Snow storms update 19th January 2023

UPDATE Friday 20th January: Overnight Idyllwild had a very light dusting (<0.25 inch) of snow, but the high country was above the cloud so existing tracks should be unaffected. This morning I broke South Ridge Trail to Tahquitz Peak. I put in a posthole track the entire way up, but crampons (with an ice axe) were necessary on the upper switchbacks above about 8300 ft due to the usual steeply angled ice obscured underneath 6-12 inches of powder. Average snow depth around the peak was 24-25 inches, but heavily drifted.

Tahquitz Peak fire lookout, 20th January 2023.

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We have had an excellent start to 2023 regarding the water and snow situations in the San Jacinto mountains. This is a summary of conditions following the tenth and eleventh Pacific storms of winter 2022/23 to impact the San Jacinto range, that were basically a double “atmospheric river” event spread across 14th-17th January. My blogging throughout the storms gave more day-to-day detail and is available here.

I recorded an overly rambling and partly wind affected video report from San Jacinto Peak late morning on Wednesday 18th, available here on YouTube, but it does give a sense for the conditions underfoot at the highest elevations, and for the spectacular vista that day.

Across the three storm days, locations above about 9000 ft all generally added at least two feet of snow (admixed with layers of freezing rain in areas up to 10,000 ft). The highest peaks appeared to add slightly less snow than some lower locations, probably because they were above the cloud for some of the precipitation events.

Final precipitation numbers for Idyllwild (measured at 5550 ft elevation) across the three days were 5.06 inches of rain and 6.5 inches of snow, although only about half of the latter remained on the ground as a few inches were removed by (relatively) warm rain between snow storms.

The high country currently has the deepest snow accumulation in the San Jacinto mountains in almost four years, since March 2019. As encouraging as that is, it should be noted that snow accumulation at San Jacinto Peak is only at about 65% of the depth in March 2019, and this winter overall remains well below the historical average for snow in the high country, despite recent events.

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 trail.

Early on Wednesday 18th January I barebooted up Devil’s Slide Trail (which I had broken to Saddle the previous morning). From there I used snowshoes to ascend via Annie’s Junction and Wellman Divide. My track largely follows the established trail routes, with some modifications for the conditions. I stubbornly kept on my snowshoes to 10,100 ft elevation on the Peak Trail, despite some lateral slipping as I traversed the icy snow slopes. I switched to crampons and then finished breaking the Peak Trail through to near Miller Peak (photo below). From there I put in a direct ascending track roughly following the old East Ridge Trail to the Peak.

I kept my crampons on for the entire descent, taking advantage of excellent cross-country glissading conditions, and made it from San Jacinto Peak back to Humber Park in just over two hours.

With two further minor snowfalls possible in January, and strong winds in the high country expected on some days causing substantial spindrift, tracks broken through the snow may not last long. Be prepared for trails above about 8000 ft (perhaps lower in places) completely or largely obscured by moderate to deep snow; very cautious navigation is strongly recommended everywhere.

Currently few major trail routes have been traveled and even those may become partially obscured by drifted snow and fresh icefall. My tracks from Wednesday 18th January from Humber Park to/from San Jacinto Peak will be largely visible but may become somewhat obscured in places.

Snow depths are currently excellent for snowshoeing above about 7000 ft, where trails haven’t been too heavily traveled and compacted. However the snow conditions may not be suitable for snowshoeing on certain slopes, depending on the ice conditions below the surface due to multiple freezing rain incidents this winter. Eventually with compaction of the trails caused by increasing hiker traffic and freeze/thaw cycles snowshoes may steadily become less useful, however they will certainly remain valuable for off-trail travel in the high country well into February at least.

Spikes are currently useful throughout the trail system above about 6000 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 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 described above, crampons (always in conjunction with an ice axe) are currently recommended on certain moderate and higher angle slopes, at a minimum on 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 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).

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 recent 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 many chunks I have estimated as weighing 40-100 lb this winter, which can dislodge dramatically once direct sunlight warms the trees.

Currently the snow is relatively powdery; this will steadily change over the next few days and weeks. Underlying that powder are layers of ice (largely from freezing rain storms) which are much more perilous. Note that temperatures fluctuating either side of freezing are forecast for both mid and upper elevations. Steady melting of snow, especially on sun-exposed slopes, and freeze-thaw cycles will combine to change trail conditions and potentially the preferred equipment for the terrain.

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.

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).

Currently the USFS gate at Humber Park is closed. When the gate is closed there are still 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 – 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.

My boot tracks on the approximate route of the Peak Trail, looking south-south-east at about 10,300 ft, 18th January 2023. This gives a good feel for the current conditions to be expected in the San Jacinto high country. Jean Peak is to the upper right.

WEATHER

In general conditions in the remainder of January will be much more settled than for the first half of the month. Temperatures are expected to remain below average for January for the remainder of the month in Strawberry Valley (Idyllwild area), but are forecast to swing well above average (above freezing) for the highest elevations on 21st-26th January. Melting may be slow and largely confined to the most sun-exposed slopes, but freeze/thaw cycles, compaction, and low overnight temperatures may lead to very icy conditions.

In addition, there is the possibility of minor snow storms on Thursday 19th and around Sunday 29th January. While the snow quantities are forecast to be 1-2 inches at most, they may be much colder systems than have been typical so far this winter, with freeze levels below 5000 ft. Even if there is no precipitation, there will be temperatures well below seasonal on those days.

At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Wednesday 18th January 2023 at 1115 the air temperature was 16.8°F (-8°C), with a windchill temperature of -3.6°F (-20°C), 27% relative humidity, and a frigid NNW wind sustained at 10 mph gusting to 25.8 mph.

At the Peak on Sunday 15th January 2023 at 0750 the air temperature was 17.8°F (-8°C), with a windchill temperature of -5.6°F (-21°C), 100% relative humidity, and a wild SW wind sustained at 19 mph gusting to 30.2 mph.

At the Peak 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.

TRAIL CONDITIONS

All trails above about 5000 ft are currently snow-covered. Snow cover is shallow up to about 7000 ft, but relatively heavy above 8000 ft.

Reliable tracks are in place (at least) for Devil’s Slide Trail. My snowshoe track continues from Saddle Junction through to San Jacinto Peak via Wellman Divide , the Peak Trail, and East Ridge, but this may become obscured by additional light snowfall and/or drifting snow from strong winds.

Devil’s Slide Trail has a relatively well-traveled and compacted track to Saddle Junction in place already. Note that there are about a dozen stream crossings and sections of the trail with water flowing in them, at times for tens of feet. Waterproof or highly water resistant footwear is recommended. Spikes are not needed yet, but that will change soon with increasing compaction and freeze/thaw cycles.

Ernie Maxwell Trail has good tracks to follow along its entire length, through the continuous snow cover a few inches deep. Many hikers may find spikes are already useful, and will become increasingly so during and after this weekend with melting and compaction. [Checked 18th January by Anne and Anabel.

On the afternoon of 18th I saw posthole tracks that head down the start of the Caramba Trail, and following the PCT southbound toward Chinquapin Flat, but I have no further details at this time.

The 0.4 mile section of South Ridge Trail between Chinquapin Flat/PCT and Tahquitz Peak [checked 20th January] has no steps to follow through the steeply angled ice with overlying deep snow. These icy slopes are notoriously treacherous. Currently crampons, always with an ice axe, and advanced knowledge of how to use this equipment, are required. Snowshoes are not advisable due to the angle of the icy snow.

Looking south across the San Jacinto high country from San Jacinto Peak, 18th January 2023. Note the spectacular rime formations on the Limber Pine trees in the foreground.

SNOW DEPTHS measured on 18th January 2023 (unless otherwise indicated) are as follows. The first number is the current average total snow depth at that location, followed in parentheses by the approximate depth of fresh snow added by the latest storm sequence on 14th-17th January. Note that average depth is given; due to strong winds accompanying storms there is extensive drifting. Altitudes are approximate.

San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 45-48 inches (includes about 24 inches snow in latest storms), heavily drifted to 60 inches in places, especially on the East Ridge.

Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 45 inches (30 inches snow in latest storms) but heavily drifted here

Annie’s Junction/PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 45-48 inches (about 30-32 inches snow in latest storms)

Tahquitz Peak (8836 ft): 25 inches, heavily drifted to 40 inches in places (measured 20th January)

Long Valley (8600 ft): 24 inches (16 inches in latest storms)

Saddle Junction/PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 21 inches (13 inches snow in latest storms)

Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6550 ft): 5-6 inches (all from latest storms, four inches of snow on top of ice)

Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): 3 inches (all from latest storms, admixed with 5.06 inches rain on 14th-16th) already melting steadily on 18th.

Saddle Junction (8100 ft elevation) on 17th January 2023 with about 21 inches of total snow depth (above), and the same view on 31st December 2022 with a patchy 0.5 inch of ice remaining from prior storms (below).

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 help cover costs. Every year seems to have its unique challenges, and it is already clear that 2023 will be 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.

Above, Wellman Divide (9700 ft) on 18th January 2023 and below, the same view on 31st December 2022. In the upper image, the sign is completely buried under about four feet of snow and my hiking poles mark the approximate location.
The Peak Trail at about 9800 ft elevation looking north-east. Above, on the afternoon of 18th January 2023 with my ascending snowshoe track and descending crampon track demarcating the trail, and below, the same view on 31st December 2022. There has been a net accumulation of at least three feet of snow so far this month at that elevation.
Annie’s Junction (9070 ft), the high point of the PCT in Southern California at approx. Mile 180.8. Above, on 18th January 2023, and below the same view on 1st January 2023.

One thought on “Snow storms update 19th January 2023

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