A dramatic spring snowmelt is well underway. Everywhere on the mountain above 6000 ft has lost at least two feet of snow this month, with some mid elevation areas and sun-exposed slopes losing three feet (or even more) since the last significant snowfall at the end of March. With further warming in the forecasts – including a minor heatwave in the last few days of April – snowmelt will continue rapidly. It is unusual for the San Jacinto mountains to have no significant storm in April, and frankly it is disappointing to see so much snow disappear so quickly.
That said, plenty of snow remains in most areas above about 8000 ft. For example, on Friday 21st I undertook a comprehensive survey of the still very snowy Fuller Ridge section of the PCT, recording a detailed video report available here on YouTube. The PCT across Fuller Ridge is now passable with spikes, but only for hikers who are comfortable hiking on continuous icy snow across some moderate angle terrain with significant exposure in places, as discussed in more detail below.
I have conducted survey hikes daily, invariably on parts of the PCT and/or its side trails. On three recent cool early mornings (17th, 19th, and 26th) I was able to comfortably ascend San Jacinto Peak without spikes in very grippy boots via the east side track – approximating to Devil’s Slide, Wellman, Peak, and East Ridge trails – before then using spikes to descend safely until the snow petered out around 7800 ft.
Currently trails above about 8000 ft are largely obscured by moderate snow (lower in places). Trails as low as 7000 ft elevation have shallow but increasingly patchy snow cover. 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 track across snow several feet deep may be much easier hiking than a poorly defined track across just a few 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.
In the past week, traction decisions have generally become easier as established tracks become more compacted and defined. 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 traveled and compacted. The willingness of the hiker to posthole (which is rarely easy) also influences choice of traction.
Spikes are strongly recommended for the foreseeable future everywhere above about 7500 ft (potentially lower in places). This elevation may slowly move upwards with steady melting of snow over the next few days and weeks, but will remain relatively low into May. Spikes tend to be especially useful for descending and traversing.
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.
Snowshoes can be helpful everywhere above about 8000 ft (potentially lower in places on the warmest days for the remainder of April). 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 that hikers are preferring not to use or carry snowshoes.
In addition to snow and navigation issues, hikers should anticipate encountering many new treefall hazards on all trails, along with considerable amounts of debris, branches, cones, etc. While some of this is a consequence of the recent remarkable winter, most trails in the San Jacinto mountains have been inadequately maintained for many years, largely due to agency dysfunction, in combination with wildfires, the coronavirus pandemic, and climate change.
Especially with a cooling trend starting 1st May, hikers should be prepared for temperatures near or below freezing in the high country, and often well 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 Wednesday 19th 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 all their various side roads.
A minor heatwave is currently forecast for the remainder of April, with summer-like temperatures on 27th-30th. Even at the highest elevations air temperatures will be well above freezing, while at mid elevations (e.g., Idyllwild) temperatures will be far above seasonal. Snowmelt will continue to be rapid at all elevations especially in sun-exposed areas. A significant cooling is forecast for 1st-5th May, with the possibility of minor precipitation on Thursday 4th, including potential for a very light dusting of snow in the high country.
At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Wednesday 26th April 2023 at 0740 the air temperature was 32.4°F (0°C), with a windchill temperature of 16.9°F (-8°C), 41% relative humidity, and a sharp due North wind sustained at 9 mph gusting to 23.8 mph.
At the Peak on Wednesday 19th April 2023 at 0745 the air temperature was 23.0°F (-5°C), with a windchill temperature of -1.5°F (-19°C), 28% relative humidity, and a bitter due West wind sustained at 32 mph gusting to 45.1 mph.
At the Peak on Monday 17th April 2023 at 0810 the air temperature was 33.9°F (1°C), with a windchill temperature of 20.8°F (-6°C), 27% relative humidity, and a fresh due West wind sustained at 12 mph gusting to 18.8 mph.
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL INFORMATION
Rapid and widespread snowmelt is underway and will continue to accelerate over the next few days. All areas of the PCT in the San Jacinto mountains are readily passable with, crucially, suitable skills and equipment, patience, and a thorough knowledge of all the possible alternates if needed. 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 challenges will steadily increase over the next few weeks with temperatures fluctuating either side of freezing, seasonally stronger insolation, and highly variable snowmelt.
The PCT is 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 a track continuing beyond Apache Peak (Mile 169.5) all the way through to Mile 177. Spikes are 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 most heavily traveled track at Mile 169-169.5 goes over the saddle at Apache Peak rather than following the PCT route around to the east.
Descending the well-signed alternate at Spitler Peak Trail (Mile 168.5) is an excellent option for hikers less comfortable on lengthy sections of angled snow or lacking suitable traction. Spitler Peak Trail is clear of snow. 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 more-or-less 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.
PCT hikers should not attempt to use South Ridge Trail between the PCT at Chinquapin Flat (approx. Mile 177.7) and Idyllwild via Tahquitz Peak, even though this looks temptingly simple on apps and maps. There are no steps to follow through a lengthy section of notoriously treacherous and steeply angled ice slopes. Crampons, always with an ice axe, and expert knowledge of how to use this equipment on high angle terrain, are critical.
Snow cover is moderate and nearly 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.
Note that all signs and posts at Annie’s Junction (approx. Mile 180.8) are buried in deep snow, and route-finding here can be challenging. There is a relatively lightly traveled posthole track from Annie’s Junction to Strawberry Junction through increasingly patchy snow.
There is now also a posthole track through the almost continuous deep snow on the PCT along Fuller Ridge (Miles 185.5-191), as described in detail in my video report from 21st April (available here). The track does not accurately follow the PCT route in many places, and passes through some challenging terrain. At this time continuing north on Fuller Ridge requires the skills and comfort level to hike on angled terrain with significant exposure, and spikes (at a minimum) are recommended. Many hikers may prefer to use crampons and ice axe (assuming they have knowledge of how to use that equipment). Judging by what I am seeing on all the trails, most hikers continue to prefer using the Black Mountain Road alternate.
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 is clear of snow for the lower four miles, and then has largely 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 mid 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 stream 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 for a variety of reasons, and has deteriorated further this winter. Again, patience and caution will be essential this season more than most.
PCT hikers are reminded that overnight stays are not permitted at or near San Jacinto Peak by the State Park, including in the historic shelter. 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 8000 ft remain largely snow-covered (wholly snow-covered above about 8800 ft). This will change steadily with extensive melting over the next few days and weeks. Trails below 6500 ft are now almost entirely clear of snow. Details of PCT tracks and alternates are given in the PCT section above.
Devil’s Slide Trail is functionally clear of snow for its first mile, and then almost clear of snow another mile up to about 7700 ft elevation. Snow cover is about 60% for the remaining 0.5 mile to Saddle Junction. Snow can be firm in early mornings but it is often soft otherwise, as early as late morning on warm days (expect moderate postholing). The track through the remaining snow patches now largely follows the established trail route in the uppermost switchbacks close to Saddle Junction, but careful navigation is still required. Many hikers will find that spikes are not required for ascending, but they are useful for descending, especially the upper 0.5 mile of trail.
The posthole track that I originally established on 31st March following the last snowfall continues on to San Jacinto Peak, via a route approximating to the PCT, Wellman, Peak, and East Ridge trails, at times 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 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 largely continuous snow up to Wellman Divide. At least 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 Strawberry Junction. The snow cover is increasingly patchy for one mile north of Strawberry Junction to about 8600 ft. Thereafter is a relatively lightly traveled posthole track north through continuous snow, that rarely follows the actual trail route, and can be tough to follow, especially for those who know the true trail well. Once the Deer Springs track leaves the PCT at the south end of Fuller Ridge, it generally takes direct routes up the various snow slopes (e.g., photo in previous Report) and again only vaguely approximates to the trail route. In Little Round Valley the track splits into at least two roughly parallel tracks through the valley that then ascend steeply and directly up towards San Jacinto Peak.
The Ernie Maxwell Trail is almost entirely clear of snow, but a couple of patches remain on the upper trail closest to Humber Park. Most hikers will find that spikes are not required. Crossing the swollen Chinquapin Creek just below Humber Park is tricky for many hikers.
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 critical.
South Ridge Road is clear of snow. South Ridge Trail is clear of snow to Old Lookout Flat (7600 ft). Snow cover averages 50% on the traverse to 7900 ft and on the lower switchbacks up to about 8400 ft, but some of the snow patches/drifts remain surprisingly deep. Snow cover is then almost continuous and treacherous on the upper switchbacks to Tahquitz Peak, starting at about switchback seven. In places the posthole track becomes indistinct and hard to follow near the Peak where it crosses steep angled icy snow. Spikes at a minimum are required, crampons/ice axe are preferable.
Marion Mountain Trail [surveyed 21st April] remains largely snow-covered and has only a 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.
Spitler Peak Trail [surveyed weekly] is clear of snow. Sadly most of my hard work of recent years, in which 60+ trees were cut 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 in prior Report).
Black Mountain Trail [surveyed 28th April] is completely clear of snow for 3.5 miles. The final 0.3 mile in the uppermost switchbacks has about 60% snow cover in patches which obscure the route in places. There is a very lightly-traveled and ill-defined posthole track through those snow patches. From the top of the trail to the fire lookout, snow cover is almost continuous, but is soft and thinning rapidly.
Dark Canyon Road – the access for Seven Pines Trail – is now completely clear of snow, but remains closed [surveyed 25th April].
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.
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Measured on 26th April 2023 (east side locations) and 19th-21st April (west side). 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 melting and 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): 55-65 inches (100-105 inches on 31st March)
Little Round Valley (9800 ft): 70 inches (heavily drifted and slow to melt here, see photo in previous Report)
Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 45-48 inches (70-75 inches on 3rd March and again on 31st March)
Annie’s Junction/PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 50-60 inches (80 inches on 3rd March)
Long Valley (8600 ft): 18 inches, but ranging from 0-30 inches (c.60 inches on 3rd March)
Strawberry Junction/PCT Mile 183.2 (8100 ft): 0-10 inches
Saddle Junction/PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 20-36 inches (48-50 inches on 3rd March)
Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6550 ft): 0-2 inches (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)
One thought on “Snow and trail update 26th April 2023”
We really appreciate your reports about the PCT, we did a ‘flipflop’ from 74 to Tahachepi and are hinking southbound now. Thedutchhikingbrothers.