Trail update 2nd February 2022

IMPORTANT NOTE: Effective Tuesday 1st February 2022 Mt. San Jacinto State Park has closed the section of Skyline Trail that falls within its jurisdiction. The District Superintendents Order (#954-22-007) states “Skyline Route conditions are unsafe …. due to dangerous ice accumulation” and that “Skyline Route is closed until further notice from the 5800′ State Park boundary to its intersection with the Desert View Trail”. (In my experience the boundary is not marked but is near the site of the old Florian’s Cache, between Rescue 2 and Flat Rock.) Updates on the closure will be posted on State Park social media and webpage. Signage was posted at the relevant trailheads on 3rd February. I was informed that this closure is a direct consequence of multiple challenging rescues in this section of trail in recent weeks. Please see my comments immediately below, that I posted the day before this announcement.

Last week I alluded to the challenges of hard, icy snow underfoot from evidence of hiker falls on uppermost Deer Springs Trail, and the value of using spikes, and in places an ice axe, especially for descending and traversing. There have been multiple serious incidents in recent days, including on Sunday 30th January a fatal hiker fall on the short section of South Ridge Trail on the notoriously treacherous north side of Tahquitz Peak.

Snow at all elevations has become firm and very icy due to a month of freeze-thaw cycles, and I cannot overemphasize the importance of having both appropriate equipment and the right skill set for the terrain. The latter includes interpreting the snow/ice conditions, understanding your physical and mental abilities, and conservative decision making.

In addition to ascents of San Jacinto Peak in recent days we have also surveyed several segments of the PCT, plus South Ridge, Spitler Peak (twice), Seven Pines, and Stone Creek trails, and May Valley and Sawmill Flats roads. Current conditions for individual trails are discussed in detail below where known.

Early on Monday 31st January I ascended via Devil’s Slide, Wellman, and Peak trails to San Jacinto Peak – in boots with excellent traction – without needing spikes, although hikers less familiar with icy snow travel would prefer to use the latter. Not being much of a user of hiking poles, in recent weeks I have found an ice axe handy traversing the slopes high on the east flank of San Jac. I descended the same route, and spikes were invaluable from the Peak down to about 8500ft. On Wednesday 2nd February, we ascended Marion Mountain and Deer Springs trails to the Peak. Spikes were not required for ascending until above Little Round Valley, but were invaluable descending down to about 7500ft.

Snow remaining from December 2021 has continued to melt slowly but steadily. Snow depths remeasured on 31st January and 2nd February are detailed at the foot of this post.

Trails remain completely snow-covered above 9000ft, with thinning and increasingly patchy snow down to about 7500ft, and generally clear below that elevation. Overall snow conditions on the trails are more typical of April (or even May) than late January. Tracks at the highest elevations (>9800ft) currently only approximate to the routes of established trails (especially Deer Springs Trail above Little Round Valley). Cautious navigation is recommended everywhere.

Spikes are recommended everywhere above about 7500ft as trails are icy where compacted by hiker traffic and following freeze-thaw cycles. Spikes are especially valuable on colder mornings when conditions are particularly icy, and for descending. Based on tracks I am seeing in the high country some hikers are preferring to use crampons, and those are an option in areas of continuous icy snow above about 9000ft (potentially lower in steeper terrain).

Hikers should be prepared for temperatures below freezing in the high country, and often well below freezing when considering wind chill effects (see below for some of my recent weather observations from San Jacinto Peak). Forecast temperatures in the first week of February will be severely cold at the highest elevations.

May Valley Road was closed by Forest Service to all traffic, including foot traffic, on Friday 28th January due to hazardous trees. USFS social media states “there currently is no timeline for the road’s reopening”. There was no evidence of any significant work in progress by 4th February.

The USFS gate at Humber Park reopened on 21st January having been closed since 13th December 2021. Note that Humber will be temporarily closed for up to three days starting at 1800 on Sunday 6th February for hazardous tree removal.

The following Forest Service roads are in winter closure: South Ridge Road (5S11), Black Mountain (4S01), San Jacinto Truck Trail (5S09), Dark Canyon (5S02), and Santa Rosa (7S02). All are currently free of snow and ice.

Sign on closed gate on May Valley Road about 0.2 mile above Cowbell Alley, 29th January 2022.

WEATHER Temperatures at all elevations will be below seasonal averages for the first four days of February, before quickly warming to well above average next week. There continues to be no significant precipitation in the forecasts.

January 2022 was the driest January in recorded history in the San Jacinto high country, with only 0.75in of fresh snow falling at San Jacinto Peak. Only 0.32in rain and no snow fell in Idyllwild at 5550ft, making it about the sixth driest January for combined precipitation in Idyllwild since systematic records began in 1943.

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Wednesday 2nd February 2022 at 0855 the air temperature was 14.4°F (-10°C), with a windchill temperature of -9.5°F (-23°C), 26% relative humidity, and a bitter due North wind sustained at 14 mph gusting to 22.6 mph.

At the Peak on Monday 31st January 2022 at 0850 the air temperature was 33.1°F (1°C), with a windchill temperature of 17.1°F (-8°C), 24% relative humidity, and a sharp NW wind sustained at 15 mph gusting to 26.4 mph.

The San Jacinto high country as seen from Tahquitz Peak, 30th January 2022. The distribution of snow is more reminiscent of April or even May than January.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

Trails below about 7700ft are now clear (or largely clear) of snow, snow cover is increasingly patchy below 9000ft, and is continuous everywhere above 9000ft. Snow persists at elevations below 7700ft in particular on shaded north and north-east slopes (e.g., Red Tahquitz, Tahquitz, Apache, and Spitler peaks). Melting has been steady but slow at all elevations and will slow further over the next week with cool temperatures.

Hikers should anticipate encountering significant new treefall hazards, especially in vulnerable burn areas (e.g., Spitler Peak Trail, Willow Creek Trail, PCT Miles 166-177). Storms in December 2021 left trees very heavily laden with ice, and I have since found many broken tree limbs and downed trees on the trail system. Severe Santa Ana winds on 22nd January will have brought down further trees and branches.

The 0.4 mile section of South Ridge Trail to Tahquitz Peak from Chinquapin Flat/PCT Mile 178 has no steps to follow through the steeply angled icy snow. These icy slopes are notoriously treacherous. Crampons with an ice axe (and knowledge of how to use both) are required.

Skyline Trail is currently closed above about 5800ft (the State Park boundary), see discussion at top of this posting and the State Park website for any updates. There is no snow on the open section of trail below the State Park boundary.

Devil’s Slide Trail is now functionally clear of icy snow to about 7800ft, and then with about 50% cover to Saddle Junction. Spikes can be useful on the upper trail, especially for descending.

South Ridge Trail (south of Tahquitz Peak) is functionally clear of snow to Old Lookout Flat (7600ft). Icy snow cover remains about 10% to near Tahquitz Peak, increasing to about 25% on the uppermost half-a-dozen switchbacks. Most hikers will find spikes useful, especially for descending.

The middle section of South Ridge Trail (between May Valley Road and the top of South Ridge Road) has 12 trees down, most of which are major obstructions.

The predominant compacted tracks on the Peak Trail from Wellman Divide to near Miller Peak now generally follow the trail route. However careful navigation is still required as the slopes between 9800ft and 10,400ft remain covered with various (rapidly melting) meandering tracks. Above 10,400ft most tracks form a compacted posthole route up the East Ridge. However the route of the Peak Trail also has a very lightly used track, which are challenging in one short section before Summit Junction (spikes required).

There are well-traveled compacted tracks to follow from Long Valley though Round Valley to Wellman Divide.

Marion Mountain Trail is functionally clear of snow to about 7600ft. Icy snow cover is 80% from 7600-8200ft, and there is a well-traveled track through the snow. From 8200ft to Deer Springs Trail (at 8800ft) snow cover is about 50%. Most hikers will find spikes useful for ascending the upper half of the trail, and they are invaluable for descending. There is one huge new treefall hazard across the trail exactly at the State Park/Forest Service boundary.

Unsurprisingly, there continue to be no visible hiker tracks on the upper sections of Fuller Ridge and Seven Pines trails. The latter is largely clear of snow to the State Park boundary, and then snow cover is increasingly patchy above the North Fork crossing to about 7700ft (but see below regarding tree hazards and trail maintenance).

Deer Springs Trail is clear of snow to Strawberry Junction at 8100ft. From there to 8600ft (just before the Marion Mountain Trail junction) snow cover is an increasingly patchy 40%. Above 8600ft snow cover is essentially continuous. Spikes are useful, especially for descending. [Three new trees came down in late 2021 on the PCT/Deer Springs Trail just south of its junction with Marion Mountain Trail, but they are readily passable for hikers.] Through Little Round Valley the track is more direct and only vaguely follows the trail route. The most heavily traveled track from LRV to near San Jacinto Peak largely follows, unfortunately for ascending hikers, my original snowshoe route from 31st December, which is direct and steep. Cautious navigation is required as there are many alternative tracks meandering across this slope.

The Strawberry Trail between Annie’s and Strawberry junctions (roughly PCT Miles 181-183) has been well traveled and there tracks to follow. Most of this very sun-exposed section of trail is clear of snow.

The Suicide Rock Trail is clear of snow, with only a handful of tiny patches remaining.

The Ernie Maxwell Trail is clear of ice and snow.

Spitler Peak Trail is clear of snow and spikes are not required. Nearly 40 downed trees from ice storms in December 2021, plus dozens of additional trunks and branches in the trail, were removed by the Trail Report in January 2022.

The rockslide at PCT Mile 172.5, just north of Antsell Rock, was removed on 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 by the agencies and PCTA 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 were quick to remove most hazards in 2021. With recent storms being accompanied by strong winds and heavy ice loads, hikers will encounter some new and additional hazards. Some are described above and 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).

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 much work in 2020 by USFS volunteer Bill Rhoads and myself, the whitethorn has grown back rapidly, but still remains much less challenging than in 2019.

Many treefall hazards from Red Tahquitz to Antsell Rock (PCT Miles 172.5-175) were cleared in June 2021 prior to the rockslide removal work mentioned above. Nevertheless more than 20 remain, including at least six major obstructions for hikers. Tahquitz Creek to Red Tahquitz (PCT Miles 175-177) was cleared in early June 2021. All of this section has likely added new treefall hazards this winter.

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, and again since December 2021. The Trail Report has “adopted” Seven Pines Trail as a priority for maintenance work as the trail has had a disproportionate number of lost hiker rescues in recent years. Starting in November 2021, 42 treefall hazards on the lower 3.0 miles of trail have been removed. Almost all of this section has also been thoroughly trimmed and cleared, and the trail is now obvious and easy to follow for much of its length (when clear of snow). However at least 18 downed trees remain on the upper 0.7 mile of trail, the route is very obscure in places, and cautious navigation is required especially for those who are not very familiar with hiking this trail. Dark Canyon campground remains closed.

SNOW DEPTHS measured on 31st January 2022 are as follows (or on 2nd February for Deer Springs Trail locations). The first number is the current average depth, with the snow depth recorded on 31st December 2021 following in parentheses. Note that average depth is given; due to strong winds accompanying some of the storms, and differential melting, there is considerable drifting and variability. Altitudes are approximate.

San Jacinto Peak (10810ft): 16 inches (was 30 inches on 31st December)

Little Round Valley (9800ft): 14 inches on 2nd February (was 25 inches on 31st December)

Wellman Divide (9700ft): 9 inches (was 26 inches on 31st December)

Annie’s Junction/approx. PCT Mile 181.8 (9070ft): 8 inches (was 23 inches on 31st December)

Deer Springs Trail at junction with Seven Pines Trail/PCT Mile 184.9 (8700ft): 6 inches on 2nd February (was 11 inches on 31st December)

Strawberry Junction/PCT Mile 183 (8100ft): 0-1 inches on 2nd February (was 8 inches on 31st December)

Saddle Junction/approx. PCT Mile 179.9 (8070ft): 1-2 inches (was 12 inches on 31st December).

Devil’s Slide Trail at Humber Park (6520ft): 0 inches (was 7 inches on 31st December)

Idyllwild (at 5550ft): 0 inches (was 6.5 inches on 31st December)

Thank you fellow hikers 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 have its challenges and 2022 already looks like it will be 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.

The Peak Trail at 9800ft just above Wellman Divide on 31st January 2022 (above), and one month earlier on 31st December 2021 (below).

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