Cranston Fire: trail update

The following is a review of the status of access and trail conditions in the San Jacinto mountains high country following the Cranston Fire. Following a review of the current state of access, there is a trail-by-trail breakdown of the fire’s impacts. The latter section is likely of interest mainly to local and hardcore hikers very familiar with the trail system. The trail details could not have been completed without information and photos from a completely reliable (anonymous) source on the ground.

Access overview: Forest Service lands

All trails in the USFS San Jacinto Ranger District remain closed. The U.S. Forest Service issued an official forest closure order on the evening of 27th July, details of which are available at this link. This measure initially closes the entire San Jacinto Ranger District trail system until 31st August 2018.

Good news however. USFS informed me yesterday that because most trails received little or no damage from the fire (as discussed in detail below), a new forest closure order has already been drafted and is in the review process (i.e. head office and legal team). We should hear about this revised order as soon as Friday, 3rd August. It is therefore likely that many trails in the forest will reopen sooner than initially feared.

More good news. Black Mountain fire lookout reopened 1st August. Access will initially be for fire lookout volunteers only. However it is further evidence that the trail and access conditions are returning to normal rather quickly.

Access overview: Mount San Jacinto State Park

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway reopened 30th July, along with the Desert View and Nature trails in Long Valley. A message on the homepage of the State Park website (linked here) indicates that the Idyllwild and Stone Creek developed campgrounds reopened today, 31st July. All other State Park camping and trails in the wilderness remain closed.

Pacific Crest Trail Fears that the PCT on the Desert Divide would once again be badly damaged (as it was in the Mountain Fire) were thankfully not realised. The Cranston Fire burned up the ridges from May Valley to the western and north-west flanks of Antsell Rock, and to the peaks of South Peak and Red Tahquitz. This section of the PCT remained closed from the 2013 Mountain Fire, but rehabilitation work had just been completed and the PCT was likely to reopen later this year. Fortunately, the Cranston Fire could not burn over to the east side of the Desert Divide due to the lack of fuels. In this area, the PCT largely runs along the eastern flank of the Desert Divide. Only at the saddle between Red Tahquitz and South Peak did the Cranston Fire reach the PCT, but in this relatively rocky area there was no significant damage to the trail.

Although the Cranston Fire did burn a short way north between Red Tahquitz and Grey Tahquitz (Peak 8792), it did not reach the PCT here. The fire did however reach north to the PCT at Chinquapin Flat, having burned completely around Anabel Peak (Peak 8860), the high point of the ridge just east of Tahquitz Peak proper. The fire jumped the PCT by only a few yards just downslope from the sign at Chinquapin Flat.

In summary, the PCT is virtually unchanged from its post-Mountain Fire status. Hopefully plans to reopen this section soon will be unaffected. This will be especially important given that the PCT Alternate through Hurkey Creek campground and May Valley has been completely destroyed by the Cranston Fire.

The PCT at Chinquapin Flat looking towards Tahquitz Peak, July 2018.
View from Red Tahquitz looking WSW (Tahquitz Peak on far right), July 2018

Fobes Trail The Cranston Fire did not reach this far south in Garner Valley. However the Fobes Ranch Road area remains closed until further notice.

Spitler Peak Trail Although there were some spot fires ahead of the main fire front in the semi-desert area south of Apple Canyon Road, the Spitler Peak Trail itself was apparently unaffected. However, it may be some time before Apple Canyon Road – the access for the Spitler Peak trailhead – is open to non-residents. [I don’t have reliable information on the status of the informal Zen Center Trail at this time.]

South Ridge Trail This is the higher elevation (>6000′) trail most impacted by the Cranston Fire. Most of the trail was not directly burned, but many areas were heavily covered with phos-chek retardant. Between Chinquapin Flat and Tahquitz Peak, some vegetation burned right around Tahquitz Peak. [Unless you have been slavishly following highly irresponsible individuals online or by email, you know by now that the Tahquitz Peak fire lookout did NOT burn down.]

South from Tahquitz Peak to Old Lookout Flat, the trail is well below the ridgeline on the western flank. As the fire was held at or near the ridgeline in most places, this section of trail is unaffected. From Old Lookout Flat south to the trailhead at the top of South Ridge Road, the trail was heavily hit with phos-chek retardant. In addition, the fire broke through in a few minor spots here. While the surrounding vegetation is burned, the fire was not notably hot through these areas and the trail itself is undamaged.

Phos-chek retardant on the Tahquitz Peak to Chinquapin Flat trail, 26 July 2018.

South Ridge Trail (from South Ridge Road to May Valley Road) This multi-use trail, a popular mountain bike trail, was completely burned over.

May Valley Road (and adjacent bike trails) This dirt road very popular with locals for biking, hiking, running, and dog walking, was completely burned over from its crest just beyond Cowbell Alley all the way down to its junction with Bonita Vista Road.

All other high country trails were not directly affected by the Cranston Fire. This includes all the trails around the Tahquitz area meadows, Devils Slide, Ernie Maxwell Trail, Willow Creek Trail, Ramona Trail, etc. It is however amazing (and frankly disconcerting) to see black ash flakes throughout all the trails of the mountain, even all the way to San Jacinto Peak. That there were not more spot fires scattered around the high country is very fortunate. It is to be hoped that all these other trails can be reopened promptly once all necessary fire suppression activities have been completed.

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