[UPDATE 1st October 2021: three days of steady Santa Ana winds have dramatically improved air quality across the San Jacinto mountains and the wider region. This morning from San Jacinto Peak visibility was the best it has been in a couple of months, with just a narrow band of smoke visible at about 11,000ft elevation far to the west.]
In recent days temperatures have pleasantly dropped to near, or even below, seasonal averages, following about four months of nearly continuous well-above-average heat. This change is being accompanied by strengthening and shifting Santa Ana winds and a drop in humidity. Air quality has been variable but often poor for several weeks with smoke reaching us from fires hundreds of miles to the north. Stronger, shifting winds improved conditions somewhat today, but on 27th the smoke was the thickest I have seen in the San Jacinto high country without a fire burning nearby (see photo below).
The San Bernardino National Forest and the wilderness of Mount San Jacinto State Park reopened on Thursday 23rd September following a widespread closure related to fire conditions. Palm Springs Aerial Tramway has been closed since 7th September for annual maintenance and is not due to reopen until 11th October (note revised later date for reopening). See their website for details.
Full fire restrictions remain in place on Forest Service lands, as described here. All campfires anywhere in the San Jacinto mountains, including at all USFS campgrounds and yellow post sites, are prohibited. All forms of campfire are always prohibited in the State Park wilderness. Despite cooler temperatures, fire risk remains extreme.
Be bear aware. Although rarely reported, at least two Black Bears remain in the San Jacinto mountains. Earlier reports this summer were from Seven Pines Trail and near Saddle Junction on Willow Creek Trail. I was fortunate to see a very large (>300lb), uniformly dark brown individual at dawn on 7th September near Humber Park. I was able to get a couple of short, poor quality videos, of which one is available here. This was certainly a different individual, based on colour pattern and size, than one I saw on Devil’s Slide Trail in August 2020.
Hikers should now be prepared for temperatures close to freezing in the high country, and potentially below freezing when considering wind chill effects (see recent weather observations from San Jacinto Peak below).
Water conditions in the high country are poor and continue to deteriorate slowly. The current status of many key springs and creeks is described below.
The U.S. Forest Service ranger station in Idyllwild has been closed due to USFS coronavirus protocols since March 2020. Apparently it is unlikely to reopen until 2022. Hiking and camping permits are nevertheless required for USFS lands, and should be available at the kiosk outside the ranger station. The State Park ranger station has been open almost all year.
WEATHER Temperatures are generally forecast to be around seasonal and pleasantly autumnal, other than the first few days of October which will be above average for that month. From 2nd October almost every day is forecast to be partly or mostly cloudy, although currently there is no significant precipitation in the forecast. Fire risk remains severe.
The latest video discussion from NWS San Diego describes the forthcoming week of weather in detail.
At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Wednesday 29th September 2021 at 0850 the air temperature was 35.8°F (2°C), with a windchill temperature of 21.9°F (-5°C), 62% relative humidity, and a gusty NNE wind sustained at 11 mph gusting to 21.4 mph.
At the Peak on Tuesday 28th September 2021 at 0630 the air temperature was 39.6°F (4°C), with a windchill temperature of 26.3°F (-3°C), 27% relative humidity, and a stiff due West wind sustained at 21 mph gusting to 26.8 mph.
At the Peak on Monday 27th September 2021 at 0955 the air temperature was 49.5°F (10°C), with a windchill temperature of 45.3°F (7°C), 58% relative humidity, and a very light due West wind sustained at 2 mph gusting to 5.3 mph.
At the Peak on Monday 12th July 2021 at 0810 the air temperature was 67.6°F (19.8°C), with a “windchill” temperature of 67.2°F (19.6°C). This the highest air temperature ever reliably recorded at San Jacinto Peak, shattering the previous record temperature of 62.3°F (16.8°C) observed on 19th August 2020.
Trails throughout the San Jacinto high country cleared of snow by early May. Water conditions are a major concern, with many springs and creeks already having dried up or having very low flows for the time of year, as discussed in detail below.
The rockslide at PCT Mile 172.5, just north of Antsell Rock, was removed on Monday 14th June 2021. My “before, during, and after” video is available here. This section of the PCT is now safer and is narrow but readily passable with care by hikers (but remains impassable by stock).
Many trails have accumulated treefall hazards from the past two winters, passable with care by hikers but not for stock. Although they are reported promptly, regrettably neither Forest Service nor State Park have moved quickly to remove these hazards. Some are described below, others include the PCT between Strawberry Cienega and Strawberry Junction (PCT Miles 182-183, about 7 trees down), and Fuller Ridge Trail near its northern end (PCT Miles 189.1-190.2, three trees).
Spitler Peak Trail was cleared of multiple tree hazards by the Trail Report in early July. Marion Mountain Trail was cleared of multiple tree hazards by a CCC crew in late August, along with the adjacent PCT/Deer Springs Trail for 0.6 mile north to the south end of Fuller Ridge Trail.
Many treefall hazards from Red Tahquitz to Antsell Rock (PCT Miles 172.5-175) were cleared in June. Nevertheless about 20 remain, including at least six major obstructions for hikers. Tahquitz Creek to Red Tahquitz (PCT Miles 175-177) was cleared in early June.
Willow Creek Trail has at least 33 downed trees between Skunk Cabbage Junction and Hidden Divide. Of these 22 are on the Forest Service section (16 between Willow Creek and the Park boundary), with 11 in the State Park. Most are readily passable by hikers with care. Despite so much work last year, the whitethorn has grown back rapidly, especially on the State Park section, but still remains less challenging than in 2019.
The Caramba Trail from near Reeds Meadow through Laws Camp and on to Caramba, and the Cedar Trail from Willow Creek Trail to Laws (which both nominally reopened in late 2018) are optimistically described by the Forest Service as “not maintained”. In reality parts of these trails no longer exist with significant sections of both so heavily overgrown that I strongly advise hikers do not attempt to follow them. Multiple experienced hikers have reported getting lost in this area since summer 2019. An informal use trail to the Laws Camp area is much more direct and completely avoids all of the challenging bush-whacking of the unmaintained trails (other hikers kindly nicknamed it the “King Trail”). It leaves Willow Creek Trail exactly 1.0 mile from Saddle Junction, 0.45 mile from the Skunk Cabbage turning (trailhead at N33°46’46”, W116°39’32”, WGS84). The cairned use trail descends largely on established deer tracks for 0.9 mile, reaching Willow Creek just upstream of the former site of Laws Camp. From Laws east to Caramba the route of the old Caramba Trail has become increasingly tricky to follow, especially for the first 1.2 miles east of Laws where there are dozens of trees down. Closer to Caramba the trail is relatively obvious (for those familiar with the route prior to the 2013 Mountain Fire). Very cautious navigation is recommended throughout this area.
Seven Pines Trail has had very limited hiker traffic since November 2018. There are 35 treefall hazards on the trail, four large ones on the short Forest Service section, and the remainder in the State Park, based on my most recent 2021 survey. Cautious navigation is recommended for those who are not familiar with hiking this trail. Dark Canyon Road has been closed since early 2019, and there is currently no vehicular access to Seven Pines trailhead. USFS apparently does not expect Dark Canyon Road to reopen this year.
WATER STATUS: Eastern slope
The Round Valley pipe is now flowing only intermittently and is no longer reliable. There is occasional flow (at just 0.2L/min) but without further precipitation input, this source should no longer be relied upon. Creeks in Round Valley and Tamarack Valley were dry in May (in 2020 neither dried until August).
Hidden Lake dried up completely in June.
Both the northern and southern springs at Wellman’s Cienega are flowing very gently (but adequately to filter). These are the sources for Willow Creek, which is flowing where it crosses the Willow Creek Trail (the flow remains good for filtering, but is the lowest I have ever seen this creek).
Tahquitz Creek is flowing gently at the northern end of Little Tahquitz Meadow. It is also flowing, but very gently, further upstream at its source (known locally as Grethe Spring) where it crosses the PCT at approx. Mile 177.
The small creek in Tahquitz Valley dried in May, some four months earlier than in 2020.
Candy’s Creek – that flows through Skunk Cabbage Meadow and then crosses the remaining visible section of Caramba Trail near Reeds Meadow – dried up in early July.
WATER STATUS: Western slope
The North Fork of the San Jacinto River continues to flow gently where it crosses the Deer Springs Trail but is now functionally dry where it crosses the Fuller Ridge Trail on the PCT (approx. PCT Mile 186.2).
The creek in Little Round Valley completely dried up in early July, reminiscent of the extremely dry years of 2014-16. The same creek dried up where it crosses Fuller Ridge Trail (PCT Mile 186.4) in April.
Shooting Star Spring (not far below Little Round Valley but above the North Fork of the San Jacinto River crossing) is flowing weakly and is a very poor option for filtering.
The Deer Springs stream crossing is dry at the PCT/Deer Springs Trail (approx. PCT mile 185.6). (Despite some online mapping to the contrary, this is NOT the source for the North Fork of the San Jacinto River.)
The tiny but perennial spring about 0.4 miles north of Strawberry Junction (known colloquially as Switchback Spring) continues to flow remarkably well. I rework the tiny pool at least once every week when I pass by and there is just sufficient depth from which to filter water.
The little creek at Strawberry Cienega (PCT mile 183.0) is functionally dry.
On Devil’s Slide Trail, Middle Spring is now dry. All other springs on this trail have been dry for months.
On the Ernie Maxwell Trail, the crossing of Chinquapin Creek just below Humber Park is currently flowing where it crosses the trail. Even when the creek is dry across the trail, small but invaluable fresh pools remain just upslope from the trail (this creek is an especially useful source of water for the many dogs walked on this trail).
The faucet at Cinco Poses Spring about 4.5 miles up Black Mountain Road continues to flow.
WATER STATUS: Desert Divide
Live Oak Spring (N 33 37 21, W 116 33 24) Flowing. The most reliable water source on the Desert Divide.
Cedar Spring (N 33 40 36, W 116 34 35) Flowing. Easiest access is the trough about 60 yards upstream from the trail to the campsite.
Apache Spring (N 33 43 11, W 116 37 13) Barely trickling, not now reliable.
Spitler Peak Trail Descending the trail from the PCT there are five water crossings. The first two, at 0.9 and 0.95 miles down, cross a tiny side creek which is largely dry and should be ignored. The next crossing, at 1.1 miles down, is Spitler Creek and is the best source of water (currently flowing very gently, but can be filtered). The next two crossings are the same creek, also flowing adequately for filtering.
Antsell Rock Creek (N 33 41 52, W 116 39 08) Right by the Spitler Peak Trail trailhead on Apple Canyon Road, Antsell Rock Creek is now dry. Even in the very dry years of 2015 and 2016, this source did not dry until the autumn.
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