Snow and trail update 17th March 2022

[UPDATED 20th March: very minor precipitation overnight included 0.09in rain in Idyllwild and 0.25in snow at 8600ft with a dusting down to 7500ft. Spikes remain recommended above about 7000ft.]

[UPDATED 19th March: we hiked PCT Miles 168.5-179.5 and reported on conditions in this video report.]

[I have added a section “Pacific Crest Trail” at the foot of this update. However significant sections of the main Report also have key information for thru hikers, especially the discussion of current snow/ice conditions and recommended traction equipment.]

Although temperatures have been relatively cool for most of the past week, sunny conditions have started to rapidly melt the light snowfall from 5th-6th March from exposed areas at all elevations and from much of the trail system below about 7000 ft. Snow depths measured on 14th March are detailed near the foot of this post – and were not substantially different on 17th – but note that snow depth is rarely indicative of the difficulty (or otherwise) of conditions for hiking.

In addition to multiple ascents of San Jacinto Peak by different routes in recent days we have also surveyed Spitler Peak Trail, several segments of PCT Miles 151-170 and its side trails, plus multiple Forest roads. Current conditions for individual trails are discussed in detail below where known. These will continue to change with rapid melting over the next week or two (and the possibility of light snow on Sunday 20th).

Early on Monday 14th March we ascended San Jacinto Peak via Marion Mountain and Deer Springs trails. I went minimalist with equipment this time, which proved to be the right decision, as boots with excellent traction were sufficient all the way to the Peak. We descended the east side of the mountain, via the East Ridge, Peak, Wellman, and Devil’s Slide trails. Although I wore spikes down to about 8000 ft they were not required below about 10,400 ft as the softening snow allowed for good grip. Hikers with a lower comfort level on snow and icy snow will find spikes useful more widely. Although useful tracks are now in place for most major trails (discussed below), cautious navigation is strongly recommended everywhere.

On 8th March I recorded a video report of conditions on the Desert Divide, specifically at Apache Peak (PCT Mile 169.5) available here.

Multiple hiker falls already this year in the San Jacinto mountains, including one fatality, demonstrate the critical 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.

Spikes are recommended (but not essential on well-traveled trails) almost everywhere above about 7000 ft, as snow on trails can be icy following freeze-thaw cycles and where compacted by hiker traffic. Spikes are generally most valuable for traversing and for descending. Thru hikers that leave the PCT by Mile 165, and then regain the trail at Mile 191 using the Black Mountain Road alternate, no longer require spikes (currently spikes remain strongly recommended for Miles 166-191).

Last week snowshoeing conditions were the best of the winter so far, thanks to the depth, structure, and low water content of the graupel snow from the early March storms. However the main trails now have compacted tracks and snowshoes are no longer required. Snowshoes remain recommended in off-trail areas only above about 8000ft. Below that elevation snow coverage is generally too shallow for snowshoeing and with continued melting, conditions are expected to deteriorate even off-trail over the next week or two.

Despite generally warmer than seasonal weather, hikers should nevertheless be prepared for temperatures near or below freezing in the high country, and potentially well below freezing when considering wind chill effects (see below for my recent weather observations from San Jacinto Peak).

The USFS gate at Humber Park reopened on 11th March.

South Ridge Road is open and is largely clear of icy snow. AWD/4WD vehicle recommended.

According to the Forest Service website the following USFS roads are in winter closure (for vehicle traffic only): Black Mountain (4S01), Dark Canyon (5S02), and Santa Rosa (7S02).

Spectacular ice- and snowscape at PCT Mile 169 on 8th March 2022. Apache Peak is the high point on the left (the PCT route goes around the east summit on the far right).

WEATHER

Temperatures have yet again climbed dramatically to well above seasonal and are expected to remain above average until Sunday 20th March, when they will very briefly dip to below seasonal. Temperatures in the last week or so of March are currently forecast to be far above seasonal. There is the possibility of a light snowfall, mainly above 7000 ft elevation, on 20th.

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. Snowfall in both December 2021 and February 2022 was below seasonal for the high country. Consequently, for the tenth consecutive winter, precipitation will be below average in the San Jacinto high country (and eight of those ten winters have been well below average).

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Thursday 17th March 2022 at 0830 the air temperature was 29.1°F (-2°C), with a windchill temperature of 14.5°F (-10°C), 19% relative humidity, and a bitter due North wind sustained at 14 mph gusting to 16.5 mph.

At the Peak on Monday 14th March 2022 at 0830 the air temperature was 38.8°F (4°C), with a windchill temperature of 30.7°F (-1°C), 47% relative humidity, and a gentle NNW wind sustained at 5 mph gusting to 9.9 mph.

At the Peak on Sunday 6th March 2022 at 1045 the air temperature was 17.9°F (-8°C), with a windchill temperature of 0.3°F (-18°C), 71% relative humidity, and a steady WNW wind sustained at 7 mph gusting to 15.0 mph.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

Trails below about 6700ft are now generally clear of snow, light snow cover is increasingly patchy below 9000ft, and light to moderate cover remains largely continuous everywhere above 9000ft. Icy snow from December 2021, with fresh powder from storms in late February and early March, persists on shaded north and north-east slopes (e.g., Red Tahquitz, Tahquitz, Apache, and Spitler peaks, and Antsell Rock). Melting is already well underway since the last snowfall on 6th March and will accelerate rapidly over the next week, most prominently on sun-exposed slopes and below 9000 ft.

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, especially in vulnerable burn areas (e.g., Willow Creek Trail, PCT Miles 166-177).

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 thorough knowledge of how to use both) are required. Snowshoes are not advised due to the angle of the icy snow. There was a fatal hiker fall here on Sunday 30th January.

Effective Tuesday 1st February 2022 the State Park closed the section of Skyline Trail that falls within its jurisdiction, above 5800 ft elevation, “due to dangerous ice accumulation”. (Skyline Trail forms the lower two-thirds of the “Cactus-to-Clouds” [C2C] route.) Long Valley Ranger Station staff have stated that the trail may not reopen before April. The State Park boundary is not marked but is near the site of the old Florian’s Cache, below Flat Rock. The open section of trail below 5800 ft is clear of snow.

Current snow cover on the PCT is very limited from Miles 151 (Highway 74) to about 160, and then increasingly patchy between Miles 160 and about 175 (Red Tahquitz). Icy snow remains relatively deep on north-facing slopes e.g., Spitler Peak (Mile 168), Apache Peak (Mile 169.5-170), and Antsell Rock (Mile 171-172). Although limited, some of these chutes and slopes are challenging and spikes (at least) are strongly recommended for the foreseeable future. See my video from the north-east slope of Apache Peak from 8th March linked here. Note that the off-trail north side of the Apache saddle is also still partly snow-covered. Although snow is largely continuous between Miles 175-192, this will continue to change rapidly over the next week or two with warm, sunny weather forecast. Snow cover is already patchy in sun-exposed areas between Miles 178 to 184, with the exception of the notoriously stubborn half mile just south of Annie’s Junction starting at about Mile 180.3. From Mile 183.5 to 192, snow is largely continuous, although some exposed sections of Fuller Ridge (e.g., parts of Miles 186.5-188.5) are thinning and clearing rapidly, as are areas north of Mile 191.

The Ernie Maxwell Trail [updated 16th March] is essentially clear of snow with a few tiny patches near Humber Park.

Devil’s Slide Trail is clear of icy snow to about 6800 ft, and then with about 60% patchy cover to Saddle Junction (mainly near the latter). Some hikers will find spikes useful on the upper trail, especially for descending.

The PCT for a mile north of Saddle Junction (“Angel’s Glide”) is already 50% clear of snow. The Wellman Trail has a well-traveled posthole route that largely follows the trail and remains more than 90% snow-covered, but sun-exposed sections are clearing rapidly.

The well-traveled compacted track on the Peak Trail from Wellman Divide to near Miller Peak follows the trail route. Icy snow cover remains >95%. Above 10,400ft tracks form a partially compacted snowshoe route up the East Ridge. The route of the Peak Trail from near Miller Peak to Summit Junction has not been broken. The Round Valley Trail has well-traveled tracks to follow from Long Valley to Wellman Divide.

Marion Mountain Trail [updated 17th March] has about 60% snow cover overall, with a very well-traveled compacted track throughout. The trail is largely clear to about 7100 ft and then again in sun-exposed areas above 8200 ft to Deer Springs Trail (at 8700ft). Snow cover is about 90% in the central elevations of the trail. Spikes are very useful, especially for descending. There is one huge new treefall hazard across the trail exactly at the State Park/Forest Service boundary.

There are now [17th March] two sets of northbound posthole tracks on Fuller Ridge Trail. Spikes (at least) are strongly recommended for this section.

There were no visible hiker tracks on Seven Pines Trail as of 17th March.

Deer Springs Trail is clear of snow to the Suicide Rock Trail, and is rapidly clearing of snow to Strawberry Junction at 8100ft. From there to 8700ft (0.2 mile south of Marion Mountain Trail) snow cover is a rapidly thinning 50%. Thereafter snow cover is nearly continuous, with a few minor clear patches developing. 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 and on up to near the Peak the track follows my snowshoe route from last week which did not attempt to follow the trail route and is very direct and steep (and would be a challenging ascent for many). Cautious navigation is required as there are several alternative tracks meandering across this snow slope.

The Suicide Rock Trail is largely clear of snow, with very obvious tracks through the rapidly melting remaining snow patches.

Spitler Peak Trail is clear of snow on its lower half, and with some patches (totaling about 10% cover) in the upper half. Some hikers will find spikes useful for descending. Forty downed trees, most from an ice storm in late December 2021, plus dozens of additional trunks and branches in the trail, have been removed by the Trail Report from this trail in 2022.

South Ridge Trail (south of Tahquitz Peak) is rapidly clearing of snow up to Old Lookout Flat (7600ft). Icy snow cover is about 80% to near Tahquitz Peak, and continuous on the uppermost half-a-dozen switchbacks. Spikes recommended. The middle section of South Ridge Trail (between May Valley Road and the top of South Ridge Road) has several trees down which are significant obstructions.

The Strawberry Trail between Annie’s and Strawberry junctions (roughly PCT Miles 181-183) has been well-traveled, is very sun-exposed and is clearing rapidly of snow.

The Caramba Trail from near Reeds Meadow through Laws Camp and on to Caramba, and the Cedar Trail from Willow Creek Trail to Laws, are optimistically described by the Forest Service as “not maintained”. In reality both trails no longer exist and are so heavily overgrown I advise hikers do not attempt to follow them. An informal use trail to Laws is much more direct and avoids all of the very challenging bushwhacking of the unmaintained trails (some local hikers dubbed it the “King Trail” when I established the route in 2019). It leaves the Willow Creek Trail exactly 1.0 mile from Saddle Junction (0.46 mile from the Skunk Cabbage turning), descending largely on established deer trails for 1.2 miles, meeting Willow Creek just upstream from the old Laws Camp. From Laws east to Caramba the route of the original Caramba Trail has been well-cairned by myself and others and can largely be followed with careful route-finding. My February 2022 survey counted 97 trees down on this 2.1 mile trail. It is especially obscure 0.1-0.3 mile east of the Willow Creek crossing, generally becoming clearer near Caramba. Cautious navigation is advised throughout the area.

Willow Creek Trail has a poor posthole track at least to the Skunk Cabbage junction. When surveyed on 11th February 2022 it had at least 40 downed trees between Skunk Cabbage Junction and Hidden Divide, nearly 30 of these on the Forest Service section.

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 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 from February 2019 to 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.

Looking towards the Desert Divide from Butterfly Peak on a sublime morning, 10th March 2022. The prominent visible summit to the left is Lion Peak, with Pyramid Peak and Pine Mountain either side obscured by frigid low cloud.

SNOW DEPTHS measured on 14th March 2022 are as follows. The first number is the current average total depth, with the greatest depth recorded after the largest storm of this calendar year (on 22nd-23rd February 2022) given in parentheses, where known. Due to strong winds accompanying storms and complex differential melting between snowfall events, note that there is considerable variability in snow depth. Altitudes are approximate.

San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 18 inches (31-35 inches on 23rd February)

Little Round Valley (9800 ft): 20 inches (with heavy drifting here)

Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 7 inches (23 inches on 23rd February)

Annie’s Junction/approx. PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 16 inches (28 inches on 23rd February)

Seven Pines Trail junction with Deer Springs Trail/approx. PCT Mile 184.9 (8700 ft): 9 inches

Strawberry Junction/approx. PCT Mile 183 (8100 ft): 2-3 inches

Saddle Junction/approx. PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 5 inches (16 inches on 23rd February)

Devil’s Slide Trail at Humber Park (6520 ft): 0 inches (15 inches on 23rd February)

Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): 0 inches, melted by 10th March (10.5 inches on 23rd February)

Garner Valley (at 4200 ft): 0 inches, melted by 7th March (2 inches on 24th February).

It’s northbound PCT season! Please help the Trail Report at our busiest time of the year. While all labor and time is volunteered, the San Jacinto Trail Report completely depends on private donations to cover operating costs. Your contribution helps to keep the Report active, free from advertising, and independent from agencies. If you have found this Report useful, please visit the Donate page. Zelle has been added as a fee-free way to donate. Thank you for your support.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

This has been a well-below average snow year for the San Jacinto high country (for the third season in a row, and now for eight of the past ten winters). Given rapid climate change here there could 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 perilous. Details of current snow/ice conditions will be clear from updates to the Trail Report over coming weeks.

The short snow slope on the NE side of Apache Peak (Mile 169.5) that has proved challenging over the years is currently snow-covered, but a few days ago was not unusually difficult, as discussed in the video available here. Spikes are currently recommended. Every individual should make their own assessment of whether to cross based on their comfort level on angled snow, their snow/ice experience, available equipment, time of day, and current snow conditions. If in any doubt whatsoever, turn around and take the Spitler Peak Trail alternate option at Mile 168.5.

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).

If you take an alternate further south, it is possible to regain the PCT from Idyllwild via Devil’s Slide Trail at Saddle Junction (about Mile 179.5). Do not attempt to regain the PCT via South Ridge Trail as the slope on the north side of Tahquitz Peak always remains ice-covered well into April (at least), requires crampons and ice axe, and is notoriously treacherous.

Contrary to some reports, Black Mountain Road is not closed to hiker traffic, only to vehicles. This is a temporary, seasonal closure, and usually it reopens to vehicles in March or 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). Little Round Valley and Strawberry Junction are good options for thru hikers.

Wellman Divide (9700ft) on 14th March 2022 (above), and eight days earlier on 6th March (below). In sun-exposed locations like the Divide about 4-8 inches of snow have melted in a week, and melting will accelerate with very warm temperatures over the next few days.

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