UPDATE Friday 5th May at 1020: I hiked again to San Jacinto Peak this morning. Although I was able to bareboot using our tracks from yesterday to 9100 ft, from there it required crampons to break trail to the Peak. Above 9000 ft, crampons are currently strongly recommended. The fresh snow is too shallow for snowshoes which will slide on the underlying ice, but too deep for spikes which will not bite through the overlying powder. From 7000-9000 ft, spikes can be very useful. An excellent boot track is in place from Devil’s Slide Trail to San Jacinto Peak (using the East Ridge above 10,400 ft). There is a crampon track across the Fuller Ridge section of the PCT, however it does not accurately follow the trail in places, and it would be very challenging to follow in spikes for at least the next couple of days. There is also a track along the entire Deer Springs Trail, already rapidly melting up to Strawberry Junction, but very direct upslope from Little Round Valley (crampons recommended from the PCT to the Peak). The predominant boot track on part of Deer Springs Trail (PCT Miles 184-185.5) badly meanders and only vaguely approximates to the true trail route.
UPDATE Thursday 4th May at 1740: An interesting day (to say the least) on the mountain ended with me rescuing one PCT hiker from the Peak and guiding four others back down from near Wellman Cienega in snow storm conditions. Final snow totals were remarkably even across the high country, with four inches of fresh snow at San Jacinto Peak all the way down to 9000 ft, and three inches at Saddle Junction (8100 ft). About an inch of patchy, slushy snow remained on lower Devil’s Slide Trail this afternoon, with all snow melted from Idyllwild. At this time there are no tracks above 9000 ft elevation – ours from today were quickly eliminated by strong winds and drifting snow – spikes are strongly recommended everywhere above 6500 ft, and crampons are preferred above 9000 ft. Snow depths are not sufficient to require snowshoes.
UPDATE Thursday 4th May at 0940: snowfall from the 26th storm of this winter is proving to be at the upper end of forecasts. We hiked to San Jacinto Peak this morning in a minor blizzard. Snow level is around 5500ft in Idyllwild where an inch has fallen but is melting quickly. Fresh snow depth is about 3 inches at San Jacinto Peak but it continues to fall lightly.
I recorded a brief video report at the Peak available here on YouTube.
A minor heatwave in the last few days of April accelerated already rapid snowmelt. Idyllwild recorded seven consecutive days with high temperatures exceeding their historical average by at least 5°F (peaking at 14°F above average on Saturday 29th). Some locations on the mountain lost an average of 12 inches of snow per week throughout April, and everywhere lost at least 2-3 feet in the month.
In contrast, a significant cooling is forecast for 1st-7th May, with a week of temperatures well below seasonal averages. Minor precipitation is expected on Thursday 4th at all elevations, including a dusting of snow in the high country at least but potentially much lower, with 1-4 inches expected above 10,000 ft and a freeze level as low as 5500 ft elevation. While the depth of new snow may be insufficient to significantly obscure existing tracks, hikers unfamiliar with navigating in fresh snow should exercise particular caution. More importantly, areas of underlying ice may be obscured and the potential for dangerous hiking conditions is greatly increased with a thin cover of fresh snow on top of old icy snow.
On the morning of Monday 1st May we hiked the PCT between Spitler Peak and Saddle Junction (PCT Miles 168.5-179), recording a video report (available here) to document trail and snow conditions on this key section of the Desert Divide. The video report I recorded on Fuller Ridge on Friday 21st April (available here) remains largely applicable and I expect to report on that section again before the middle of May.
I have conducted survey hikes on the PCT and/or its side trails daily. My five hikes to San Jacinto Peak in the past two weeks – all using very grippy boots and with Alpine starts to take advantage of firm, reliable, early morning snow – have not required spikes for the ascent, but have used spikes to descend safely until snow petered out below 8000 ft elevation.
Currently trails above about 8000 ft are largely obscured by light to moderate snow (lower in places). Trails as low as 7000 ft elevation can have shallow but very patchy snow cover, mainly on north-facing slopes. 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 fluctuate significantly over the next couple of weeks with relatively cold and icy surfaces in the first week of May, expected to be followed by generally warm and sunny weather in the second week of the month, when 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 (possibly lower in places depending on comfort level hiking on icy snow). This elevation will continue to slowly move upwards with steady melting of snow over the next few weeks, but is expected to remain relatively low throughout May. Spikes tend to be useful for descending and traversing even when they are not required for ascending.
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 will be 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 remain useful above about 9000 ft, mainly for off-trail travel and on the warmest days. Tracks in the high country can be firm if the morning is cold (spikes or even crampons best) but then soften rapidly once sun hits slopes and temperatures rise, at which point snowshoes may become valuable. Snowshoes will remain invaluable for off-trail travel for many weeks above 9000 ft (potentially lower in places). It is clear from the overwhelming majority of high country tracks that hikers are preferring not to use snowshoes.
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).
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 these issues are a consequence of the recent intense winter, most trails in the San Jacinto mountains have been inadequately maintained for years, largely due to agency dysfunction, in combination with various effects of wildfires, the coronavirus pandemic, and climate change. In addition there can be a great deal of water in (and under) the trails, and this has also created some tricky crossings. Be very cautious of snow bridges across water.
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 significant cooling is forecast for 1st-7th May, with a week of temperatures well below seasonal averages, partly or mostly cloudy days on 2nd-5th, and moderate winds (strongest in the high country) on 1st-4th. Minor precipitation is forecast for Thursday 4th, including very light snow in the high country, and a freeze level possibly as low as 5500 ft elevation. As much as an inch of snow might fall Idyllwild, with 1-4 inches around the highest peaks. Starting on Monday 8th May temperatures are forecast to quickly climb back to average for May.
At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) on Sunday 30th April 2023 at 0650 the air temperature was 40.1°F (5°C), with a windchill temperature of 30.0°F (-1°C), 37% relative humidity, and a steady SSW wind sustained at 12 mph gusting to 15.5 mph.
At the Peak 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.
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL INFORMATION
All of the PCT in the San Jacinto mountains is readily passable with, crucially, suitable skills and equipment, patience, and a thorough knowledge of all the possible alternates if needed. Snowmelt will slow over the next few days, and snow will generally be firm and icy, before softening again in the second week of May. 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 may increase over the next few weeks with temperatures fluctuating either side of freezing, seasonally strong insolation, and highly variable snowmelt.
The PCT is clear of snow from Miles 151 (Highway 74) to about Mile 169, and functionally clear (with only a handful of tiny snow patches) to Mile 175. Treefall hazards are a problem on this section but none are insurmountable (I counted at least 94 between Miles 169-175 on 1st May).
Apache Peak (Mile 169.5) is now functionally clear of snow. See my latest video for details of Miles 169-179 (available here). Snow is virtually continuous from Miles 175 (Red Tahquitz) to 179 (Saddle Junction), but with a well traveled track and very little consequential terrain. Spikes are nevertheless recommended, and note that the posthole track on Miles 175-178 does not accurately follow the trail route.
Descending the well-signed alternate at Spitler Peak Trail (Mile 168.5) is an excellent option for hikers less comfortable on the sections of angled snow further north 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).
PCT hikers should not attempt to use South Ridge Trail between the PCT at Chinquapin Flat (roughly 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 steeply angled (and notoriously treacherous) ice slopes. Crampons, always with an ice axe, and expert knowledge of how to use this equipment on high angle terrain, are critical. These slopes always take many weeks longer to clear of ice than adjacent areas, and will remain treacherous throughout May (probably into June this year).
Snow cover is moderate and largely continuous between Miles 179 to about Mile 192, with large patches clearing on sun-exposed sections (notably Miles 181-184 and around Mile 188). Spikes (at a minimum) are recommended everywhere.
Note that only one sign at Annie’s Junction (approx. Mile 180.8) has recently emerged from the melting snow but remains hard to see, so route-finding at this junction can be challenging. There is a relatively lightly traveled posthole track from Annie’s Junction to Strawberry Junction through increasingly patchy snow.
There is a posthole track through about 90% moderate-to-deep snow cover 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. Almost all hikers I have seen and talked to are carrying an ice axe to use with their spikes. Some hikers will prefer to use crampons (always with an ice axe), assuming they have knowledge of how to use that equipment. Judging by what I am seeing and hearing on the mountain, many hikers continue to prefer using the Black Mountain Road alternate at this time, but the proportion hiking Fuller Ridge has steadily increased in the past couple of weeks.
There is a myth circulating on PCT social media that going up and over San Jacinto Peak somehow avoids Fuller Ridge. Please note that this is both incorrect and potentially dangerously misleading. Whether you remain on the PCT northbound (going around at lower elevation via Strawberry Junction) or leave the PCT at Annie’s Junction (Mile 180.8) to go up to San Jacinto Peak and then down the west side to reconnect to the PCT at about Mile 185.5, you still have to hike Fuller Ridge (which is Miles 185.5-190.5). It is possible to do the former route more safely by leaving the PCT at Strawberry Junction (approx. Mile 183) and descending Deer Springs Trail, which is completely clear of snow below Strawberry Junction, back into Idyllwild.
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.
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Trails above about 8000 ft remain largely snow-covered (wholly snow-covered above about 8900 ft). This will continue to change steadily with melting during the course of May. Trails below 7500 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 clear of snow for two miles to about 7700 ft elevation. Snow cover averages 50% for the remaining 0.5 mile to Saddle Junction, mainly as a few extended patches around the uppermost switchbacks and close to Saddle. Snow can be firm in early mornings but it is often soft otherwise, as early as late morning on warm days (expect moderate postholing by afternoon). Many hikers will find that spikes are not required for ascending, but they can be useful for descending the upper 0.5 mile of trail.
There are tracks to follow around the Tahquitz area meadows. However none accurately follow the trail routes at this time, and at least on the initial 0.5 mile of the Caramba Trail and through Little Tahquitz Meadow there are multiple meandering tracks.
The track north from Saddle Junction follows initially follows the PCT route fairly accurately and is now only about 60% snow-covered for the first mile. From 8900 ft elevation, snow cover is continuous.
The now heavily-traveled and well-compacted route thereafter follows the posthole track that I originally established on 31st March following the last snowfall and continues on to San Jacinto Peak, via a route approximating to the 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. Beware of an increasing variety of alternate tracks that is developing, although most seem to ultimately reach the same endpoints. For example several 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 a well-traveled posthole track through 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; these will become harder to follow soon as the snow melts.
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 the posthole track through largely continuous snow only partially follows the actual trail route. 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 (see for example this photo in a prior Report) and again only vaguely approximates to the trail route. In Little Round Valley the track splits into several parallel tracks through the valley that then ascend steeply and directly up towards San Jacinto Peak.
The Ernie Maxwell Trail is functionally clear of snow. Crossing the swollen Chinquapin Creek just below Humber Park can be tricky, especially on warm afternoons when snowmelt flows are strongest.
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 required.
South Ridge Road is clear of snow. South Ridge Trail is clear of snow to Old Lookout Flat (7600 ft). Snow cover averages 40% on the traverse to 7900 ft and on the lower switchbacks up to about 8400 ft. Some snow patches and drifts remain fairly deep. Snow cover remains largely continuous and treacherous on the upper switchbacks to Tahquitz Peak, starting at about the seventh switchback up. In places the posthole track becomes relatively indistinct near the Peak where it crosses steep angled icy snow. Spikes at a minimum are required.
Marion Mountain Trail remains largely snow-covered and has only a relatively lightly-traveled track to follow, which only roughly approximates to the trail route in places. The lower 0.5 mile is largely clear of snow, but the remainder of the trail averages 90% 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.
Spitler Peak Trail 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.
Snow cover on Black Mountain Road is described in detail in the PCT section above.
Dark Canyon Road – the access for Seven Pines Trail – is completely clear of snow, but remains closed.
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 30th April 2023 unless indicated. The first number is the current snow depth, followed in parentheses by the maximum depth recorded in winter 2022/23 where known. Note that broad averages are given; due to drifting in strong winds, and the differential effects of melting and of rain on snow in some March storms, there is considerable inconsistency of depth. Altitudes and PCT Miles are approximate.
San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 50-55 inches (100-105 inches on 31st March)
Little Round Valley (9800 ft): 60 inches
Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 40 inches (70-75 inches on 3rd March and again on 31st March)
Annie’s Junction/PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 45-50 inches (80 inches on 3rd March)
Long Valley (8600 ft): 4 inches, ranging from 0-10 inches (60 inches on 3rd March)
Strawberry Junction/PCT Mile 183.2 (8100 ft): 0-4 inches
Saddle Junction/PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 12 inches, ranging from 0-30 inches (48-50 inches on 3rd March)
Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6550 ft): 0 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)