike permit at Long Valley, off we were on the trail. Only two people were ahead of us.
Mt. San Jacinto. Use your mouse to move around.
We wanted to hurry to get to San Gorgonio by daylight, so we kept good pace, but didn't run or anything like that. We reached the summit at 1:45pm. Four more people were there, one of them just hiked up via the Cactus-to-Clouds Trail. 16 miles and 10,400' of elevation gain, starting in the hot desert. All my respect.
Of course some guys asked what the heck we're doing with those flags, and we explained the whole deal. One of them has never heard of A16 yet, so I guess the advertising effort was worth it.
A dear friend mf mine was nice enough to lend me his panoramic camera, a Ricoh Theta S. I took some picture with it on the summit, then we went down to the mountaineer's hut. Hurry or not, this was a unique opportunity, so I left the camera in the empty hut, then activated the shutter from the outside via WiFi. Worked great.
Interior of the San Jacinto hut. Use your mouse to move around.
Then it was downhill again, back to the tram at a nice clip. Of course, Em was leading, so we made good time, getting back to the tram at 4pm.
The rest of the afternoon was about driving up to San Gorgonio as fast as possible. There was no traffic, and by 5:30, we were on the mountain. The first surprise was that by all appearances, Barton Flats campground was open. Quite a few RVs and even a tent or two could be seen from the road. Well, maybe some people went in there illegally, hoping to get away with it. We didn’t stop, sticking to original plan instead.
The next problem was finding the road to Coon Creek, "named" 1N02. Turned out, the sign to the road has been removed for the season, so we drove past the first time. After a couple of miles, I realized the mistake, turned around, and finally found the road. I looked at Google Street View before and vaguely remembered how it looked, though sans sign this time.
The first half a mile of this road is paved, leading past Hart Bar Campground (really closed), turning into well-graded dirt road, and passing the turnoff to Fish Creek trailhead. By the way, this trail is supposedly one of the best ways to hike San Gorgonio. It’s not the absolute shortest (10.1 miles vs. Vivian’s 9.3), but it has the least elevation gain by far (3,400 vs. 5,500!). However, this time, the trail was still closed because of the Lake Fire.
The yellow post sites start a bit past this turnoff. A few sites right next to the road were taken, but it wasn’t crowded at all. However, we drove on a litte bit further. When scouting the place on Google Maps, I saw what looked like a very nice and secluded site, about a mile and a half from CA38. Like most of the time, we were trying to avoid neighbors. When we came up to this place, it was completely empty.
It was almost dark, but it didn’t bother us much. We set up camp quickly, then warmed up some chili we cooked a day before, and had a delicious dinner.
It was still early, so we prepared everything as best as we could for the next day. Backpacks packed with emergency gear, clothing, food, water. Breakfast prepared and ready to go. We even made hot tea and left it in the Thermos. As soon as we could, we went to bed knowing we got a long day ahead of us.
Yellow post campsite in the Cook Creek area
Day 2 – San Gorgonio
We woke up at 5:30am, and ate a bit of breakfast quickly. We didn’t even have to brew coffee for Em as she just took some hot tea and used that with instant coffee and creamer. Not ideal, but works.
The trailhead we chose was the ever-popular South Fork trail. It's cca. 11 miles one way, longer than Vivian Creek, but with less elevation gain and also way closer to our campsite. We just had to drive back a few miles to Jenks Road and find the parking lot. It was just about to get light when we got there.
Despite all the hurry, we only left at 6:30, when it was almost light. We didn’t even need the headlamps.
First, the trail makes a few turns in the forest, then traverses a hillside covered with manzanita and other brushes, going back into the forest, crossing the Wilderness Boundary.
At around mile 4.2, there’s South Fork Meadows where one can go left (Dry Lake), or right (Dollar Lake). We went right, climbing slowly on the well-graded trail. It was time for a snack break, so we sat down on a comfortable log and ate something. Then it was uphill again, for the next two miles or so before the turnoff to Dollar Lake, then another mile to Dollar Lake Saddle. The summit is another five miles from here, but we knew the hardest part was behind us.
The truly scenic part of the trail begins at this saddle, ascending further, contouring around the mountainside, skirting the tree-line higher up. About 11am, we sat down for a nice and comfortable lunch break. It was a perfect spot in the shade, but also with great views.
Lunch break on way to the summit of San Gorgonio
The last two miles or so before the peak are especially spectacular, following the ridge with relatively little climbing. The view!
We summited at 12:20pm, way sooner than I expected. I was sure we won’t make it before 2pm and expected to hike the last few hours back in the dark (not that this is problem at all).
Quite a few people were already there and many more were arriving, mostly via the Vivian Creek trail. We snapped our summit photos (and explained about A16 and the challenge to some other inquirers), then took a few more pictures with the panoramic camera. However, there was no time to linger, so at 12:45, we were on our way down.
On top of San Gorgonio
Em took the lead, and true to her form, she kept speeding up before finally I had to dampen her a bit as I wanted the both of us to have still functioning knees after this.
With one more snack break, we were back at the trailhead at exactly 4:41pm. Sunset was still over an hour away! I didn’t want to believe it.
Previously, the most miles we ever hiked in a day (cca. 18) were in Yosemite, with heavy packs, but somewhat less elevation gain. This was about 22 miles now, and thank goodness, it didn’t feel like that much. It wasn't like we were dragging ourselves back to the car, barely making it. We actually discussed that if it would be really needed, we could hike another few miles without suffering terribly.
Well, half an hour later, we were back in camp, preparing for the next day and eating dinner. Then again it was to bed early. It looked like we can actually pull this off.
Day 3 – San Gorgonio to Baldy and back to L.A.
I set the clock to 6am, but mistakenly silenced the alarm, so we only woke up at 7. Argh, OK. After getting up, we both realized we almost don't have any muscle or joint pain. I was fully expecting this after 22 miles.
We broke camp quickly and left only 40 minutes after getting up – a record for us slowpokes.
A quick thing about campfires: this whole area was under a fire restriction order. The weather was so dry, warm and windy, a spark could have started a disaster. Signs proclaiming this were all along the road. At the campsites, the fire rings were even taped with orange bands. Despite all this, some oh-so-smart people a few sites down the road were having a huge campfire in the morning. It was obvious that they weren't even cooking or warming by the fire, they just got it going because "well, you have to have a campfire in camp, no matter what".
As soon as we got a phone signal further down, I called the Mill Creek Ranger station and reported those guys. The rangers were very interested and told they're sending someone up there right away. They even called back a few minutes later to clarify some information.
Not much after 9am, we got to Baldy Village, where we had to stop for a mini-herd of deer in the middle of the road. They looked very accustomed to car traffic and took their sweet time to cross.
Being Sunday, I was concerned about parking space by the trailhead. It was very crowded indeed, but I guess because being late in the season, there were still a few spots left.
At 10am, we were off, walking up Mt. Baldy Road towards the Notch. This way is much longer than going up the Baldy Bowl Trail (some call it Ski Hut Trail), but it's way less steep. Like on previous hikes here, we decided to go the Devil's Backbone Trail and come down the Bowl Trail.
Case in point: on our conditioning hike in September, a couple was hiking in front of us, going much faster. A few hundred yards after passing the turnoff to the Bowl trail, they stopped and asked us whether we knew where that trail is. After we told them what to look for, they turned around. We kept going, eventually getting to the top. We left the summit and were about a quarter mile down the Bowl Trail when we met that couple coming up.
Almost the exact same scenario happened this time: two guys started at the trailhead at the same time as us, hiked ahead quicker, then they disappeared from view, obviously going up the Bowl Trail. We kept on the dirt road, going up past the ski lift, eventually arriving at the Notch where the restaurant is.
Then it was steeply uphill again, first on the ski slopes, then on the Devil's Backbone. We really love this place, it's unbelievably scenic, but I understand why it's so dangerous in the winter. The dropoff on either side is hundreds of feet deep. You start sliding down there in icy conditions, there's no chance for survival.
Well, we wouldn't go there if it's icy anyway. This time, it was sunny and bright and unseasonably warm. We took a quick snack break, then pressed on. I kept taking pictures with the panoramic camera to try and give a sense of the place. It doesn't do it justice, though.
Devil's Backbone Trail
On that last, steep part before the summit, Em remarked that this will take her over an hour. However, we summited 30 minutes later, at 1:20pm. At least it wasn't as crowded as last time, when I counted over 100 people on top.
We decided we should find shade for lunch break, so as soon as we took our photos, we quickly moved down the Baldy Bowl Trail. Yep, the two guys who were in front of us came up just as we left the summit.
The summit of Mt. Baldy
About a mile down from the summit, we stopped to eat, sitting in the shade on a huge fallen log. Em kept repeating how she didn't think we'll be able to do this, but now we were almost done and it wasn't even that hard.
All that was left were a few miles of descent. Man, this trail is steep. It's steeper than steep. Em let me lead in order to take it easy on our knees. Still, we made decent time, and by 4pm, we were back by the car.
Thus we completed the Adventure 16 3-Peak Challenge in three days. It was hard, but not as hard as we thought it would be. Also, we got very lucky with all the little details like traffic, weather, camping, etc.
I don't think we'll every try the 24-hour version, but unless something comes up, we might do this again next year.
By the way, I found out that Barton Flats Campground was still officially open. Their website had incorrect information, and - most amazingly - even the ranger gave me wrong info.
Some more pictures in the full gallery.