Snow and trail update 21st December 2022

WEATHER UPDATE 23rd December: forecasts have been shifting dramatically in recent days. Following an unusually warm weekend, multiple “atmospheric river” storms will bring cold, cloudy weather with variable precipitation from Tuesday 27th December well into the first week of January. There is considerable uncertainty regarding timing and precipitation amounts for Southern California. Two or more inches of rain are likely for mid elevations (e.g., Idyllwild) on 27th-30th, with several inches of snow possible above 10,000 ft elevation on various days over the next week or so. High freeze levels may mean rain and/or freezing rain at the highest peaks at times, and icy or mixed snow/ice conditions at all elevations. The next full update will likely be on the afternoon of 25th.

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Conditions immediately following last week’s snow storm, the second significant Pacific system of winter 2022/23, that impacted the San Jacinto mountains on 11th-12th December were summarized in the previous Report (available here).

A major warming trend will significantly change conditions on the trail system in the next week or two. The week from 21st-26th December may be among the warmest on record for the year-end holiday period. In Idyllwild for several days both overnight low and daytime high temperatures will be more typical of March or even April than of late December. In the high country temperatures will be more like April or May, some 10-20°F above seasonal, before finally cooling (but still remaining above average) in the last couple of days of the year. Most significantly – in terms of snow conditions – daytime temperatures at all elevations will be well above freezing for about a week starting 20th.

Such unseasonably warm temperatures mean that snow melt will be rapid everywhere while in many areas freeze/thaw cycles will result in icy trails in the early mornings above about 7000 ft. By late morning snow conditions will become poor for hiking (soft, slippery, and even slushy) especially in sun-exposed areas.

On Thursday 15th I ascended San Jacinto Peak via the east side (Devil’s Slide, Wellman, and Peak trails) and descended the west side via Deer Springs Trail, while on Monday 19th we hiked to the Peak up and down the east side trails. In the week since the last storm we have surveyed trails around Tahquitz Peak twice, plus South Ridge, Spitler Peak, and Marion Mountain trails, among others.

On 15th I barebooted (i.e. no traction device) to 9000 ft on a lightly traveled and lumpy posthole track through thin icy snow. I snowshoed the rest of the way to San Jacinto Peak through lovely light powder. I descended via Deer Springs Trail, breaking trail snowshoeing through virgin powder all the way down to the Suicide Rock Trail junction.

On 19th the cold icy early morning snow had good bite for grippy boots and I barebooted all the way to San Jacinto Peak. I was surprised to find that no one had made it through on the Wellman Trail over the weekend, so I postholed somewhat over my snowshoe tracks from 15th until Wellman Divide. From there the Peak Trail was easy going, having been well-traveled by hikers coming up the Tram. I put on my Kahtoola microspikes to descend from the Peak, ultimately leaving them on most of the way down Devil’s Slide Trail.

Although good tracks are now in place for most major trails (details below), cautious navigation is recommended everywhere.

Snow depths measured at various locations on the trail system are given at the foot of this posting. Note however that snow depth itself is rarely indicative of the difficulty (or otherwise) of hiking a particular trail. Very shallow snow is often icy and potentially perilous, while deeper powder can actually be much safer, albeit slow-going for most hikers.

Spikes are currently recommended throughout the trail system above about 6500 ft. They are not however required, depending upon your comfort level hiking on shallow variable snow, potentially mixed with slushy and/or icy patches (depending upon time of day). Spikes will likely become increasingly useful over the next few days and weeks as established trails become consolidated by hiker traffic and undergo freeze-thaw cycles. They tend to be especially useful for descending trails.

Snowshoes are no longer required on the established trail system, which is now too compacted for snowshoes. However they will remain very valuable for off-trail travel at elevations above about 9000 ft (potentially lower in places) for the next week or two at least.

Note that temperatures fluctuating either side of freezing are forecast for mid to upper elevations (at least >6000 ft) for the foreseeable future. Melting of snow on sun-exposed slopes and freeze-thaw cycles will combine to change trail conditions and potentially the preferred equipment for the terrain. The advice above should be used with this in mind, and if in any doubt carry the necessary traction devices that you will be most comfortable using.

Despite warmer temperatures on some days, hikers should be prepared for temperatures near freezing in the high country, and generally below freezing when considering wind chill effects (see below for my recent weather observations from San Jacinto Peak).

Currently the USFS gate at Humber Park remains closed. Even when the gate is closed there are nine legal parking spaces this side of the locked gate (near the upper Ernie Maxwell trailhead). Vehicles not parked in these spaces may be ticketed and/or towed. If there are “Road Closed” signs further down – as was often the case last winter especially at weekends and holiday periods – then those nine spaces are also unavailable for legal parking.

South Ridge Road (5S11) is also currently closed to vehicle traffic.

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, and the State Park campground at Stone Creek, are closed for the season.

Anabel taking a well-earned break in 4-5 inches of lovely fluffy powder at Old Lookout Flat (7600 ft) on South Ridge Trail, 13th December 2022. Tahquitz Peak is directly behind her with the San Jacinto high country in the distance on the left.

WEATHER

The forecast for the last ten days of December differs radically from what was predicted just a week ago, and a major warming trend is expected rather than another cold Pacific storm. Indeed the final third of December may be one of the warmest on record for the holiday period. Temperatures will climb steadily this week and be well above seasonal for at least 21st-28th December. In Idyllwild both overnight low and daytime high temperatures will be more typical of late March or even April than of late December. In the high country temperatures will be 10-20°F above seasonal and, more significantly regarding snow/ice conditions, well above freezing for at least a week.

Despite the relatively weak sun at this time of year, such warm temperatures mean that snow melt may be unusually rapid (for December) at all elevations, snow conditions will generally be poor for hiking (soft, slippery, and even slushy), while in many areas conditions will be ideal for freeze/thaw cycles and hence icy trails in the early mornings above about 7000 ft.

There is precipitation forecast from Wednesday 28th into the first week of 2023. Light or moderate rain is currently forecast daily at mid elevations (possibly totaling one inch in Idyllwild), with an uncertain possibility of light snow in the high country (<3 inches above 10,000 ft elevation).

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Monday 19th December 2022 at 0920 the air temperature was 31.3°F (0°C), with a windchill temperature of 20.7°F (-6°C), 9% relative humidity, and a light WNW wind sustained at 5 mph gusting to 9.9 mph.

At the Peak on Thursday 15th December 2022 at 0715 the air temperature was 28.0°F (-2°C), with a windchill temperature of 13.9°F (-10°C), 52% relative humidity, and a chilly WNW wind sustained at 9 mph gusting to 14.5 mph.

At the Peak on Monday 12th December 2022 at 0715 the air temperature was 9.7°F (-12°C), with a windchill temperature of -13.4°F (-25°C), 100% relative humidity, and a sharp WSW wind sustained at 12 mph gusting to 21.2 mph.

Upper end of Little Round Valley (9800 ft) on 15th December 2022, with about ten inches of snow, mostly from the storm four days earlier.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

All trails above about 6500 ft remain lightly (or above 9000 ft, moderately) snow-covered. However, relatively well-traveled tracks are now in place for most major trails (details below).

The Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail has a well-traveled track to follow throughout its length, snow cover is about 80%.

Devil’s Slide Trail has an excellent compacted track to follow to Saddle Junction. Snow cover is only 50% below 6700 ft, about 95% up to 7200 ft, and continuous thereafter. However it is thinning rapidly everywhere, and will look radically different in a week or so.

Early on the morning of Saturday 17th I broke trail back-and-forth across the 0.4 mile section of South Ridge Trail between Chinquapin Flat/PCT and Tahquitz Peak which now has a lightly traveled posthole track to follow through the drifted powder. The average snow depth in this area is only about five inches, but on this slope it is heavily drifted in places at 10-12 inches. Although not essential in the moderate depth powder, spikes are strongly recommended and many hikers will find them useful especially for descending. Hikers who have an ice axe (and know how to use it) may find it useful in places on this short section of trail. This trail will become significantly more treacherous as it undergoes freeze/thaw cycles and compaction over the next week or two.

Immediately north of Saddle Junction, snow cover is starting to become somewhat patchy on the sun exposed slope (“Angel’s Glide”) but icy snow cover is continuous through the Wellman and Peak trails to San Jacinto Peak. However the route is now largely well-traveled and compacted.

There is a compacted, well-traveled track on continuous light icy snow from Long Valley/Tram to Wellman Divide.

Skyline Trail has a good track to follow through light icy snow above about 7200 ft (the Traverse to Grubb’s Notch). Spikes are recommended.

South Ridge Trail from the top of South Ridge Road to Tahquitz Peak has a well-traveled track to follow through the very light and patchy 1-3 inches of icy snow. Spikes are not required for ascending, but some hikers will find them useful for descending.

Deer Springs Trail [updated 22nd December] has an accurate track to follow all the way to San Jacinto Peak as I broke trail the entire way down to the Suicide Rock Trail junction on 15th December. I was pleased to see that over the weekend some posthole tracks were added on top of my snowshoe track from last week all the way up Deer Springs Trail to San Jacinto Peak. Although my original track accurately followed the trail above Little Round Valley, there are now a fair number of alternate shortcut tracks across this slope, so cautious navigation is advised. There is a very well-traveled track on the lowest section of Deer Springs Trail continuing out to Suicide Rock.

Marion Mountain Trail [updated 22nd December] has a well-defined but lumpy posthole track throughout. Snow cover remains virtually continuous, but a few small patches are clearing below 7000 ft. Spikes are strongly recommended, at least for descending.

Seven Pines Trail has not been traveled since last week’s storm, at least not in its uppermost section, and there is no track to follow through the snow.

Spitler Peak Trail has a very visible boot track – through light snow in its upper switchbacks – to the PCT.

SNOW DEPTHS measured on 19th December (east side) or 15th December (west side) 2022 are as follows. The first number is the current total snow depth, followed in parentheses by the greatest depth of the winter to date following the latest storm on 11th-12th December. Note that average depth is given; due to strong winds accompanying the storm there is extensive drifting, often particularly accumulating in the trails. Conversely in some places scouring by the wind means the depths are well below the average. Altitudes are approximate.

San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 10-12 inches (12-14 inches on 12th December)

Little Round Valley (9800 ft): 9 inches (10-12 inches on 12th December)

Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 2-4 inches (7 inches on 12th December)

Annie’s Junction/approx. PCT Mile 181.8 (9070 ft): 4-5 inches (5.5 inches on 12th December)

Marion Mountain Trail at junction with PCT (8700 ft): 4-6 inches (6 inches on 12th December)

Long Valley (8600 ft): 3-4 inches (5-6 inches on 12th December)

Strawberry Junction (8100 ft): 3 inches (4 inches on 12th December)

Saddle Junction/approx. PCT Mile 179.9 (8070 ft): 3 inches (4 inches on 12th December)

Devil’s Slide Trail at Humber Park (6550 ft): 0-1 inches (3.5 inches on 12th December)

Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): 0 inch (3.0 inches on 12th December).

Relatively fresh Mountain Lion track, at 6500 ft near Deer Springs Trail, 15th December 2022 (above). The knife is 3.6 inches long for scale. Below, fresh, large Bobcat tracks, 17th December 2022, at 8600 ft on South Ridge Trail.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. While all time and labor is volunteered, the San Jacinto Trail Report uses small private donations to cover costs. Every year seems to have its 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 Peak Trail just above Wellman Divide at 9800 ft on 19th December 2022 (above), and the same view one week earlier on 12th December (below).

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