The fourteenth and fifteenth storm systems of winter 2022/23, both of them minor but having a significant effect in combination, impacted the San Jacinto mountains back-to-back on 13th and 14th February. Both storms were relatively cold, the second in particular dusting snow below 3500 ft elevation. Their arrival followed a period of several days of temperatures well above seasonal the previous week which had produced some significant melting. In fact on my hike to San Jacinto Peak on Monday 13th through steady morning snow I could barely tell the difference in snow depths from the previous week, as the few inches of fresh snow had almost exactly replaced the few inches of depth that had melted over the previous week.
Both storms produced more snow than was generally forecast. On 13th, Idyllwild received 2.75 inches, and I measured five inches at San Jacinto Peak, with 3-4 inches at locations in between. I recorded a short video at the Peak late morning on the 13th, available here on YouTube. On 14th, about 2.0 inches fell in Idyllwild, with an inch all the way down to 3500 ft (and a dusting even lower), but upper elevations received a similar amount, with 2.5 inches in Long Valley (8600 ft) and at Wellman Divide (9700 ft), and no more than three inches at San Jacinto Peak. However the combined effect of the two minor storms, in combination with wild gusty winds pushing spindrift snow all over the high country, had completely erased the few tracks that were in place by the morning of Wednesday 15th.
Temperatures on the morning of 15th were the lowest of this winter, and among the lowest of the past decade. At home at 5550 ft in Idyllwild we recorded 10.9°F (-12°C), the lowest temperature we have recorded there in nine winters. Later that morning at San Jacinto Peak, I measured a windchill temperature of -26.3°F (-32°C), the fourth lowest temperature I have ever recorded there.
Two ascents of San Jacinto Peak in three days had challenging snow and weather, but both were hugely enjoyable. On the morning of Wednesday 15th February I ascended via the east side (Devil’s Slide, Wellman, Peak, and East Ridge routes), descending the western side via – roughly – Deer Springs Trail. With the light fresh powder the previous evening, accompanied by very strong winds causing extensive drifting, prior tracks, including my own from 13th, had been totally erased everywhere so I was again breaking trail the entire way. Even Devil’s Slide Trail was largely obscured in deep drifted powder (photo below).
I postholed barebooting to 8900 ft before putting on crampons. Alternatively snowshoes could have been used for much of the hike. Although I made a concerted effort to put in a track as faithful to the trail routes as conditions permitted, wild winds and spindrift powder on all the exposed slopes rendered that fairly pointless.
On Monday 13th I also postholed the entire hike, as I was able to ascend barebooting to about 9200 ft before putting on crampons. I kept those on for the rest of the ascent, and almost all of the descent, finally removing them most of the way down Devil’s Slide Trail. Although that day was not as cold and windy as 15th, I ascended in heavy cloud conditions with steady snowfall for the first three hours. Once it stopped snowing, the mountain was shrouded in thick foggy cloud, such that visibility was as low as 100 feet on the exposed slopes of the Peak Trail. The cloud largely dissipated on my descent, affording some spectacular vistas.
Details of snow depths measured at various locations on the trail system are given at the foot of this posting. Note that snow depth itself is rarely indicative of the difficulty (or otherwise) of hiking a particular track or trail.
Be prepared for trails above about 7500 ft (lower in places) obscured by moderate to deep snow, and even fresh tracks being erased by spindrift snow in places. Trails down to 4000 ft elevation currently have shallow snow cover. Extremely cautious navigation is strongly recommended everywhere.
As described above, crampons – with hiking poles and an ice axe, depending on terrain – are currently very useful everywhere above about 9000 ft. They are strongly recommended on certain moderate and higher angle slopes, at a minimum on the Peak Trail above Wellman Divide, the Wellman Trail, Deer Springs Trail above Little Round Valley, and uppermost South Ridge Trail, and on both flanks but critically on the north face of Tahquitz Peak.
Currently, and increasingly as snow conditions change, spikes are strongly recommended for the foreseeable future everywhere above about 7000 ft, lower in places. They are now invaluable on heavily traveled, compacted, icy tracks (before they clear of snow in the coming weeks) such as Devil’s Slide, Ernie Maxwell, and Deer Springs trails, at least, especially mornings when conditions tend to be most icy, and for descending. They are not however required, depending upon your comfort level hiking on shallow variable snow, potentially mixed with slushy and icy patches, and on the quality of your footwear (tread grip, in particular). Spikes could potentially be used to ascend to the highest peaks at this time, although crampons are certainly safer for traversing.
Snowshoes are useful in low to moderate angle terrain with adequate snow depth above about 8000 ft, for example the Tahquitz area meadows near Saddle Junction, sections of Deer Springs Trail, and Long Valley/Round Valley. Snowshoes can be used for ascending the highest peaks, but with considerable caution. They are not currently recommended for traversing moderate or higher angle slopes above 9000 ft that have challenging ice underlying powder. However, snowshoes will become increasingly useful as conditions warm sufficiently for snow to become soft above about 8000 ft, especially on sunny slopes and afternoons. Snowshoes will remain valuable anywhere off trail above about 8000 ft for the foreseeable future.
Recently I have mentioned the challenges of hard, icy snow underfoot and the value of using spikes (and/or crampons) especially for descending and traversing. Snow at all elevations will become increasingly firm and icy following multiple freeze-thaw cycles, and compaction by increasing hiker traffic in places, and I cannot overemphasize the importance of having both appropriate equipment and the right skill set for the terrain. The latter includes interpreting the snow/ice conditions, understanding your physical and mental abilities, and conservative decision making. These concerns may steadily increase over the next few weeks with rising then falling temperatures, seasonally stronger insolation, and highly variable snowmelt.
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). A storm currently predicted for Wednesday 22nd February is tentatively forecast to have near record low (i.e. potentially dangerous) windchill temperatures.
The USFS gate at Humber Park remains closed. Even when the gate is closed there are nine legal parking spaces below the locked gate (which still require an Adventure Pass or equivalent to be displayed).
Azalea Drive, the access road to Marion Mountain trailhead, has not been fully plowed (surveyed Tuesday 14th). While the shallow icy snow should melt steadily over the next few days, 4WD/AWD vehicles are recommended.
South Ridge Road (5S11), Dark Canyon Road (4S02, the access to Seven Pines Trail), and Santa Rosa Truck Trail (7S02) are currently closed to vehicle traffic, as is Black Mountain Road at the gate 1.7 miles up from Highway 243.
The remainder of February is currently forecast to continue the cold temperatures of recent days, generally at or below seasonal at all mountain elevations, and to be increasingly unsettled. The first couple of days early next week (20th-21st) may warm slightly above seasonal, before promptly dropping well below average again, accompanying another unsettled period of multiple consecutive storm systems on 22nd-28th.
While snowfall accompanying the first of those storms may be light, perhaps 2-4 inches in Idyllwild and 4-6 inches in the high country, strong winds at the highest peaks are tentatively forecast to produce extremely cold windchill conditions, similar to 15th February (see below). Provisional forecasts suggest the later storm systems, around 25th-27th February, could produce much more significant snowfall, potentially 10-12 inches in Idyllwild and 24+ inches at the highest elevations.
At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Wednesday 15th February 2023 at 1030 the air temperature was 4.9°F (-15°C), with a windchill temperature of -26.3°F (-32°C), 65% relative humidity, and a bitter due North wind sustained at 19 mph gusting to 27.7 mph.
At the Peak on Monday 13th February 2023 at 1010 the air temperature was 16.8°F (-10°C), with a windchill temperature of -1.3°F (-19°C), 95% relative humidity, and a wintry NNW wind sustained at 7 mph gusting to 13.2 mph.
At the Peak on Monday 6th February 2023 at 0930 the air temperature was 11.1°F (-12°C), with a windchill temperature of -11.0°F (-24°C), 59% relative humidity, and a frigid NNW wind sustained at 12 mph gusting to 20.2 mph.
All trails above about 4500 ft are snow-covered. By the afternoon of 15th, melting was already underway below 7000 ft. Reliable tracks are currently only known to be my posthole tracks from 15th for Devil’s Slide Trail through to San Jacinto Peak via the Wellman, Peak, and East Ridge trails, and then descending Deer Springs Trail.
Note that tracks are being obscured very quickly by drifting of snow from strong winds, sometimes in hours or even minutes (see photo below).
Effective 26th January 2023 the State Park closed the section of Skyline Trail that falls within its jurisdiction, above 5800 ft elevation, “until further notice due to dangerous weather conditions”. (For readers who are unclear, Skyline Trail forms the lower two-thirds of the “Cactus-to-Clouds” [C2C] route.) The State Park boundary is not marked but is near the site of the old Florian’s Cache, below Flat Rock. The open section of trail below 5800 ft is clear of snow.
Devil’s Slide Trail has a very lightly traveled track to Saddle Junction in place. There are two new treefall hazards to pass on the upper trail.
Deer Springs Trail has an excellent posthole track to follow along its entire length. This western side of the mountain was better protected from winds and drifting snow, and this track should largely survive until the weekend. My track largely followed the established route of the trail, especially below the Fuller Ridge junction, but higher up the track is much more direct in places. Above Little Round Valley in particular my track down from the Peak is very direct, steep, and would be a challenging ascent.
There were no visible hiker tracks on Marion Mountain, Seven Pines, or Fuller Ridge trails, as of 15th February.
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 ice with overlying deep snow. These icy slopes are notoriously treacherous. Currently crampons, always with an ice axe, and thorough knowledge of how to use this equipment, are essential. Snowshoes are not advisable due to the angle of the icy snow.
Spitler Peak Trail had 10 new treefall hazards, almost all in the upper switchbacks. Only five of these require cutting, and I was able to remove three by hand earlier in February.
SNOW DEPTHS measured on 15th February 2023 are as follows. The first number is the current average total snow depth at that location followed in parentheses where known by the combined fresh snowfall from the two minor storms on 13th-14th February. Note that generally the maximum depths so far this winter were immediately following the major storm sequence on 14th-17th January 2023 (details of those depths available here). Note that averages are given; due to strong winds and light powder there is extreme drifting. Altitudes are approximate.
San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 39-44 inches (new snow 8 inches)
Little Round Valley (9800 ft): 44-48 inches, heavily drifted
Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 42 inches (6 inches)
Seven Pines Trail junction with Deer Springs Trail (8700 ft): 35 inches (6 inches)
Annie’s Junction/PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 46 inches (5 inches)
Long Valley (8600 ft): 22 inches (4 inches)
Strawberry Junction (8100 ft): 16 inches (5 inches)
Saddle Junction/PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 22 inches (6 inches)
Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6550 ft): 3-6 inches (6 inches, partly melted by afternoon of 15th)
Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): 2 inches (5 inches, largely melted by afternoon of 15th)
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