Snow and PCT update 22nd March 2021

[Please note that information specific to the Pacific Crest Trail is included at the foot of this Report. However much of the main Report is applicable to PCT hikers also.]

[UPDATE 26th March: a very light dusting of snow last night included 0.5 inch at and above 5000ft, and a very uniform 0.25 inch throughout Garner Valley down to 4000ft. By late morning today, all new snow below 6000ft had already melted, and it was disappearing rapidly at higher elevations in all sun-exposed areas. Equipment recommendations and trail conditions discussed below are unaffected.]

We have continued to hike daily on the mountain this year, with almost all recent hikes focused on subsections of the PCT. We had a relatively easy ascent of San Jacinto Peak on Monday 22nd, ascending via the east side trails (Devil’s Slide, Wellman, and Peak trails) and descending the west side via Deer Springs Trail.. No spikes were required on the ascent, but they were useful on the descent down to about 9000ft.

Yesterday evening we had an unusual “thundersnow” event in the San Jacinto mountains. For less than an hour around 1800 we had a thunderstorm produce a snowfall of up to an inch, with large, wet, snowflakes accumulating even though the temperature was well above 40 degrees Fahrenheit in Idyllwild. At the same time, the temperature plummeted more than ten degrees in about half-an-hour. Snow accumulation in Idyllwild (at 5550ft) was 0.7 inch, and 1.0 inch throughout the high country. Before dusk, we were back to blue skies. The event was a perfect demonstration of how fickle (and potentially perilous) the weather can be in an isolated mountain range. Similar events are forecast to be possible in the evenings of Tuesday 23rd and Thursday 25th.

With the obvious exception of the light dusting yesterday, melting has been steady at all elevations. Sun-exposed slopes in particular are clearing rapidly, with conditions expected to become more reminiscent of a “normal” May in the next week or so. At San Jacinto Peak on 22nd, I measured an average of about 27 inches, a loss of nearly one foot in a week, despite recent temperatures not being notably warm. Spikes are recommended on all well-traveled trails above about 7500ft (lower in places discussed below), especially in the morning and for descending, as established trails are now compacted by hiker traffic and freeze-thaw cycles. Snowshoes are recommended only for off-trail travel above and around about 8000ft.

Hikers should be prepared for temperatures at or below freezing in the high country, and potentially well below freezing when considering wind chill effects (see below for temperatures recorded recently at San Jacinto Peak).

The USFS gate at Humber Park reopened on 19th March when the area was also plowed.

The Santa Rosa mountains as seen from near PCT Mile 153 at sunrise on 20th March 2021. Spectacular cap clouds driven by strong, moist, west winds, adorn the high peaks.

WEATHER Temperatures are forecast to fluctuate around seasonal averages for the next few days, before warming significantly starting Saturday 27th March and continuing into early April. With warm, sunny, days snow melt will rapidly accelerate and will likely be particularly fast below 8000ft and also on sun-exposed slopes at all elevations. There is no significant precipitation in the forecast, although minor precipitation is possible in the afternoon on Tuesday 23rd and Thursday 25th. Medium term forecasts from NWS San Diego suggest above average precipitation is probable in the first half of April.

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Monday 22nd March 2021 at 0950 the air temperature was 25.5°F (-4°C), with a windchill temperature of 7.2°F (-14°C), 39% relative humidity, and a frigid NW wind sustained at 12 mph gusting to 23.8 mph.

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Tuesday 16th March 2021 at 1145 the air temperature was 21.2°F (-6°C), with a windchill temperature of 2.8°F (-16°C), 71% relative humidity, and a gusty NNW wind sustained at 12 mph gusting to 20.7 mph.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

All trails above about 8600ft remain continuously snow-covered. Areas below 7500ft are patchy or rapidly clearing of snow, with the exception of north-facing slopes (down to about 6500ft). Areas between those elevations are largely snow-covered, but with rapid clearing on sun-exposed slopes that will accelerate this week.

Tahquitz Peak trail from Chinquapin Flat/PCT Mile 178 has no steps to follow through the angled icy snow. These slopes are notoriously treacherous. Currently crampons, or at least spikes (used in conjunction with an ice axe) are essential. Do not attempt to use snowshoes due to the angle of the icy snow.

Devil’s Slide Trail is rapidly clearing of snow to 7600′ with a few extended icy snow patches remaining. Snow is largely continuous above that elevation to Saddle Junction. The trail is hard and icy and spikes are useful.

Deer Springs Trail is clear of snow to the Suicide Rock junction, and rapidly clearing of snow up to Strawberry Junction and beyond to about 8500ft. Snow is continuous from there to San Jacinto Peak, with an excellent track to follow. Above Little Round Valley the track I broke last week through the snow does not follow the trail route to San Jacinto Peak, and is steep and direct. Spikes are useful, and invaluable for descending, as snow is icy and compacted.

Marion Mountain Trail has extensive, icy, snow cover to the PCT/Deer Springs Trail junction. Snow cover is roughly 50% below 7000ft and again above 8500ft, but is nearly continuous between those elevations. Spikes are strongly recommended.

Fuller Ridge Trail has not be traveled recently and there are no tracks to follow.

Seven Pines Trail has had no visible hiker traffic this winter, nor since the most recent snowfall, with no tracks or trail to follow. Indeed this trail has been hiked very little since November 2018. Extremely cautious navigation is recommended for those who are not very familiar with hiking this trail. The Forest Service closure of Dark Canyon Road continues, and there is no vehicular access to Seven Pines trailhead.

The Ernie Maxwell Trail is largely clear of ice and snow, with icy snow patches increasingly frequent near Humber Park. Spikes are not required.

South Ridge Trail is essentially clear to Old Lookout Flat at 7600′, with a few persistent icy patches low down. Snow cover is becoming increasingly patchy on the traverse at 7600-7800ft. Snow cover is more extensive in the 18 switchbacks up to Tahquitz Peak, but this will change markedly this week, dropping to less than 50% cover except on the uppermost six switchbacks. Spikes are useful especially for descending, mainly close to Tahquitz Peak. South Ridge Road (open) is clear of snow and ice.

There are now visible tracks up from Round Valley to Wellman Divide, although they do not appear to closely follow the established trail route.

Skyline Trail is clear of snow to near 7000ft, thereafter snow is generally shallow but continuous to Grubb’s Notch (8600ft). There is a well-worn but icy track to follow, spikes are strongly recommended.

Current snow cover on the PCT is minimal from Miles 151 (Highway 74) to about 160, and increasingly patchy, but nevertheless very challenging in places, between Miles 160 and about 175 (Red Tahquitz). Snow is then more-or-less continuous between Miles 175-178. Snow cover is steadily becoming patchy between Miles 178 to 183.5, with the exception of the notoriously stubborn half mile just south of Annie’s Junction at about Mile 181. From Mile 183.5 to 191, snow is largely continuous, although some exposed sections of Fuller Ridge (e.g., parts of Miles 186.5-188.5) will be thinning rapidly.

Spitler Peak Trail is basically clear of snow, with a few icy patches remaining largely on the upper switchbacks.

Cedar Spring Trail is clear of snow from Morris Ranch Road to the PCT, with some small patches remaining on the east side of the PCT down to the spring itself.

May Valley Road, a major component of the PCT Mile 168.5 alternate route, is clear of snow.

SNOW DEPTHS measured on 22nd March 2021. Note that average depth is given first, followed in parentheses by the depth recorded on 16th March after the last notable series of storms from 10th-15th March. Due to past drifting, and variable melting due to differential sun exposure, depths now vary greatly, especially in trails. Altitudes are approximate.

San Jacinto Peak (10810ft): 27 inches (38 inches on 16th March)

Little Round Valley (9800ft): 24 inches (29 inches on 16th March)

Wellman Divide (9700ft): 6 inches (19 inches on 16th March)

Annie’s Junction (9070ft): 20 inches (24 inches on 16th March)

Deer Springs Trail at Seven Pines Trail junction (8700ft): 11 inches (14 inches on 16th March)

Strawberry Junction (8100ft): 3 inches (8 inches on 16th March)

Saddle Junction/approx. PCT Mile 179.9 (8070ft): 13 inches (17 inches on 16th March)

Deer Springs Trail at Suicide Rock Trail junction (6950ft): 0 inches (3 inches on 16th March)

Devil’s Slide Trail at Humber Park (6550ft): 5 inches (12 inches on 16th March)

Idyllwild (at 5550ft): 0 inches (6 inches on 16th March)

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

Following a general discussion, this information is organized roughly south to north (all Mile numbers are approximate). The main Report (above) is updated at least weekly or during/after any storm.

Spikes are currently recommended between about Miles 163 and 191, and they are essential if you attempt Miles 169-178 at least. Currently, an ice axe could be very useful in these areas in conjunction with your spikes, but only if you know how to use it. Challenging and unpredictable weather is forecast for the next couple of weeks, with two or three minor snow storms possible, but warm weather in between the storm systems. This pattern will result in freeze-thaw cycles that can lead to tricky icy conditions, but also with steady snow melt so this advice may change. Please always practice safe decision-making based on your own comfort level (not that of your hiking partners), experience, ability, available equipment, time of day (which can greatly affect traction on snow and ice), and current snow and weather conditions.

There are complications this season beyond the usual challenges of snow and ice, such as a major fire closure, and the coronavirus crisis, the latter resulting in poorly maintained trails. Some of these factors may change (hopefully for the better) as the spring progresses, probably at short notice. Considerable patience and caution are recommended.

The bottom line is, if everything remains snowy/icy, and if the Snow Fire closure section doesn’t reopen soon (both of which are very big “ifs”), this will be an even more challenging year than usual to hike the PCT through the San Jacinto mountains section. Many folks may choose to skip parts or even all of this section.

To date, this has been a below average snow year for the San Jacinto high country (but, oddly, above average snowfall for mid elevations, 4000-6000ft). Given accelerating climate change here, depending on your start date there may be relatively little snow and ice by the time you reach the San Jacinto mountains. Nevertheless even small, isolated sections of icy snow can be very perilous. Details of current snow/ice conditions will be clear from updates to the Trail Report over coming weeks and months.

Coming off at Mile 168.5 (the well-signed Spitler Peak Trail alternate) may be a good option for many this nobo season. In addition to snow/ice issues ahead, there are nearly 60 trees down across the Trail between Miles 169-177, plus the rock slide at Mile 172.5. Spitler Peak Trail itself often clears of snow long before the PCT north of that point.

On Thursday 18th March I resurveyed Apache Peak. The detailed video report for PCT Miles 168-179 from 1st March is not currently accurate, due to the recent additional snowfall on 10-15th March. However, with significant melting likely over at least the next ten days, that video report will again become increasingly relevant within the next few days. I intend to resurvey the area soon. Unfortunately, as I speculated in the video, the challenging Apache Peak area is currently more tricky, with an unstable layer of fresh snow sitting over, and obscuring, the pre-existing icy snow. Please exercise very cautious decision-making in this area.

The short snow slope on the NE side of Apache Peak (Mile 169.5) that has had incidents in recent years is currently snow-covered. Snow is hard and icy in the early mornings. Spikes and an ice axe, and knowledge of how to use this equipment, are currently very strongly recommended. Every individual should make their own assessment of whether to cross based on their comfort level on angled snow, their experience, available equipment, time of day, and current snow conditions. If in any doubt whatsoever, turn around and take the very well signed Spitler Peak Trail alternate option at Mile 168.5.

PCT hikers – thanks for taking the time to read this. The San Jacinto Trail Report depends entirely on small private donations to cover its direct costs. With a busy winter overlapping with a complex PCT season, every contribution, no matter how small, is truly valuable. If you have found the Report useful, please consider visiting the Donate page. Thank you, and safe hiking.

The Pacific Crest Trail remains open at the rockslide north of Antsell Rock (Mile 172.5). Reports that the assisting rope around the rockslide is “in tatters” are inaccurate. However the rope is not in new condition, and if you choose to use it, you do so completely at your own risk. USFS has told the Trail Report that responsibility for removing the rockslide is currently with the PCTA, and that there are currently no plans to close this section of the PCT for removal work before summer 2021 at the earliest. The latest video report (recorded on 1st March 2021, starts at minute 9.05) may be useful for deciding whether to hike around the rockslide.

It is possible to regain the PCT from Idyllwild via Devil’s Slide Trail at Saddle Junction (about Mile 179) then hike on through to Mile 190.5 (Fuller Ridge campground). Currently this would involve significant snow travel, but nothing challenging, as snow is relatively shallow and melting steadily, including Fuller Ridge Trail (Miles 185.5-190.5). Do not attempt to regain the PCT via South Ridge Trail as the slope on the north side of Tahquitz Peak is currently ice-covered and is notoriously treacherous.

Good news (possibly) regarding the Snow Fire closure (Miles 191-206). US Forest Service has indicated to the Trail Report that if there is no new major weather impact in this area during March, the Pacific Crest Trail through this fire closure area may reopen in April.

Miles 191-206 of the PCT are currently closed, in theory until October 2021, due to the Snow Fire closure (closure order document here). Until this section reopens, it will be necessary to leave the trail at Black Mountain Road (about Mile 191) and hike the eight miles down Black Mountain Road to Highway 243. Currently the upper 3.5 miles of Black Mountain Road are largely snow-covered, with limited patches lower down also.

Black Mountain Road is open to hikers, it is only closed to vehicles at the gate 1.7 miles above Highway 243. This is a seasonal closure, and it might reopen to vehicles again in April (although that is weather dependent).

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 (when open). Strawberry Junction is a good option for thru-hikers.

Strawberry Junction (PCT Mile 183; 8100ft) on 22nd March 2021 (above) and the same view on 16th March 2021 (below).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s