Minor snow storm update 11th January 2023

IMPORTANT UPDATE Friday 13th January: back-to-back Pacific storm systems are forecast to impact the San Jacinto mountains this weekend, the first on Saturday 14th, immediately followed by another Sunday 15th-Monday 16th January. These storms are currently forecast to each produce at least ten inches of snow at the highest elevations and an inch or more of rain at mid elevations (e.g., in Idyllwild). The second storm on 15th-16th is expected to be colder with a lower freeze level which may result in 1-2 inches of snow down to 5000 ft or possibly even lower.

—————————————-

The flow of “atmospheric river” storm systems continues unabated across California. Generally the San Jacinto mountains have just caught the southern edge of these systems, with nothing like the dramatic precipitation being reported from further north. That said, the cumulative effect of multiple systems is helpful to our moisture situation, and Tuesday 10th January saw the sixth storm in just over two weeks in the San Jacinto mountains (a timeline of the recent sequence of storms is available here in the previous Report).

Lamentably this latest storm was again very mild, with rain falling as high as the elevation of San Jacinto Peak – see photos below – all morning on Tuesday 10th, until finally turning to light snow in the early afternoon (at about 1330 in Long Valley). Rain had started overnight in Idyllwild, ending in late afternoon at a total of 1.26 inches.

Only 2.5 inches of snow fell at San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft) decreasing to 0.25 inch in upper Fern Valley (at approximately 6000 ft). With such mild storms this winter, it is interesting to speculate how much snow would currently be around the high peaks if air temperatures had been just a couple of degrees cooler. Currently there is less than three feet of snow at San Jacinto Peak; I suspect it would be 5-8 feet had we had fractionally cooler conditions in the past month.

Snow depths measured at many locations on the trail system on 11th January 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, as discussed below. Many locations below 9000 ft had actually experienced a net loss of snow depth, as the (relatively) warm rain had melted and compacted the pre-existing snow, and so little new snow fell subsequently.

On the morning of Wednesday 11th 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. That said, the going was extremely easy as the rain layer on top of the snow remaining for earlier storms had completely frozen, so I was only having to “break trail” through an inch or two of fine powder. The natural traction was superb, and I barebooted all the way to just above Wellman Divide (9700 ft) before finally putting on Kahtoola microspikes, accompanied by an ice axe.

The traversing slopes above Wellman’s Divide (roughly 9800-10,500 ft) were extremely firm early in the morning and potentially treacherous. Spikes at least, but preferably crampons, plus an ice axe (and thorough knowledge of how to use it) are currently required for traversing these slopes. It is possible they may deteriorate even further with some warming from direct sunlight. Snowshoes are not currently advisable on these slopes due to the angle of the underlying ice.

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.

I descended Deer Springs Trail, again breaking trail the entire way, but again through light snow sitting on top of a very solid, icy snow layer. My route down to Little Round Valley will not be especially helpful to ascending hikers, as I made the most of conditions to take a direct glissading route. Through and below Little Round Valley, my track almost entirely follows the established trail.

All trails above about 8000 ft are obscured by snow at this time, and cautious navigation is strongly recommended everywhere. With significant further snowfalls expected in the next week (at least), and moderate to strong winds in the high country expected for many of those days causing some daily drifting of snow, much of the trail system may remain completely or somewhat obscured by snow throughout most or all of January.

Currently only two major trail routes have been traveled and even those may become partially obscured by drifted snow and fresh icefall. My tracks from Wednesday 11th January from Humber Park to San Jacinto Peak and down Deer Springs Trail will be largely visible but may be somewhat obscured in places.

Snow depths are currently suitable for snowshoeing above about 9000 ft, potentially lower in places. However the snow conditions may not be suitable for snowshoeing on certain slopes, as described above. This may continue for several weeks, or could change given further fresh snowfall forecast. Eventually with compaction of the trails caused by increasing hiker traffic and freeze/thaw cycles snowshoes may steadily become less useful, however they will likely remain valuable for off-trail travel in the high country into February.

Spikes are currently useful throughout the trail system above about 7000 ft, possibly lower in places on cold (icy) mornings. They are not however required, depending upon your comfort level hiking on shallow variable snow, potentially mixed with slushy and icy patches. 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. Spikes tend to be especially useful for descending trails.

As mentioned above, crampons (always in conjunction with an ice axe) are currently recommended on certain moderate and higher angle slopes, notably the Peak Trail above Wellman Divide, and uppermost South Ridge Trail, especially on the north face of Tahquitz Peak.

Hikers should be prepared for temperatures well 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). Potentially dangerous cold is currently forecast for the highest peaks for 14th-23rd January at least.

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.

My pre-dawn hike up Devil’s Slide Trail on 11th January was delightful, primarily because there was the noise of running water almost everywhere. All seasonal and ephemeral streams were running strongly, and the current water conditions are the best for four years, since the great Valentine’s Day flood event of 2019. The other bonus was an immaculate set of fresh Mountain Lion tracks in the trail (photos below), with sign that the lion had crossed back-and-forth across Devil’s Slide in multiple locations further up also.

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.

The view south-east from near Wellman’s Cienega (9200 ft) early morning, 11th January 2023. The Salton Sea is just visible immediately under the rising sun.

WEATHER

Conditions will remain very unsettled well into the third week of January. Two more significant “atmospheric river” storm systems are forecast on Saturday 14th-Sunday 15th, and on 16th-18th. While expected to be relatively mild at first with rain above 9000 ft, overall this next sequence of storms may prove to be colder than most of the recent systems. About 6-10 inches of snow are forecast for the high country on Saturday 14th, with 1-2 inches possible at the elevation of Idyllwild (preceded by 1-2 inches of rain).

Forecasts remain more uncertain about the second wave of stormy weather on 16th-18th January. However, forecast models suggest anywhere from 6-20 inches of snow above 10,000 ft elevation spread across at least two of the three days, and the possibility of several inches of snow at mid elevations (e.g., 2-4 inches in Idyllwild).

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Wednesday 11th January 2023 at 0915 the air temperature was 24.0°F (-4°C), with a windchill temperature of 5.8°F (-15°C), 74% relative humidity, and a bitter NNW wind sustained at 19 mph gusting to 24.5 mph.

At the Peak 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.

Stone Creek where it crosses (and currently flows along!) the PCT/Deer Springs Trail, at about PCT Mile 183.6 (8400 ft), 11th January 2023. Many streams are currently at their best flow rates in four years. Long may it last.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

All trails above about 6500 ft are currently lightly, or above 8000 ft moderately, snow-covered. As discussed above, multiple additional snowfalls forecast for 14th-18th January will further complicate the trail conditions.

Reliable tracks are in place (at least) for Devil’s Slide Trail through to San Jacinto Peak via Wellman Divide, and for the entire Deer Springs Trail. As of this morning, I saw no other broken tracks on the high country trail system.

The track on Deer Springs Trail largely follows the existing trail route up to Little Round Valley. My posthole/glissading track between LRV and San Jacinto Peak is very direct and steep, and of limited help to an ascending hiker.

The 0.4 mile section of South Ridge Trail between Chinquapin Flat/PCT and Tahquitz Peak [checked 9th January] has no steps to follow through the steeply angled icy snow. Although the snow is not particularly deep (10-12 inches) it is heavily drifted and steeply angled, 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 crampons, with an ice axe (and knowledge of how to use both), are strongly recommended. Snowshoes are dangerous due to the angle of the icy snow.

The traversing slopes above Wellman’s Divide (roughly 9800-10,500 ft) were extremely firm early in the morning and potentially treacherous. Spikes at least, but preferably crampons, plus an ice axe (and thorough knowledge of how to use it) are currently required for traversing these slopes. It is possible they may deteriorate even further with some warming from direct sunlight. Snowshoes are not currently advisable on these slopes due to the angle of the underlying ice.

The Ernie Maxwell Trail [surveyed 10th January] has minor patches of snow along its entire length, however it is largely clear for long sections, and the remaining snow is rarely icy. Spikes are not required.

Little Round Valley (9800 ft) currently under about two feet of snow (and ice), 11th January 2023.

SNOW DEPTHS measured on 11th 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 Tuesday 10th. Since the depths given in the previous Report, there has been some melting at higher elevations on sunny days and below 9000 ft caused by the heavy rainfall. 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): 25-27 inches (includes 2.5 inches snow added on 10th January) but very heavily drifted

Little Round Valley (9800 ft): 24 inches (2 inches on 10th January)

Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 16 inches (1.5 inches snow plus unknown quantity of rain on 10th)

Annie’s Junction/PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 16 inches (1.5 inches snow plus unknown quantity of rain on 10th)

Seven Pines Trail junction with Deer Springs Trail/PCT Mile 184.9 (8700 ft): 13 inches (1 inch snow on 10th)

Long Valley (8600 ft): 8 inches (1 inch snow plus 1.5 inches rain on 10th)

Strawberry Junction/PCT Mile 183.3 (8100 ft): 6 inches (1 inch snow plus unknown quantity of rain on 10th)

Saddle Junction/PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 8 inches (1 inch snow plus unknown quantity of rain on 10th)

Deer Springs Trail at Suicide Rock Trail junction (6950 ft): 0-1 inch (0.5 inch snow plus >1.0 inch rain on 10th)

Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6550 ft): 0.5 inch (0.5 inch snow plus >1.0 inch rain on 10th)

Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): 0 inch (no snow, 1.26 inches rain on 10th).

Looking south from San Jacinto Peak on a beautiful partially cloudy day, mid morning 11th January 2023. Note the Limber Pines in the foreground encased in ice from freezing rain.

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. 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 at 9800 ft elevation looking north-east. Above, early morning of 11th January 2023 before I put a posthole track through on my ascent, and below, the same view on the afternoon of 31st December 2022 prior to a sequence of six storms in less than a fortnight.
Spectacular ice formations on the summit rocks at San Jacinto Peak, 11th January 2023, the product of freezing rain for much of the previous day.
Fresh Mountain Lion track at about 7200 ft elevation on Devil’s Slide Trail, pre dawn on 11th January 2023. Above, part of an extended walking sequence. The knife is 3.6 inches long for scale. Below, where the lion apparently stopped to scan the steep slope below.
For comparison, track of a large Bobcat, at about 6600 ft near Deer Springs Trail, 11th January 2023. Again, the knife is 3.6 inches long for scale.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s