Snow storm and trail update 22nd March 2019

[UPDATE 24th March 2019: Whitewater Preserve (PCT Mile 218.5) issued this statement today. “It is with heavy hearts that we have decided that due to the severe damage to Whitewater Canyons roads and trails that Whitewater Preserve will not be able to accommodate day use or overnight PCT hikers this year. There would be no phones available (landline or otherwise), no restrooms, no wifi, and no road access to be picked up or dropped off. Also as of right now the trail from the PCT to Whitewater is non-existent and requires a wide water crossing with quickly flowing water.”]

Today (22nd March) I hiked to San Jacinto Peak from Devil’s Slide Trail via Wellman Divide, descending the same way. On 21st we hiked the Spitler Peak Trail to the PCT between Apache and Spitler peaks, and on 20th to Tahquitz Peak via South Ridge. I recorded the following video at San Jacinto Peak at about 1230 today.

Detailed trail conditions are below and measured snow depths are at the foot of this posting.

In classic San Jacinto mountains style, the snow conditions today were very different from just four days ago. We had a couple of inches of fresh snow overnight on 20th, and slightly more during the day on 21st. As the underlying snow was very icy due to recent cold days, the new snow created a challenging loose powder layer that was giving way on even moderate slopes. Above 8000′ I used snowshoes to break trail but with considerable slippage. Crampons would be a good option, but with heavy postholing in unbroken areas. Microspikes were useful below 8000′.

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.

Current road and trailhead access issues have changed and are discussed at the bottom of this post.

Spitler Peak in the cloud, 21st March 2019.

WEATHER Temperatures will be at or above average for the remainder of March, with extensive snow melt at all elevations, especially below 8000′. There is no notable precipitation in the forecast.

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810’/3295m) today, Friday 22nd March 2019, at 1230 the air temperature was 29°F (-2°C), with a windchill temperature of 16.3°F (-9°C), 29% relative humidity, and a light 7 mph NW wind gusting to 11 mph.

At the Peak on Monday 18th March 2019, at 0935 the air temperature was 30°F (-1°C), with a windchill temperature of 17.1°F (-8°C), 44% relative humidity, and a light 9 mph SSE wind gusting to 12.2 mph.

Tahquitz Ridge as seen from the PCT, 22nd March 2019.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

All trails above about 6500′ were snow-covered today. As I descended today, very rapid melting was already underway below 7500′. This will continue for the foreseeable future, so trail conditions will once again change rapidly. Details for specific routes are below.

Despite warmer weather overall, hikers should nevertheless be prepared for temperatures at or below freezing in the high country (and colder when considering windchill effects).

Microspikes are recommended everywhere especially once trails have been broken and become consolidated, in particular for descending. Crampons with an ice axe (and knowledge of how to use both) are currently useful in many areas above 8000′, and they are strongly recommended for moderate angle slopes (PCT Miles 169-174, Fuller Ridge, Tahquitz Peak) at least until underlying snow conditions soften over the next few days. Snowshoes are recommended off-trail above about 7800′, for breaking trail everywhere at present, and may also be useful on-trail in soft afternoon snow on warmer days.

Waterproof footwear is useful on 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 due to the slushy quality of melting snow in many areas, especially after mid-morning.

The limited number of trails that had obvious tracks over the past ten days have now been completely covered with fresh snow. As a result routefinding is challenging for those not familiar with the area. Most signage above about 8500′ is snow-covered. Most PCT marker posts are also completely obscured. Currently no trails have been broken other than my route today (and I would not recommend following that above 10,000′ as I took a very direct ascent route from the base of Miller Peak).

Pacific Crest Trail Shallow snow will quickly clear from Highway 74 to about Mile 165. Between Mile 169 and Mile 193, snow depths average 1-3 feet. See my video above for the specific problem around Apache Peak (Mile 169.5).

Fuller Ridge Trail has been traversed by very few hikers, carrying crampons/ice axe, however it remains a largely a featureless ice slope along almost all its five mile length. Crampons and ice axe remain very strongly recommended. The majority of PCT hikers (those who are not familiar with angled snow/ice travel) should consider the Black Mountain Road alternative to Fuller Ridge.

Black Mountain Road will quickly clear of snow for its lower 2.5 miles. Up to 7000′ (5 miles up) there is shallow patchy snow. From the Boulder Basin junction to the PCT/Fuller Ridge campground (miles 5 to 8) snow cover is continuous at 1-2′ deep. Snow is largely soft and extensive postholing is inevitable without snowshoes. Beyond Fuller Ridge, snow is largely 1-2′ deep, with deeper drifts, almost to Camp Lackey. [Note that vehicle access is not possible beyond 2.5 miles due to downed trees and snow. Black Mountain Road is not currently accessible to private vehicles due to the closures on Highway 243.]

Devil’s Slide Trail now has patchy snow to 7500′, but is completely under snow thereafter. The trail has been heavily traveled, is obvious, and microspikes are ideal especially for descending.

Deer Springs Trail is melting rapidly to about 7500′. From there to Strawberry Junction (8100′) there is almost continuous soft snow cover, with some hazardous sections of water flowing under or on the trail route.

Tahquitz Peak trail from Chinquapin Flat [updated 20th March] remains very treacherous even as the snow softens. There are no tracks to follow and no sign of any attempt to traverse this trail in the past ten days. Crampons in conjunction with an ice axe are strongly recommended for this section, but it may be passable for those very confident with the use of microspikes.

Ernie Maxwell Trail will quickly clear of snow for most of its length, with shallow snow patches more frequent near Humber Park.

South Ridge Road is largely clear of snow, but is impassable near the top due to severe road damage. South Ridge Trail will quicklyclear of snow below Old Lookout Flat (7800′), but is almost completely snow-covered above it. Microspikes are very valuable for descending, and can be useful for ascending the final switchbacks close to Tahquitz Peak. An ice axe would be a good idea on the uppermost switchbacks.

SNOW DEPTHS measured today are as follows, with new snow accumulation given first and total in parentheses. Strong winds have led to major drifting and drifts can be much greater than the average depth. Altitudes are approximate.

San Jacinto Peak (10,810′): 7″ (75″)

Wellman Divide (9700′): 6.5″ (43″)

Annie’s Junction (PCT at State Park boundary north of Saddle Junction) (9050′): 6.5″ (34″)

Saddle Junction (8100′): 6″ (20″)

Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6500′): 4.5″ (5″) (but largely melted)

Idyllwild (at 5550′): 3.5″ (3.5″) (but largely melted already)

ACCESS CLOSURES The parking area at Humber Park has reopened, as has the trailhead access for Marion Mountain Trail. The Valentine’s Day flood events continue to make access to the San Jacinto mountains challenging. Palm Springs Aerial Tramway remains closed until 1st April (according to their website). Highway 243 between Banning and Idyllwild is closed from north of Bay Tree Spring to just north of Alandale until approximately July. Highway 74 between Mountain Center and Valle Vista (Hemet) will partially reopen by May. Several minor roads around Idyllwild-Pine Cove remain partly closed or damaged. Apple Canyon Road (access for the Spitler Peak trailhead) is still flooded at Hurkey Creek and is recommended only for 4WD/high clearance vehicles.

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