UPDATE Friday 21st April 2023: I have uploaded a video report of a comprehensive survey of the Fuller Ridge section of the PCT from this morning, available here on YouTube.
UPDATE Monday 17th April 2023: I have updated some trail details below based on my ascent of San Jacinto Peak early this morning. The PCT across Fuller Ridge is now passable with spikes, but only for those who are comfortable hiking on angled terrain with significant exposure. Other trail information below is being updated daily (on 18th-21st April). The next comprehensive Report update is expected on 23rd April.
With the exception of somewhat cooler days on 12th-14th April, the San Jacinto mountains have settled into a relatively steady and mild weather pattern, with temperatures on most days at or even above seasonal at all elevations. Snowmelt is consequently proceeding rapidly, especially below 8000 ft and on sun-exposed slopes. Everywhere has lost at least 6-12 inches of snow in the past week, and up to two feet since the last snow storm at the end of March.
The divergent impact of the warm, wet storms in mid March is now especially striking. The storms melted much of the snow below about 7500 ft, so lower parts of well known trails such as Devil’s Slide and Deer Springs are nearly clear already (details below), while the same storms added snow at higher elevations, which consequently remain embedded in many feet of snow.
I have conducted survey hikes in the high country on six of the past 15 days, and elsewhere on the PCT or its alternates on every day in between. Most recently, on the morning of Friday 14th, I ascended San Jacinto Peak via the east side track (Devil’s Slide, Wellman, Peak, and East Ridge trails) that I broke on 31st March, and descended (approximately) via Deer Springs Trail. This facilitated survey of the highest parts of the PCT in the San Jacinto mountains (approx. Miles 179-181 and 185.5-183) plus several of its side trails.
On 14th I made use of the coolest day in the past week, plus an Alpine start, to ascend and descend entirely in spikes. I carried crampons and ice axe as a backup, but they went unused; however many hikers may have found them preferable to spikes. In softer snow on a very warm Monday 10th I was able to bareboot to 9200 ft near Wellman’s Cienega, before switching to spikes for the remainder of the ascent and keeping them on for almost the entire descent.
Currently trails above about 7500 ft are largely obscured by moderate snow, deeper above 8000 ft. Trails as low as 6000 ft elevation can have shallow and very patchy snow cover. Cautious navigation is critical 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 track across snow several feet deep may be much easier hiking than just a couple of inches depth of steeply angled ice.
Conditions will continue to change significantly over the next couple of weeks with generally warm and sunny weather, while softening snow in all areas will impact the quality of tracks.
To give an idea of the current traction challenge, I have been generally hiking with all three of snowshoes, crampons, and spikes, changing between them as conditions warrant. This challenge will evolve over the next week with warm temperatures on many days. The optimum traction device at any given time and place depends on a complex interaction of factors including time of day, sun exposure of the trail, air temperature, and extent to which a track has been established and compacted. The willingness of the hiker to posthole (itself somewhat correlated to fitness) also influences choice of traction.
As snow conditions continue to change spikes are strongly recommended for the foreseeable future everywhere above about 7000 ft (potentially lower in places). This elevation will slowly move upwards with steady melting over the next few days and weeks, but may remain relatively low into May.
Snowshoes can be helpful everywhere above about 8000 ft (potentially lower in places on the warmest days for the next week or so). Tracks in the high country can be firm if the morning is cold (crampons or even spikes best) but then soften rapidly once sun hits slopes and temperatures rise, at which point snowshoes may become preferable. Even after trails become compacted through freeze/thaw cycles and hiker traffic, snowshoes will remain invaluable for off-trail travel for many weeks above 8000 ft. It is clear from the overwhelming majority of high country tracks (seen on 14th April) that hikers are preferring not to use or carry snowshoes.
Crampons – with hiking poles and/or an ice axe, depending on terrain – are potentially useful everywhere above about 8000 ft, when cold temperatures on some days, plus freeze/thaw cycles, lead to hardening of the snow surfaces. They may become especially useful over the next few weeks (depending on temperature) 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.
Despite unseasonal warm weather over the next week or more, hikers should nevertheless be prepared for temperatures near freezing in the high country, and below freezing when considering wind chill effects (see below for my recent weather observations from San Jacinto Peak).
The USFS gate at Humber Park reopened on Tuesday 18th April.
Forest Service roads currently closed to vehicular traffic by a revised closure order include Black Mountain Road (4S01), Dark Canyon Road (4S02), South Ridge Road (5S11), May Valley Road (5S21), and Santa Rosa Road (7S02), plus their various side roads.
Generally warm, sunny, stable weather is currently forecast for the remainder of April. With the exception of a brief cooling on 18th-19th April, temperatures may be at or above seasonal for the foreseeable future. Even at the highest elevations air temperatures are forecast to be at or above freezing almost daily. Snowmelt will continue to be rapid below 9000 ft and will proceed steadily at all elevations especially on sun-exposed slopes.
At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Friday 14th April 2023 at 0825 the air temperature was 29.7°F (-1°C), with a windchill temperature of 13.8°F (-10°C), 18% relative humidity, and a sharp WNW wind sustained at 14 mph gusting to 23.4 mph.
At the Peak on Monday 10th April 2023 at 0815 the air temperature was 40.7°F (5°C), with a windchill temperature of 30.2°F (-1°C), 37% relative humidity, and a steady SSE wind sustained at 12 mph gusting to 17.0 mph.
At the Peak on Thursday 6th April 2023 at 0755 the air temperature was 27.2°F (-3°C), with a windchill temperature of 18.0°F (-8°C), 37% relative humidity, and a light NNW wind sustained at 3 mph gusting to 6.5 mph.
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL INFORMATION
Rapid and widespread snowmelt is underway and will accelerate over the next few days. Most or even all areas of the PCT in the San Jacinto mountains will soon become readily passable with, crucially, suitable skills and equipment, patience, and a thorough knowledge of all the possible alternates if needed.
The PCT is functionally clear of snow from Miles 151 (Highway 74) to about Mile 167 (south side of Spitler Peak). Fobes Ranch Road and Fobes Trail (alternate at Mile 166) are clear of snow. There is a reliable and well-traveled track on the PCT north to about Mile 169. There is now a track continuing beyond Apache Peak (Mile 169.5) all the way through to Mile 177. Spikes are very strongly recommended as the posthole track is challenging with multiple crossings of angled snow slopes, and the track does not accurately follow the PCT route in places. The track at Mile 169-169.5 goes over the saddle at Apache Peak rather than following the PCT route around to the east.
Descending via the well-signed alternate at Spitler Peak Trail (Mile 168.5) [surveyed 7th April] is an excellent option for hikers less comfortable on lengthy sections of angled snow or lacking suitable traction. Spitler Peak Trail is functionally clear of snow, although a few minor patches remain that do not require spikes. Sadly this winter has has brought down about 30 minor trees and half-a-dozen washouts in the uppermost 1.2 miles but nothing particularly challenging to pass.
It is possible to get a ride on Apple Canyon Road, or to hike via the Forest Service roads – Bonita Vista Road and May Valley Road – into Idyllwild (check maps or apps for details).
Snow is continuous and deep between Miles 174.5-179 and the track around Red Tahquitz and west to Mile 177 does not accurately follow the PCT route. Snow cover is moderate or deep and basically continuous between Miles 179 to about Mile 193, with a few small bare patches starting to appear on the most sun exposed slopes. Spikes (at a minimum) are required everywhere.
There is now [updated 17th April] a relatively well-traveled posthole track from Annie’s Junction (Mile 180.8) west to Strawberry Junction (Mile 183) which largely follows the PCT route through variable depth snow. All signs at Annie’s Junction are buried in deep snow, and route-finding here is challenging. There is a lightly traveled posthole track north from Strawberry Junction to the southern end of Fuller Ridge (where new signs placed in February 2021 remained just above the deep snow).
There is now also a posthole track through the snow on the PCT along Fuller Ridge (Miles 185.5-191). However it does not accurately follow the PCT route, and passes through some challenging terrain. The current trail conditions on Fuller Ridge are described in detail in the video report from 21st April available here on YouTube.
At this time continuing north on Fuller Ridge requires at least spikes, plus the skills and comfort level to hike on angled terrain with significant exposure. Many hikers will prefer to use crampons and ice axe (and have knowledge of how to use that equipment), plus have excellent snow hiking skills.
A well established alternate from Idyllwild – avoiding the challenging terrain of Fuller Ridge – is to connect back to the PCT at about Mile 191 using Black Mountain Road. Black Mountain Road [updated 21st April] is clear of snow for the lower four miles, and then has continuous light to moderate snow cover for the upper four miles to the PCT but there are excellent tracks to follow through the snow. Early on cold mornings the snow is hard and icy making it easy to hike, but snow is soft and postholing is poor by late morning. Mile 195 northward to Interstate 10 is clear of snow.
The remarkable winter has created some challenges in addition to the snow. There can be a great deal of water in the trails, and this has also created a few tricky crossings. Be cautious of snow bridges across water. Forested trails are covered with downed branches and debris, plus many new treefall hazards, some of which are only becoming apparent as the snow recedes. Trail maintenance by agencies was already years behind schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic, among other reasons, and this winter has greatly exacerbated the situation. Again, patience and caution will be essential this season more than most.
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 softening, melting, snow (and fresh powder if we have more storms!) may be suitable 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. 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.
PCT hikers are reminded that overnight stays are not permitted at or near San Jacinto Peak, including in the historic shelter (currently iced-in anyway). The shelter must be left available for use by emergency services at all times. Little Round Valley and Strawberry Junction are excellent overnight options for thru-hikers.
Trails above about 7000 ft remain largely snow-covered (wholly snow-covered above about 8000 ft). This will change steadily with extensive melting over the next few days and weeks. Details of PCT tracks and alternates are given in the PCT section above.
Devil’s Slide Trail [updated 17th April] is functionally clear of snow for its first 0.5 mile (to near switchback 3). Snow cover is then about 40% and very patchy for another 1.1 miles up to about 7500 ft elevation. Snow cover is largelt continuous thereafter to Saddle Junction. Snow can be firm in early mornings (perfect for spikes all the way to Saddle) but it can be soft otherwise, as early as late morning on warm days (expect periodic deep and wet postholing). The track that I put in after the last storm at the end of March is steep and (intentionally) does not follow the established trail route in the uppermost switchbacks close to Saddle Junction, so careful navigation is required. Many hikers will find that spikes are not required for ascending, but they are useful for descending the upper third of the trail.
My snowshoe-and-posthole track from multiple ascents/descents continues on to San Jacinto Peak, via a route roughly 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 and switchbacking. This track has now been moderately well-traveled and compacted. Other tracks head up from around 10,000 ft elevation directly upslope towards the summit junction, before turning north to the Peak.
Multiple trails lead from Round Valley up to the high country. There is now a reasonable posthole track through continuous snow up to Wellman Divide. Two posthole-and-snowshoe tracks run more directly, one up Jean Peak, and another up to near Miller Peak where it connects to the established trail up East Ridge to the Peak.
Deer Springs Trail is functionally clear of snow to the Suicide Rock Trail junction (spikes not required). From there to Strawberry Junction snow cover averages only 30%, with few major patches until you near the PCT. This is so sun exposed that patches are soft by mid morning at the latest. The track up to Strawberry Junction is obvious but surprisingly lightly traveled, and much less firm and compacted than, for example, the track up Devil’s Slide.
On Deer Springs Trail above Strawberry Junction the snow cover is continuous. There is a very lightly traveled and uneven posthole track north from Strawberry Junction, that rarely follows the actual trail route, and can be tough to follow, especially for those who know the true trail well. Once the track leaves the PCT at the south end of Fuller Ridge, it generally takes direct routes up the various snow slopes (e.g., photo below), and again only vaguely approximates to the trail route. In Little Round Valley the track splits in two roughly parallel tracks through the valley and both ascend very directly up towards San Jacinto Peak.
The Ernie Maxwell Trail [updated 18th April] is almost entirely clear of icy snow, but a couple of extended patches remain on the upper trail closest to Humber Park. Most hikers will find that spikes are not required.
The 0.4 mile section of South Ridge Trail between the PCT at Chinquapin Flat 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 on high angle terrain, are essential. Snowshoes are not advisable due to the angle of the icy snow.
Marion Mountain Trail [surveyed 21st April] remains largely snow-covered and has a very lightly-traveled track to follow, which only roughly approximates to the trail route in places. The lower 0.5 mile has about 60% snow cover, but the remainder of the trail has 100% snow cover. The track is not always easy to follow, especially when it breaks into multiple routes as it nears the PCT/Deer Springs Trail. Below 7500 ft elevation, the snow is soft even in the early morning, and gets soft at all elevations later in the day.
South Ridge Road is functionally clear of snow. South Ridge Trail [surveyed 20th April] has 30% snow cover up to Old Lookout Flat (7600 ft), but many of the snow patches remain surprisingly deep. Snow cover is then largely continuous from the Flat up to Tahquitz Peak. There is a posthole track to follow, which crosses steep angled icy snow in the upper switchbacks. Spikes at a minimum are required, crampons can be useful.
Spitler Peak Trail [surveyed weekly] is functionally clear of snow all the way to the PCT. A few minor snow patches remain on the most sheltered slopes but none of them require spikes to pass. Sadly most of my hard work of recent years, in which I cut 60+ trees on the upper trail, has been undone by this winter. About another 35 treefall hazards are on the trail, but thankfully almost all are small enough to be relatively easy to remove. More worrisome are 5-6 washouts in the upper switchbacks which have significantly impacted the tread in places, necessitating significant trail recovery work (photos 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.
Measured on Friday 14th April 2023 unless otherwise stated. The first number is the current snow depth, followed in parentheses by the maximum depth recorded in winter 2022/23 where known. In all cases these are the greatest snow depths recorded at these locations for at least 11-12 years. Note that averages are given; due to strong winds accompanying all storms, and the differential effects of rain on snow in some earlier storms, there is considerable inconsistency of depth. Altitudes and PCT Miles are approximate.
San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 78-82 inches (100-105 inches on 31st March)
Little Round Valley (9800 ft): 80-90 inches (heavily drifted and slow to melt here, see photo below)
Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 50-55 inches (70-75 inches on 3rd March and again on 31st March)
Annie’s Junction/PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 65 inches (80 inches on 3rd March)
Long Valley (8600 ft): 36 inches, but some bare patches already appearing (c.60 inches on 3rd March)
Strawberry Junction/PCT Mile 183.2 (8100 ft): 12 inches (but cleared patches developing, photo below)
Saddle Junction/PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 35 inches (48-50 inches on 3rd March)
Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6550 ft): 0-3 inches, melting rapidly (46 inches on 3rd March)
Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): 0 inches (45 inches on 1st March)
PCT Mile 151 at crossing with Highway 74 (4800 ft): 0 inches (13 inches in first week of March)
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