Snow and trail update 14th March 2020

[UPDATED 16th March: with trail and conditions changing almost daily, this morning I recorded this video discussion from Tahquitz Peak. In addition the specific conditions for the Tahquitz Peak area trails are updated in the text below.]

Back-to-back minor storms on 10th and 12th-13th March have combined to substantially change the complexion of the trails in the San Jacinto mountains for the foreseeable future. Both storms were warm systems, with both rain and snow levels fluctuating significantly. Rain fell to at least 10,000′ elevation on 10th March, while snow settled as low as 5500′ on 12th. Between about 6500′-9200′ snow and rain fell on top of the other multiple times during the course of the storms, which made it difficult to determine exact snowfall totals in these middle elevations as snow was washed away by later rainfall.

In Idyllwild (at 5550′), 1.31″ rain fell on 9th-10th March, followed by 2.49″ on 12th-13th, some very welcome numbers following an exceptionally dry January and February.

I broke trail to San Jacinto Peak this morning, using snowshoes above 8000′ (Saddle Junction). Snow conditions were very poor up to 9200′, as rain had fallen yesterday on top of snow, leaving a thick ice layer over the snow. Higher up it had not rained, and the going was easier on pure powder.

By my descent this afternoon rapid melting and softening meant the conditions were almost unrecognizable compared to the early morning. Devil’s Slide Trail was a mix of soft snow patches and slush, and was clearing rapidly below 7000′. My morning snowshoe tracks up to 8900′ were disappearing rapidly due to melting and snow pouring off the trees onto the trail.

Currently most major trails, including most of the PCT through the San Jacinto mountains, have not been traveled and are obscured by snowfall. Cautious navigation is strongly recommended everywhere. Snow depths measured today are listed at the foot of this posting. The current snow situation on the PCT in the San Jacinto mountains is outlined below, and is also discussed in a video posted yesterday.

Note that conditions will change starting 17th March when several days of further snowfall are possible, dropping snow to lower elevations than at present.

At present postholing through snow a few inches deep is relatively easy in most areas below 9000′ (including all of the PCT). Thru-hikers using good footwear and hiking poles will probably not need additional traction.

Microspikes may become increasingly useful over the next couple of days as established trails become consolidated by hiker traffic and undergo freeze-thaw cycles. They are especially useful for descending trails when they become icy and compacted (e.g. Devil’s Slide and lower Deer Springs trails). Snow depths are currently ideal for snowshoeing almost everywhere above about 8000′ elevation, and snowshoes are strongly recommended above 9000′.

Hikers should be prepared for temperatures below freezing in the high country, and far below freezing when considering windchill effects. The temperatures forecast for 17th-19th March will be among the lowest of this winter, and could be life-threatening.

Due to the coronavirus crisis, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway remains closed indefinitely since 12th March (tentatively until at least 1st April).

Currently the USFS gate at Humber Park remains open.

WEATHER Milder, brighter weather until Monday 16th will be followed by cold and very unsettled weather for at least 17th-25th March. A cold system on 17th-19th March may drop snow levels below 4000′ elevation. Initially forecast to produce major snowfall, recent forecasts suggest this storm may drop just a few inches of snow at Idyllwild elevations (5000-6000′), and a similar amount in the high country.

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) today, Saturday 14th March 2020 at 1010 the air temperature was 20.5°F (-6°C), with a windchill temperature of -2.9°F (-20°C), 79% relative humidity, and a wild SW wind sustained at 31 mph gusting to 41.5 mph.

At the Peak on Tuesday 10th March 2020 at 1130 the air temperature was 25°F (-4°C), with a windchill temperature of 9°F (-13°C), 100% relative humidity, and a brisk due South wind sustained at 10 mph gusting to 25.0 mph.

The San Bernardino mountains as seen from San Jacinto Peak this morning, 14th March 2020, with cloud pouring east through the San Gorgonio Pass.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

Microspikes may be useful on some of the PCT for continuous snow travel between approximately Miles 158 and 193, depending upon your comfort level in variable snow/ice conditions. Many thru hikers using good footwear with poles may find spikes unnecessary however.

The Pacific Crest Trail remains open at the rockslide just north of Antsell Rock (Mile 172.5). USFS has told the Trail Report that there are currently no plans to close this section of the PCT during spring 2020. The video report (available here) can be useful for deciding whether to try to hike around the rockslide or take an alternate route. There is no current information on how snow/ice conditions may have impacted the route around this rockslide.

PCT hikers are reminded that overnight stays are not permitted at or near San Jacinto Peak, including in the historic shelter. Mt. San Jacinto State Park regulations permit overnight stays only in established campgrounds. Options for thru-hikers are Strawberry Junction and Little Round Valley.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

All trails above about 6800′ are continuously snow-covered, with depth depending on elevation. Reliable tracks are currently in place only for Devil’s Slide Trail, and from Saddle Junction to San Jacinto Peak via Wellman Divide. Strong winds and rapid melting in the high country may obscure tracks within hours. The closure of the Tram will result in very light hiker traffic to the highest peaks via the Peak Trail, and little or no traffic on the Long and Round Valley trails.

Devil’s Slide Trail has a well-worn track to follow. Microspikes may become useful, especially in early morning. Snow cover is still >80%.

Ernie Maxwell Trail is virtually clear of snow, with a few small soft patches remaining mainly near Humber Park.

South Ridge Trail [updated 16th March] is largely clear to Old Lookout Flat (7600′), but with some icy snow patches above 7000′. Snow cover is continuous and icy above 7600′, but there are good tracks to follow and it is easily hiked. Microspikes are not required but are useful. South Ridge Road is clear of ice.

Tahquitz Peak trail from Chinquapin Flat/PCT Mile 178 [updated 16th March] has no steps to follow through the angled icy snow for at least 0.3 miles. These ice slopes are notoriously treacherous. Crampons are strongly recommended, in conjunction with an ice axe (if you know how to use both). Snowshoes are not advised due to the angle of the underlying ice.

Seven Pines Trail has had no visible signs of hiker traffic so far this winter, with no tracks or trail to follow. Indeed it has only been hiked a handful of times since November 2018. Extremely cautious navigation is recommended for those who are not very familiar with hiking this trail in snow. The Forest Service closure of Dark Canyon Road will remain in place until summer 2020, hence there is no vehicular access to Seven Pines trailhead.

SNOW DEPTHS measured today are as follows. Storm total for the past week is first, followed by current total in brackets, then comments in parentheses. Note that average depth is given, drifts can be much deeper in places. Altitudes are approximate.

San Jacinto Peak (10810′): 8″ [22″]

Wellman Divide (9700′): 8″ [8″]

Annie’s Junction (9070′): 7″ [18″]

Saddle Junction (8070′): 5.5″ [6″] (already melted to <5″ by this afternoon)

Devil’s Slide Trail at Humber Park (6550′): 2″ [2″] (melted to <1″ by this afternoon)

Idyllwild (at 5550′): 0″ (minor snowfall on 12th March already melted)

Annie’s Junction – high point of the PCT at Mile 181.8, 9070′ elevation – today 14th March 2020 (above) and on 9th March 2020 for comparison (below).

San Jacinto Trail Report: available for everyone, funded by readers. While all labor and time is volunteered, the Report completely depends on small private donations to cover its direct costs. With a very busy PCT season underway, every contribution is invaluable. If you have found this Report useful, please consider visiting the Donate page. Thank you.

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