UPDATE Wednesday 15th March at 0930: Another 9 inches of snow fell overnight at San Jacinto Peak for a current storm total of 12.5 inches (plus some light rain yesterday evening). It stopped snowing at 0930. A dusting of 1-2 inches fell in Long Valley (8600 ft) on top of yesterday’s rain.
At 0700 Anne reported a remarkable 3.35 inches of rain for the previous 20 hours in Idyllwild (at 5550 ft).
There is a minor avalanche risk above about 10,000 feet on east and north facing slopes (moderate risk for the north face of San Jac) for the next couple of days, until the new wind loaded snow consolidates with older layers.
UPDATE Tuesday 14th March at 1810: the 22nd storm of the winter is here. It started snowing in the high country at 1020 this morning and accumulated 3.5 inches of fresh powder at San Jacinto Peak, before sadly turning to light rain at 1730. Although a few flakes fell at Long Valley (8600 ft) earlier in the day, it has been too mild for and snow to settle. It started raining in Idyllwild at about 1100, totaling about 0.52 inch (at 5550 ft) by 1730.
The 21st storm system to impact the San Jacinto mountains this winter was a “pineapple express” which brought steady rain on 10th-11th March. It started raining on Friday 10th morning at about 0700 at mid elevations, eventually reaching the high country with a mixture of rain, freezing rain, and sleet from about 1100. It finally stopped raining on Saturday afternoon, having become intermittent for much of that day. Rainfall in Idyllwild totaled an impressive 2.36 inches (measured at 5550 ft).
Although a few inches of snow were forecast for the highest peaks, sadly it rained all the way to San Jacinto Peak, with no new snowfall (photos below). The relatively warm rain augmented melting that was already underway from recent warmer, sunny days, and areas I checked in the high country have all lost at least 12-18 inches of snow depth in the past week or so.
Closures of both the National Forest lands and State Park wilderness remain in place. The San Bernardino National Forest, including the San Jacinto Ranger District, is closed until 16th March 2023 (closure notice here). There is hope that that closure will be lifted when it expires. The State Park wilderness closed on 1st March (see State Park website). It would be illogical that this closure, inaccurately justified by “unprecedented” snow, will be lifted imminently given that at least two more Pacific storms are already on their way (as discussed below).
I snowshoed on Thursday 9th and Monday 13th to San Jacinto Peak via Devil’s Slide Trail and the eastern side route. On 9th, following freeze/thaw cycles, Devil’s Slide was firm early morning, and I ascended to Saddle Junction just in spikes. I then used snowshoes from there to the Peak, and all the way back down. In contrast on 13th, after recent warm rain, the lower half of Devil’s Slide Trail was a miserable sloppy mess, requiring snowshoes from/to the trailhead. Thankfully, by about 7700 ft elevation, the snow surface had hardened sufficiently to make the going relatively easy.
On both days, my track from the previous ascent had held up well, and both ascents were consequently about two hours faster than when breaking trail through fresh powder on 3rd March. On both 9th and 13th by late morning the snow was getting soft and sloppy, and postholing would have been brutal. Snow conditions are generally benign, excellent for snowshoeing and crampons (depending on elevation), and there is no avalanche risk, even on the north face of San Jac.
Currently trails above about 7000 ft (lower in places) are largely obscured by moderate to deep snow. Trails down to 5000 ft elevation currently have shallower, increasingly patchy, snow cover. With closures in place, there are very few tracks anywhere. Very cautious navigation is essential everywhere.
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. For example a firm, well-compacted snowshoe or crampon track across snow several feet deep may be much easier hiking than an angled icy section just inches deep.
Conditions are currently excellent for snowshoes everywhere above about 6000 ft. This elevation will continue to climb steadily over the next few days and weeks as temperatures rise and melting accelerates (especially with more mild rainfall augmenting melting, especially below about 8000 ft). Tracks in the high country are quite firm in the early morning (crampons best) but then soften rapidly once sun hits slopes and temperatures rise, at which point snowshoes are preferable.
Crampons – with hiking poles and an ice axe, depending on terrain – are becoming increasingly useful everywhere above about 8500 ft, as freeze/thaw cycles (and, sadly, rain freezing on top of snow) lead to hardening of the snow surfaces. They will likely become essential 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 5000 ft. They are currently valuable even for walking around Idyllwild early on cold mornings! This elevation will slowly move upwards with steady melting over the next few days and weeks, but will remain relatively low for weeks at least.
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. While fresh snow (and softening, melting, snow) may be optimum for snowshoeing for the next several weeks, snow at all elevations will generally become increasingly firm and icy following multiple freeze-thaw cycles, and compaction by increasing hiker traffic in places (once trails reopen). 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 will steadily increase over the next few weeks with temperatures fluctuating either side of freezing, seasonally stronger insolation, and highly variable snowmelt.
Hikers should be prepared for temperatures near or 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).
Based on three comprehensive assessments in the past ten days, there is currently no avalanche risk (even on the north face of San Jacinto Peak, which, contrary to recent erroneous information in local media, avalanches regularly every year, even in low snow years). This forecast may change briefly later this month if there is substantial fresh wind-loaded snow on top of the existing deep icy layer, in the storms forecast for 14th-15th and 19th-23rd March.
The USFS gate at Humber Park is 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). If there are “Road Closed” signs across Fern Valley Road near its junction with Forest Drive – currently the case due to the Forest closure – then those nine spaces are also unavailable for legal parking.
SOME THOUGHTS FOR EARLY SEASON PCT HIKERS
Between the closures and further March storms forecast, the San Jacinto mountains are currently a major challenge for even experienced early season PCT hikers. That said, melting is happening fast, in part because we are still in Southern California and the March-April sun is potent. Melting has been accelerated by recent warm storms bringing rain on top of the snow, at all elevations, but especially below about 8000 ft, which includes most of the PCT in these mountains.
Hikers with March dates, if you have any flexibility at all in your timing, try to start later (easy for me to say I know). In a year with such dramatic snow conditions further north, it is highly unlikely that starting later than your “official” date will be a problem anywhere. Hikers with April or May dates, conditions in the southernmost sections continue to improve daily, and some or most areas will be passable with suitable skills, equipment, patience, and a thorough knowledge of all the possible alternates if needed.
Fobes Ranch Road (the side access to the PCT from about Mile 165) is clear of snow. The associated Fobes Trail is clearing rapidly. Snow depth has decreased 80-90% in the past week at PCT Mile 151 where the trail crosses Highway 74 (now averaging a patchy few inches with large bare sections). Given the continuing warming trend (and more warm rain) in the next week, by the time the Forest closure is expected to lift on 16th March the PCT will be readily passable from Mile 151-165 (spikes very strongly recommended). Proceeding north from Mile 165 is not currently recommended, as it will require crampons, ice axe, and the necessary snow hiking experience to use that equipment safely in high angle terrain, plus considerable patience, stamina, and route-finding skills.
It is possible (once the Forest closure is lifted) to connect back to the PCT at about Mile 191 using the well-known Black Mountain Road alternate. I will update conditions for all routes and alternates as time and weather permits.
Conditions are forecast to remain unsettled, but relatively warm, for the next ten days. Another mild Pacific storm is expected on the afternoon of Tuesday 14th, with a freeze level above 9000 ft, continuing into Wednesday 15th. Similar to the last one, this storm is predicted to bring up to two inches of rain to mid elevations, but 6-10 inches of snow are forecast for the highest elevations.
There is much less clarity regarding one or two possible storm systems tentatively predicted in the period 19th-23rd March. One or both may be colder than recent March storms, with light snow possibly as low as 7000 ft, while forecasts for snow at the highest elevations have varied widely from 3-18 inches. Most days in that period will at least be windy and cloudy in the high country.
At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Monday 13th March 2023 at 0945 the air temperature was 22.5°F (-5°C), with a windchill temperature of -0.7°F (-18°C), 14% relative humidity, and a wild WNW wind sustained at 24 mph gusting to 38.6 mph.
At the Peak on Thursday 9th March 2023 at 0925 the air temperature was 30.4°F (-1°C), with a windchill temperature of 15.9°F (-9°C), 52% relative humidity, and a fresh WSW wind sustained at 13 mph gusting to 18.1 mph.
All trails above about 6000 ft are largely snow-covered (wholly snow-covered above about 7000 ft). This will change steadily with melting (and further rainfall) over the next few days and weeks.
Devil’s Slide Trail has a lightly-traveled snowshoe track up to Saddle Junction. It can be firm in cold early mornings (ideal for spikes) but is soft and sloppy at all times currently, and always by late morning (snowshoes required, or expect very deep postholing). Some short bare patches are already showing below 6800 ft. The track does not follow the established trail route in the uppermost switchbacks close to Saddle Junction, and very careful navigation is required. Another major new tree came down (between switchbacks 5 and 6) on about 11th March, reported to USFS.
My snowshoe track continues on to San Jacinto Peak, via a route broadly approximating to the PCT, Wellman, Peak, and East Ridge trails, climbing more steeply in places than the established trails, and generally contouring through the snow as needed to minimize unnecessary elevation loss. Snow forecast over the next week or so may combine with strong winds to obscure parts of this track, especially above about 10,000 ft elevation.
The Ernie Maxwell Trail has a lightly traveled snowshoe and posthole track to follow along its entire length. Early morning the snow can be firm and relatively easy to hike depending on air temperature, but it is otherwise soft with deep postholing. The majority of this trail is not on Forest Service land.
In addition to the wider closure mentioned above, 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 received some light snow cover down to about 4500 ft over the past week, but this has already melted.
Measured on Monday 13th March (unless otherwise stated). The first number is the current snow depth, with the maximum depth recorded this winter, measured on or around 3rd March, given in parentheses. Note that averages are given; due to strong winds accompanying all storms this winter there is widespread drifting. Altitudes are approximate.
San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 68-70 inches (80-85 inches)
Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 60 inches (70-75 inches)
Annie’s Junction/PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 58-60 inches (75-80 inches, heavily drifted here)
Long Valley (8600 ft): 40 inches (55-60 inches)
Saddle Junction/PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 32-36 inches (48-50 inches)
Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6550 ft): 3-15 inches (46 inches)
Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): 6-15 inches (45-46 inches)
PCT Mile 151 at crossing with Highway 74 (4800 ft): 0-4 inches (13 inches)
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4 thoughts on “Snow (and rain) update 13th March 2023”
Thank, thank you, thank you!
This is the information I have been waiting for while waiting in Ranchita hoping the trail before Mike’s Place will open on March 16.
And, thank you for listing how to donate. I plan to donate as soon as I can figure it out. Moira
Thanks so much Moira for the positive feedback and for your support. Safe hiking, Jon.
Thank you. This is very helpful information for someone planning a Southern Cal PCT hike starting April 6th. My thought is to take things very slowly from Campo and hope that trail conditions improve at San Jacinto by mid April. The PCT trail snow condition warnings have made me think harder about appropriate gear and the second trail option that you mentioned.
Great Andy. I do’ not pretend to have all the answers by any means, just trying to present some facts to allow folks to find the rational middle ground between being too casual and the scare mongering. Safe hiking, Jon.