Trail update 17th November 2021

Although it feels pleasantly cool after such a long, hot, summer, this November has so far been very warm and dry across the San Jacinto mountains, and is currently on track to finish as one of the 2-3 hottest in recorded Idyllwild history. Almost every day in the first three weeks of the month has recorded (or will record) well above seasonal temperatures for November. While undertaking trail maintenance work on Saturday 13th, we found wild currant bushes already budding at 7000ft elevation! Perhaps they thought that the cooler October was what passed for winter these days, and that spring has now sprung.

Santa Ana wind events peak in frequency in December and January (as discussed in this recent NWS San Diego video). I spent Thursday and Friday last week as volunteer fire lookout at Tahquitz Peak during a moderate Santa Ana wind event. Another possibly stronger event is tentatively forecast for 24th-25th November. On the plus side, Santa Ana winds produce the clearest visibility conditions of the year, and from Tahquitz Peak on Friday 12th I could clearly see (with binoculars) multiple container ships anchored off the coast.

The effects of the light precipitation from multiple storms in October have dissipated, and water conditions in the high country continue to deteriorate slowly, with many springs and creeks having dried this summer. The current status of most key springs and creeks is described below.

The major Forest Service campgrounds closed for the season this past week, including Fern Basin, Marion Mountain, and Boulder Basin (Dark Canyon campground has been closed since late 2018). The State Park Stone Creek campground also closed. The State Park campground at the Idyllwild Ranger Station normally remains open all year. Black Mountain fire lookout closed on 13th, and Tahquitz Peak lookout is scheduled to close on 20th November.

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. With continuing dry conditions, and potential for Santa Ana wind events, fire risk remains very high.

Despite recent relatively warm days, hikers should nevertheless be prepared for temperatures near or below freezing around the highest peaks (>10,000ft), and potentially well below freezing when considering wind chill effects (see below for most recent weather observations from San Jacinto Peak).

Be bear aware. Although rarely reported, several Black Bears remain active in the San Jacinto mountains. 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.

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, and is the best source in Idyllwild for permits and additional trail information.

WEATHER Temperatures will remain above average for November until Tuesday 23rd, cooling trend is forecast, taking temperatures down to about seasonal. Although several days in the next week are forecast to be partly or mostly cloudy, regrettably there is no significant precipitation in the forecast.

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Tuesday 16th November 2021 at 0825 the air temperature was 41.4°F (5°C), with a windchill temperature of 28.2°F (-2°C), 17% relative humidity, and a bitter NW wind sustained at 18 mph gusting to 28.9 mph.

At the Peak on Thursday 11th November 2021 at 0845 the air temperature was 37.8°F (3°C), with a windchill temperature of 25.4°F (-4°C), 42% relative humidity, and a fresh due North wind sustained at 9 mph gusting to 15.8 mph.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

Trails throughout the San Jacinto high country have cleared of the very light snow that fell in late October, and spikes are not required anywhere. Water conditions remain challenging despite five minor storms in October, with many springs and creeks already having dried up or having very low flows, as discussed in detail below. To date, temperatures have not been low enough to freeze springs in the high country.

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).

Due to greatly reduced maintenance work during the coronavirus pandemic, many trails have accumulated treefall hazards since late 2019, passable with care by hikers but not for stock. Although reported promptly, regrettably neither Forest Service nor State Park have moved quickly to remove most hazards in 2021. With Santa Ana events and recent storms being accompanied by strong winds, hikers may encounter new and additional hazards. Some are described below, others include the PCT between Strawberry Cienega and Strawberry Junction (PCT Miles 182-183, at least 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 California Conservation Corps team in late August, along with the adjacent PCT/Deer Springs Trail for 0.6 mile north to the south end of Fuller Ridge Trail. One new tree came down in early November 2021 on the PCT just yards south of its junction with Marion Mountain Trail, but it is easily passable for hikers.

Many treefall hazards from Red Tahquitz to Antsell Rock (PCT Miles 172.5-175) were cleared in June prior to the rockslide removal work mentioned above. 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 by myself and USFS volunteers, the whitethorn has grown back rapidly, but still remains less challenging than in 2019.

Seven Pines Trail has had very limited hiker traffic since November 2018, largely because Dark Canyon Road was closed between February 2019 and early October 2021. The Trail Report has “adopted” Seven Pines Trail as our current focus of trail maintenance work in order to improve hiker safety on this trail that has had a disproportionate number of lost hiker rescues in recent years. Four major treefall hazards on the Forest Service section were removed on 2nd November 2021, and almost all the lower 1.4 miles of trail were trimmed and cleared by mid November. However at least 33 treefall hazards remain on the State Park section, the trail is obscure in places, and cautious navigation is recommended for those who are not very familiar with hiking this trail. Dark Canyon campground remains closed.

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.

WATER STATUS: Eastern slope

The Round Valley pipe is now flowing only intermittently and is no longer reliable. There is occasional flow (at about 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).

Wellman’s Cienega north spring (9300ft) flowing gently, 11th November 2021.

Tahquitz Creek is flowing 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, and also very weakly where it crosses the Fuller Ridge Trail on the PCT (approx. PCT Mile 186.2). Less than two miles further downstream this river is, remarkably, completely dry (see photos in an earlier report here).

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 every week when I pass by and there is sufficient depth from which to filter water.

The little creek at Strawberry Cienega (PCT mile 183.0) is dry.

On Devil’s Slide Trail all springs have been dry for many 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 weakly. 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 dried up in July. Even in the very dry years of 2015 and 2016, this source did not dry until the autumn.

Trash collected on my 16 mile hike on Tuesday 16th November. I hiked exactly the same route five days earlier, so almost everything here was from the past few days. Especially distressing are the dozen sets of visibly used tissue paper, almost all of which were very obvious in or beside the trail, despite some being “buried” under small rocks. Last year I packed out about 90lb of trash from the San Jacinto mountains. This year I am at roughly 130lb with more than a month to go. Clearly we are failing in the basic education of too many of our fellow hikers.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. While all labor and time is volunteered, the San Jacinto Trail Report completely depends on small private donations to cover operating costs. Every year seems to be challenging and 2021 has been no exception, so every contribution, no matter how small, is truly valuable. If you have found this Report useful, please consider visiting the Donate page. Thank you for your support.

2 thoughts on “Trail update 17th November 2021

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