UPDATE Tuesday 10th January: Another minor and relatively warm storm is passing through our mountains today. The freeze level again started very high at >9000 ft, with light rain falling in Long Valley (8600 ft) all morning. Rain started overnight in Idyllwild, and by late this afternoon (at 1550) totals 1.22 inch. Precipitation turned to occasional light snow in Long Valley at about 1330, with an accumulation by 1550 of just 0.5 inch. The next comprehensive update of the Report will likely be in the evening of Wednesday 11th.
Thursday 5th January saw the fifth storm in the past ten days in the San Jacinto mountains. While we have to be grateful for any precipitation received given our rapidly warming mountain climate, it was not the significant snow-producing storm that had been generally forecast in recent days. About six inches of snow fell at San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft) decreasing to 0.5 inch in upper Fern Valley (at c.6000 ft).
This latest storm was again very mild, as expected from an “atmospheric river” system pulling moisture in from warmer latitudes. The freeze level was above 7000 ft for most of the storm, with freezing rain plastering the vegetation as high as 10,000 ft. The system was cooler in the early hours of Friday morning, with a dusting of snow to 6000 ft and a covering of icy sleet below that in Idyllwild. Prior to that Idyllwild (at 5550 ft) had received 1.04 inches of rain, with a little hail and sleet mixed in.
I recorded a brief video at San Jacinto Peak at about 0930 on Friday 6th (available here on YouTube) which discusses conditions at that time.
On the morning of Friday 6th January, getting an Alpine start, I broke trail the entire way from Humber Park to San Jacinto Peak via Devil’s Slide, PCT, Wellman, Peak, and East Ridge trails. Tracks of myself and a couple of others from recent days were largely visible up Devil’s Slide Trail, and I barebooted to Saddle Junction through thin powder overlying ice. Above Saddle there was a layer of fresh powder (from the previous night) on top of a thick layer of ice, itself on top of more snow from prior storms. This was tricky for postholing which went through the ice layer. but ideal for snowshoes, which I used from Saddle to San Jacinto Peak and back. My Alpine start meant that all layers remained firm throughout the ascent. The traversing slopes above Wellman’s Divide were very firm and relatively tricky in snowshoes, and some hikers may prefer to use spikes (or probably crampons) plus an ice axe above about 9800 ft.
From near Miller Peak, I did not continue to break trail on the Peak Trail, but instead turned up the East Ridge, breaking a track roughly along the route of the old East Ridge Trail.
As I descended past Saddle Junction I was surprised not to see any other tracks as of early afternoon on Friday 6th, which I mention only because of the lack of broken trails this indicates. Indeed there were no other tracks anywhere above Humber Park, not even on lower Devil’s Slide Trail. Cautious navigation is strongly recommended everywhere. With two further snowfalls expected in the next ten days, and moderate to strong winds in the high country expected for most of those days causing some daily drifting of snow, much of the trail system may remain completely or somewhat obscured by moderate snow at least into the third week of January.
Currently only one major trail route has been traveled and even that is partially obscured by icefall, melting and drifted snow. My tracks from today (Friday 6th January) from Humber Park to San Jacinto Peak and back will be largely visible but will be somewhat obscured in places.
Details of 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 route.
Snow depths are currently suitable for snowshoeing everywhere above about 8000 ft, potentially lower in places. This will likely continue to be the case for several weeks, given fresh snowfall expected. Eventually with compaction of the trails caused by increasing hiker traffic and freeze/thaw cycles snowshoes may steadily become less useful, however they will remain valuable for off-trail travel in the high country well into February.
Spikes are currently useful throughout the trail system above about 6000 ft, potentially lower in places. They are not however required, depending upon your comfort level hiking on shallow variable snow, mixed with slushy and icy patches. Spikes will likely become more increasingly useful over the next few days as established trails become consolidated by hiker traffic and undergo freeze-thaw cycles. Spikes tend to be especially useful for descending trails.
Hikers should be prepared for temperatures below freezing in the high country, and far below freezing when considering wind chill effects (see below for my recent weather observations from San Jacinto Peak).
As always after storms in the San Jacinto range be aware of considerable ice fall from overhead trees. Sadly this phenomenon has become much more of a factor in the past 5-10 years with freezing rainfall (rather than snow) occurring at higher elevations at higher frequency with much warmer weather systems. This rain produces huge masses of ice in the trees, including chunks as large as a small microwave weighing 40-80 lb, which then dislodge as soon as direct sunlight warms the trees.
Some general comments on snow/ice conditions. Time of day, temperature, and sun exposure all have significant impacts on the nature of the snow, in turn changing the conditions underfoot, and hence both the hiking difficulty and the preferred traction device (if any). These impacts are especially striking in Southern California mountains, where the sun is relatively potent even in midwinter and where even on the coldest days temperatures at mid elevations may fluctuate either side of freezing. A rapidly warming montane climate, with changes especially striking at high elevation, is exacerbating all of these issues.
Prior to this storm, conditions had been extremely unsettled for about ten days, with four storms in a week, although only one of those was a significant snow-producing system. Those systems are summarized here:
- Minor storm overnight on 27th-28th December. A very mild system with rain to 9000 ft elevation (and consequently very icy conditions), and one inch of fresh snow above about 9000 ft elevation, increasing to 1.5 inch above 10,000 ft. Most of this snow had melted prior to my hike to San Jacinto Peak on 31st December.
- Minor 0.5 inch dusting of snow above 8000 ft on Thursday 29th (as I describe in this video). Most of this snow had also melted off by 31st December.
- Moderate storm largely in the early hours of 1st January 2023 was the third significant snowfall of winter 2022/23 to impact the San Jacinto mountains. This was discussed in the last Report. About 11 inches of snow fell at San Jacinto Peak. Initially a warm system with nearly two inches of rain in Idyllwild, later on New Year’s Day the snow level fell as low as 4000 ft, with three inches of snow in Idyllwild.
- Minor snow storm in the early hours of Tuesday 3rd January 2023 then turned to rain all day. Initially a cold system that brought 2-3 inches of snow to elevations between 4500 ft and 9000 ft. A short video summary of what we found when we broke trail up Devil’s Slide that morning is available here. The high country was above the weather for much of the night and added negligible new snow. Sadly at dawn the precipitation turned to drizzle at all elevations on the western slope and it rained all day, ruining the snow quality below 9000 ft. Total rainfall in Idyllwild was 0.38 inch.
Currently the USFS gate at Humber Park is closed. When the gate is closed there are nine legal parking spaces this side of the locked gate (which still require an Adventure Pass or equivalent to be displayed). Vehicles not parked in these spaces may be ticketed and/or towed. If there are “Road Closed” signs further down at the junction with Forest Drive – as is often the case at weekends and holidays when snow is present – 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 are closed for the season. The State Park Stone Creek campground is also closed.
Conditions will remain very unsettled throughout the second and third weeks of January. Two significant further “atmospheric river” storm systems are forecast, on Tuesday 10th, and then again on Saturday 14th-Sunday 15th. Both of these storms are expected to be relatively mild at first with rain a possibility up to 9000 ft before freeze levels drop down to 6000 ft. Relatively little snow is therefore expected throughout the mid elevations including Idyllwild.
Forecast models have a higher degree of confidence for the Tuesday storm than the storm next weekend. For both storms snow estimates for the highest elevations range from 10-15 inches, with perhaps only an inch of snow in Idyllwild following some rainfall. Current forecasts suggest that the moderate storm on 14th-15th January may be cooler than the Tuesday storm, with somewhat more snow at lower elevations.
At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Friday 6th January 2023 at 0930 the air temperature was 25.7°F (-4°C), with a windchill temperature of 14.7°F (-10°C), 44% relative humidity, and a chilly NNW breeze sustained at 5 mph gusting to 10.6 mph.
At the Peak on Sunday 1st January 2023 at 0830 the air temperature was 17.9°F (-8°C), with a windchill temperature of -2.3°F (-19°C), 100% relative humidity, and a sharp WSW wind sustained at 11 mph gusting to 21.1 mph.
All trails above about 6500 ft are currently lightly, or above 7500 ft moderately, snow-covered.
Reliable tracks are in place (at least) for Devil’s Slide Trail. While my snowshoe track continues from Saddle Junction through to San Jacinto Peak via Wellman Divide, this was already becoming partially obscured by a combination of ice fall from overhead trees, melting of surface snow, and light drifting of powder in some areas.
As discussed above, additional snowfall expected on 10th and 14th-16th January will further complicate the trail conditions.
The 0.4 mile section of South Ridge Trail between Chinquapin Flat/PCT and Tahquitz Peak has no steps to follow through the steeply angled icy snow. Although the snow is not currently particularly deep (10-12 inches) it is heavily drifted and has at least one ice layer underneath the fresh powder. These icy slopes are notoriously treacherous and have been an area of multiple hiker fatalities in winter conditions in recent decades. Currently spikes at a minimum, and ideally crampons, with an ice axe (and knowledge of how to use it), are strongly recommended. Snowshoes are not advisable due to the angle of the icy snow.
The Ernie Maxwell Trail [surveyed 5th January] has patchy snow along its entire length, however it is largely clear for long sections, and the remaining snow is soft. On cold mornings the trail will be icy and some hikers will find spikes are useful, however on warmer days and afternoons spikes are not required.
SNOW DEPTHS measured on 6th January 2023 are as follows. The first number is the current average total snow depth at that location, followed in parentheses by the depth of fresh snow added by the latest storm on Thursday 5th. Since the depths given in the previous Report, there has been some melting at higher elevations which have been above the cloud at times, and below 7000 ft where temperatures have remained above freezing for several days. Note that average depth is given; due to strong winds accompanying storms there is extensive drifting, often accumulating in the trails. Conversely in places scouring by the wind means the depths are well below the average. Altitudes are approximate.
San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 22-24 inches (includes 6 inches added on 5th January)
Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 15 inches (5 inches snow plus unknown quantity of rain on 5th)
Annie’s Junction/PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 17 inches (5 inches snow plus unknown quantity of rain on 5th)
Long Valley (8600 ft): 8 inches (2 inches on 5th)
Saddle Junction/PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 10 inches (2 inches snow plus unknown quantity of rain on 5th)
Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6550 ft): 3-5 inches (1 inch snow plus >1.0 inch rain on 5th)
Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): 0-1 inch (0.5 inch hail/sleet plus 1.04 inch rain on 5th).
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