Snow and trail update 4th March 2019

[UPDATE 8th March 2019: a minor snowfall overnight produced barely one inch in Idyllwild, and only a couple of inches up to about 9000′, with the upper mountain above the cloud. Very cold temperatures are forecast for the next five days, with potential for significant new snowfall on Monday at all elevations.]

[UPDATE 7th March 2019: yesterday Idyllwild received an additional 0.69″ of rainfall. There was a very light dusting of snow in the mid elevations (the upper mountain was above the cloud). Highway 243 remains closed to traffic either side of the Black Mountain Road, but on my hike today I found that both the highway and lower BMR are now clear of snow, so this is now an option for PCT hikers wishing to avoid Fuller Ridge.]

Today I ascended San Jacinto Peak up Devil’s Slide Trail, a short section of the PCT, then via Wellman Divide. I descended through Little Round Valley, the PCT/Deer Springs Trail southbound from the south end of Fuller Ridge to Strawberry Junction, and then descended lower Deer Springs Trail. Other than my own from last week, there were no tracks anywhere above 8100′, and none anywhere on the PCT north of Saddle Junction. Yesterday we ran the Pacific Crest Trail just south of Highway 74, to assess trail conditions at lower elevation. I recorded the following video at San Jacinto Peak at about 1030 this morning.

Snow conditions have changed dramatically compared to last week. Two days ago it rained most of the day, with a total of 1.56″ in Idyllwild at 5550′. Despite forecasts for light snow at higher elevations, I discovered today that it rained all the way to San Jacinto Peak, for at least the third time this winter. This helped consolidate snow at all elevations, augmented melting, and glazed the upper elevations with a crust of freezing rain.

As a consequence of the firm icy snow, in the early morning I was able to ascend to 9700′ with just microspikes, before changing to crampons for the final climb to the Peak. Crampons were also essential for the direct descent to Little Round Valley. By late morning, the snow was becoming soft, and at the Deer Springs-Fuller Ridge trail junction, I had to put on snowshoes to minimize postholing.

Carrying snowshoes (with poles), crampons (with ice axe), and microspikes, is the unfortunate but ideal combination at present, such is the variability of snow conditions due to altitude, aspect, and time of day.

Mild weather (and rainfall) led to significant melting in the previous few days, mainly below 9000′. Lower elevations that received the most rain lost a great deal of snow in just a few days (12″ at Saddle Junction, 15+” at Humber Park, c.20″ in Idyllwild). Conversely, the highest elevations experienced minimal melting, despite relatively mild temperatures. Snow depth measurements are listed near the foot of this posting.

My ice axe at the location of the sign (buried in the snow) for the southern end of Fuller Ridge “trail”, today 4th March 2019.

WEATHER Unsettled and uncertain are the best words to describe the weather for the San Jacintos over the next ten days. After another warm day tomorrow, temperatures will fall below average, and remain there for about a week. At mid-elevations, precipitation is possible on several days between 6th-12th March, but whether it falls as rain or light snow depends on the day and altitude. Above about 9000′ should be above the rainfall, but may also be largely above the cloud, and fresh snowfall is forecast to be little more than an inch or two for the high country all week.

At San Jacinto Peak today, Monday 4th March 2019, at 1025 the air temperature was 34°F (1°C), with a windchill temperature of 17°F (-8°C), 18% relative humidity, and a biting 24 mph WNW wind gusting to 33 mph.

At the Peak on Monday 25th February 2019, at 1145 the air temperature was 27°F (-3°C), with a windchill temperature of 12.5°F (-11°C), 57% relative humidity, and a fresh 7 mph NW wind gusting to 15 mph.

From the very top of the Snow Creek drainage, 4th March 2019. San Jacinto Peak summit to the left, San Gorgonio in the distance to the right.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

All trails above about 7500′ remain completely snow-covered, despite rapid melting in the past few days. Details for specific trails are below.

Hikers should be prepared for temperatures at or below freezing in the high country, and well below freezing above 10,000′ (especially when considering windchill effects).

Snowshoes are strongly recommended on all trails and off-trail areas above about 8000′, especially after mid-morning on warm days. Microspikes are currently useful mainly in the colder early mornings on well consolidated trails (e.g. Devil’s Slide, lower Deer Springs). Crampons with an ice axe (and knowledge of how to use both) are becoming increasingly useful at higher elevations and on moderate angle slopes (e.g. Fuller Ridge, Tahquitz Peak) as the snow consolidates with freeze-thaw cycles, at least in the morning, or all day in colder temperatures.

Waterproof footwear is strongly recommended on the approach trails (e.g., Devil’s Slide, lower Deer Springs) due to multiple stream crossings and considerable water flowing in the trails. It is also advisable currently due to the slushy quality of the snow, especially after mid-morning.

Routefinding remains very challenging for those not familiar with the area. Almost all signage above about 8500′ is snow-covered. Many PCT marker posts are also completely obscured. Very few trails have been broken whatsoever, and my tracks from today will be obscured quickly due to melting of surface snow and forecast light snwfall. Much of the PCT through the San Jacinto mountains high country has hardly been traversed for weeks (or in the case of Fuller Ridge, not at all since November).

Devil’s Slide Trail is about 90% snow-covered to 7500′, then completely under snow thereafter. The trail has been heavily traveled, is obvious, and microspikes are ideal for the consolidated icy snow.

Deer Springs Trail has patchy snow up to the Suicide Rock trail junction (6900′). From there to Strawberry Junction (8100′) there is about 90% soft snow cover, with many hazardous sections of water flowing under or on the trail route.

Tahquitz Peak trail from Chinquapin Flat is extremely treacherous. There is no evidence of it having been traversed since early February, so there is not even a hint of “trail” to follow whatsoever. Crampons in conjunction with an ice axe, and excellent knowledge of how to use both, are critical.

Ernie Maxwell Trail [updated 6th March] has about 10% snow cover (1-2″ deep) for most of its length, increasing to about 40% near Humber Park. Microspikes are useful in the early morning in the upper half of the trail, and on colder frozen days, but are generally not essential later in the day.

South Ridge Road [updated 5th March] is largely clear of snow, but is impassable near the trailhead due to severe road damage. South Ridge Trail is essentially continuously snow-covered (about 90% below 7000′), ranging from a few inches deep below Old Lookout Flat, to 1-3 feet deep above it. Crampons are very useful on the final approach to Tahquitz Peak (above about 8500′) where there is no trail as such and the entire peak is a largely featureless, consolidated snow dome.

Snow depths measured today are as follows. Measurements noted from 1st March will have dropped slightly due to melting, but likely only by a few inches, and mainly at the lower elevations. Only average depth is given, due to the complexity of past storms. Strong winds have led to major drifting; drifts can be much greater than the average depth, especially at the exposed peaks. Altitudes are approximate.

San Jacinto Peak (10,810′): 55″ [60″ on 25th February]

Little Round Valley (9800′): 48″

Wellman Divide (9700′): 40″ [45″ on 25th February]

Annie’s Junction (PCT at State Park boundary north of Saddle Junction) (9050′): 29″ [40″ on 25th February]

PCT at south end of Fuller Ridge Trail (8950′): 35″

Tahquitz Peak (8836′): 36″ measured on 1st March, with massive drifting ranging from 0″ to seven feet.

Marion Mountain Trail junction with PCT/Deer Springs Trail (8800′): 28″

Strawberry Junction (8100′): 16″

Saddle Junction (8100′): 23″ [35″ on 25th February]

Old Lookout Flat on South Ridge Trail (7800′): 14″ measured on 1st March, very heavily drifted

Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6500′): 3″ but patchy [18″ on 25th February]

South Ridge Road junction with South Ridge Trail (6500′): 4″ measured on 1st March

PCT at crossing of Highway 74 (4700′): 0″ [2″ on 27th February]

Nature note Spring is in the air! I had my first returning spring migrant bird today, with several Violet-green Swallows flying around over Saddle Junction and Angel’s Glide (8100-8500′). Early March is when I typically record the first swallows up here.

Annie’s Junction (9070′), the high point of the PCT in the San Jacinto mountains, (above) today 4th March, (below) one week earlier on 25th February.

Access closures The Valentine’s Day floods continue to make access to the San Jacinto mountains challenging. Palm Springs Aerial Tramway remains closed until approximately 1st April. Highway 243 between Banning and Idyllwild is closed from north of Bay Tree Spring to just north of Alandale until at least April. Highway 74 between Mountain Center and Valle Vista (Hemet) is closed until sometime in March or April. The status of some of the trailhead access roads was updated in an earlier posting linked here. Many minor roads around Idyllwild-Pine Cove remain partly closed or damaged. Apple Canyon Road (access for the Spitler Peak trailhead) is still flooded and completely closed.

The older of the two pit toilets in Little Round Valley, 4th March 2019. Currently somewhat challenging to access.

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