Trail update 7th December 2022

Two moderate snow storms in the next ten days or so are expected to have a major combined impact on the San Jacinto mountains. The first on Sunday 11th-Monday 12th may initially produce up to 1.5 inch of rain at the elevation of Idyllwild, transitioning to 2-4 inches of snow on Sunday night into Monday, while 10-12 inches of snow are forecast for the high country. There is disagreement between the forecast models where the freeze level will be for most of Sunday 11th which may alter the potential snowfall amounts (versus rainfall) at mid elevations. A less intense but slow moving multi-storm system is forecast for Friday 16th-Wednesday 21st. Forecasts range widely from 6-22 inches of snow for the highest elevations across multiple days, with a mix of rain and several inches of snow at mid elevations.

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Potentially stormy weather forecast for four periods in the past ten days all failed to significantly impact the San Jacinto mountains. Cold clouds in the high country produced thick rime on the trees above about 10,200 ft elevation on 1st December (photo from 2nd below) but otherwise no meaningful precipitation. On the afternoon of Monday 6th I was treated to moody clouds and virga, a cloud base just above my head at San Jacinto Peak, and the briefest possible flurry of small snow flakes while at the Peak (but nothing settled).

As mentioned last week, current trail conditions are oddly reminiscent of spring, with snow distribution and iciness typical of April rather than December. That said, temperatures in the high country are much more typical of December than April! Snow from the moderate storm on 8th-9th November (discussed here) continues to melt slowly.

We survey the trail system daily, with hikes via different routes to San Jacinto Peak several times per week, Tahquitz Peak and vicinity at least weekly, and many other trails on other days. On 2nd, 5th, and 6th we barebooted to San Jacinto Peak on well-traveled and compacted tracks through increasingly patchy light icy snow. Monday 5th was the first day since the snow storm in early November that I did not use spikes for descending, as the icy snow in the high country was crisp and grippy in cold, cloudy conditions. Conversely on the afternoon of Tuesday 6th the ice was distinctly more watery, and I wore spikes from San Jacinto Peak down to Wellman Divide (9700 ft). In general most hikers will likely prefer to use spikes at least for descending down to about 10,000 ft (or lower).

Trails remain icy due to daily freeze/thaw cycles and compaction from hiker traffic, and spikes are useful throughout the trail system above about 9000 ft (lower in places). Spikes tend to be most valuable for descending even when not needed for ascending. Given cold temperatures for the foreseeable future, melting is expected to slow (or largely stop in the high country). Snowshoes are not required anywhere, as recent experience has shown that off-trail snow is now too shallow and/or patchy for snowshoes.

Hikers should be prepared for temperatures generally below freezing in the high country, and well below freezing when considering wind chill effects (see below for my recent weather observations from San Jacinto Peak).

Snow depths measured at various locations on the trail system are given at the foot of this posting. Note however that snow depth is rarely indicative of the ease (or otherwise) of hiking a given trail. Although excellent tracks are now in place and clearly visible for almost all major trails cautious navigation remains recommended.

Dark Canyon Road (4S02, the access to Seven Pines Trail) and Santa Rosa Truck Trail (7S02) closed to vehicle traffic for the season on 7th November 2022. Black Mountain Road also closed on 7th November to vehicle traffic at the gate 1.7 miles up from Highway 243. Forest Service campgrounds at Boulder Basin, Marion Mountain, and Fern Basin are closed for the season. Stone Creek campground had also closed, then reopened for Thanksgiving weekend.

The stunning vista south from about PCT Mile 180 shortly after sunset on 6th December 2022. The distinctive outline of Tahquitz Peak and Tahquitz Rock are to the left, while the lights of central Idyllwild are visible in the valley below.

WEATHER

A classic La Nina pattern – cool but relatively dry – is in place for the third winter in a row. Temperatures will be below seasonal for December for at least the next week, with many days cloudy or at least partly cloudy. Forecasts are increasingly confident of a moderate storm on Sunday 11th, with up to 1.5 inch of rain at the elevation of Idyllwild, turning into 1-3 inches of light snow on Sunday night, while 8-14 inches of snow are forecast for the high country.

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Tuesday 6th December 2022 at 1530 the air temperature was 19.9°F (-7°C), with a windchill temperature of 3.8°F (-16°C), 18% relative humidity, and a sharp due West wind sustained at 7 mph gusting to 13.2 mph.

At the on Monday 5th December 2022 at 0840 the air temperature was 24.1°F (-4°C), with a windchill temperature of 2.8°F (-16°C), 20% relative humidity, and a bitter WSW wind sustained at 18 mph gusting to 33.0 mph.

At the Peak on Friday 2nd December 2022 at 1620 the air temperature was 26.2°F (-3°C), with a windchill temperature of 11.8°F (-11°C), 55% relative humidity, and a fresh WSW wind sustained at 8 mph gusting to 15.4 mph.

Early morning high clouds to the south-east as seen from the Peak Trail, 5th December 2022. Luella Todd and Divide peaks are in the foreground to the left, and the Santa Rosa mountains in the distance to the right. Note the extremely hazy conditions in the Coachella Valley, and the first hint of the elevated marine layer reaching the Desert Divide on the far right of the image.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

Trails above about 8500 ft currently remain lightly covered with patchy icy snow (more continuous above about 9000 ft on the west side, 9900 ft on the east). However excellent well-traveled and compacted tracks are now in place for almost all major trails (details below).

Hikers will encounter new treefall hazards due to the enormous weight of ice from freezing rain associated with the early November storm, followed by recent Santa Ana winds, and since the passage of Tropical Storm Kay in September. New treefall hazards on major trails have been reported to relevant agencies, and those on Spitler Peak Trail have already been cleared by the Trail Report.

The Ernie Maxwell Trail is clear of snow. One major treefall hazard is across the trail almost exactly midway between the trailheads at Humber Park and Tahquitz View Drive.

Devil’s Slide Trail is functionally clear of icy snow to Saddle Junction. A few minor patches exist close to the top. Spikes are generally not required.

There is a very well-traveled track through increasingly patchy thin icy snow from Saddle Junction to Tahquitz Peak. The 0.4 mile section of South Ridge Trail between Chinquapin Flat/PCT and Tahquitz Peak has a well-traveled and level track to follow through the slowly melting inch of patchy icy snow (photo below from 30th November). Although not required, some hikers will find spikes useful especially for descending.

The Wellman Trail from Annie’s Junction to Wellman Divide has about 20% icy snow cover. Some hikers will find spikes are useful at least for descending.

The Peak Trail still has about 90% cover of icy snow to San Jacinto Peak. Spikes can be useful for descending in particular. Early on cold mornings, the icy snow is grippy, and I did not find spikes necessary on 5th.

The East Ridge Trail (from near Miller Peak to San Jacinto Peak) has a handful of tracks through the continuous snow, though none (including mine) accurately follow the trail route. Snow on this east slope is drifted, and remains 3-8 inches deep in places.

There is a well-traveled track on light icy snow from Long Valley/Tram to Wellman Divide. Skyline Trail is now largely clear, but has very limited patchy, thin, icy snow above about 7200 ft (the Traverse to Grubb’s Notch). Spikes will not be required by most hikers, depending upon comfort level hiking on patchy angled icy snow.

South Ridge Trail is now functionally clear of snow to Tahquitz Peak with only 1-2% icy snow cover overall. Some hikers may continue to find spikes useful for some of the minor icy patches but they are no longer required. South Ridge Road is clear of ice and snow.

Marion Mountain Trail (surveyed at least weekly in past month) now has only about 20% icy snow cover, largely in the central section between about 7400-8200 ft elevation which is less sun-exposed. Many hikers will nevertheless find spikes useful in places, especially for descending.

Deer Springs Trail (surveyed 8th December) is functionally clear of ice to Strawberry Junction (8100 ft). Snow cover is a patchy 20% from Strawberry Junction north for about 1.5 mile (roughly 8600 ft). From the top of Marion Mountain Trail icy snow cover is about 90% to Little Round Valley, although there are a few lengthy clear areas on sun-exposed sections. Snow cover remains >95% through Little Round Valley up to San Jacinto Peak. Above Little Round Valley there are multiple tracks through the snow ascending toward San Jacinto Peak, none of which entirely accurately follow the established trail. The trail is clearest above immediately above LRV and again close to the Peak junction. Spikes are recommended at least for descending upper Deer Springs Trail.

Spitler Peak Trail (last surveyed 18th November) is clear of snow. Given the importance of this trail for the safety of northbound PCT hikers in particular, it is one of several trails “adopted” by the Trail Report. We removed nine treefall hazards on 18th November and the trail is now completely clear again, bringing to 56 the number of trees we have removed from this trail since mid 2021.

Willow Creek Trail remains a relatively slow, messy hike for a couple of miles. Some 37 trees are down on the Forest Service section of this trail between Skunk Cabbage Junction and the State Park boundary (23rd September 2022 survey). Of those, 27 are in the 0.6 mile section between Willow Creek crossing and the State Park boundary. A few trees were cut by chainsaw at the far (Hidden Divide) end of the Forest Service section recently, presumably by a CCC or State Park crew. The State Park cut about a dozen trees on the section of trail under their jurisdiction in late July. Another tree came down near the start of this trail close to Saddle Junction in Tropical Storm Kay.

Although some treefall hazards from Red Tahquitz to Antsell Rock (PCT Miles 172.5-175) were cleared in June 2021 prior to the rockslide removal work, the situation has badly deteriorated since. In my most recent survey there were at least 82 treefall hazards between PCT Miles 170-175 including 20+ major ones, and about six more on PCT Miles 175-177. PCTA is aware of the situation, and is hoping to start addressing it soon (weather permitting).

On Fuller Ridge Trail there are five major treefall hazards obstructing the trail in the 1.5 mile section nearest to the campground (PCT Miles 189-190.5). Although most of the downed trees reported this summer were cleared in July, four more major trees came down in Tropical Storm Kay in September.

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 described by the Forest Service as “not maintained”. This is frankly grossly misleading and in reality both trails no longer exist and are so completely overgrown I strongly 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 former trails (local hikers Charles Phelan and Mark Gumprecht kindly nicknamed 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 very careful route-finding. My 2022 survey counted 97 trees down on this 2.1 miles of trail. It is especially obscure 0.1-0.3 mile east of the Willow Creek crossing, becoming more obvious near Caramba. Very cautious navigation is advised throughout the area.

Seven Pines Trail has one set of hiker tracks through the snow since the storm in early November 2022. This trail has had limited hiker traffic since November 2018, largely because Dark Canyon Road has only been open for a few months since the “Great Valentine’s Day flood” of 2019. 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 the past decade. Between November 2021 and May 2022, 61 downed trees were removed and almost the entire trail thoroughly trimmed and cleared. Remarkably Tropical Storm Kay did not add any new treefall hazards to this trail. Nevertheless Seven Pines remains a genuine wilderness trail unlike the relatively wide, bare, and obvious routes of, for example, Devil’s Slide or Marion Mountain trails. Cautious navigation remains required for those who do not have significant experience of hiking this trail.

San Jacinto Peak, late afternoon on 2nd December 2022. Thick rime had accumulated on the tress and rocks above about 10,200 ft overnight, but there was no fresh snow. In the distance, Mount San Gorgonio is just obscured by a cloud base at about 11,400 ft elevation.

SNOW DEPTHS measured on 2nd-5th December 2022 are as follows, with depths after the only significant storm of this winter to date (on 9th November) for comparison in parentheses where known. Note that average depth is given; due to strong winds there has been drifting, often particularly accumulating in the trails. Conversely in places scouring by the wind means the depths can be well below the average. Altitudes are approximate.

San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 2-4 inches (was 12 inches on 9th November)

Little Round Valley (9800 ft): 2-4 inches (was approx. 10 inches on 9th November)

Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 0-1 inch (was 4 inches on 9th November)

Annie’s Junction/approx. PCT Mile 181.8 (9070 ft): 0-1 inch (was 6 inches on 9th November)

Deer Springs Trail at top of Marion Mountain Trail (8700 ft): 0-1 inch

Tahquitz Peak (north side trail, 8700 ft): 0-1 inch

Tahquitz Peak (south side trail, 8500-8700 ft): 0 inch

Long Valley (8600 ft): 0-1 inch (was 2-3 inches on 9th November)

Strawberry Junction (8100 ft): 0 inch (was approx. 2-3 inches on 9th November)

Saddle Junction/approx. PCT Mile 179.9 (8070 ft): 0-1 inch (was 3 inches on 9th November)

Devil’s Slide Trail at Humber Park (6550 ft): 0 inch (was 2.5 inches on 9th November)

Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): 0 inch (was <1 inch on 9th November)

While all time and labor is volunteered, the San Jacinto Trail Report uses small private donations to cover costs. Every year seems to have unique challenges and 2022 has been no exception. Your contribution keeps the Report available to all, free from advertising or paywalls, and independent from agencies. If you have found this Report useful, please consider using this link to the Donate page. Zelle, Venmo, and PayPal are all options. Thank you so much for your support.

The well-defined track on the short section of South Ridge Trail between the north side of Tahquitz Peak and Chinquapin Flat, 30th November 2022. Although many hikers will prefer to use spikes, they are not required, depending on comfort level hiking on this type of thin icy snow (and also on quality of footwear).
Above, Wellman Divide (9700 ft) on 28th November 2022, and below, the same view immediately after a moderate snow storm nearly three weeks earlier on 9th November.

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