Following the twelfth storm system of this winter on 29th-30th January, temperatures have largely swung to well above seasonal, with melting underway at all elevations, but especially below 8000 ft. However a brief frigid interlude on 5th-6th February included a very light overnight snowfall at all elevations above 5000 ft, with 0.75 inch in Idyllwild, increasing to 1.5 inch at San Jacinto Peak.
On the morning of Monday 6th February I ascended San Jacinto Peak for the fifth time in the past two weeks, this time via the east side (Devil’s Slide, Wellman, Peak, and East Ridge trails), descending the same way. With the light dusting of fresh powder overnight, accompanied by strong winds causing extensive drifting, prior tracks had been partially obscured everywhere and almost completely erased above 8900 ft so I was again breaking trail in the high country. Thankfully it was relatively straightforward in crampons as the underlying snow was very solid due to freeze/thaw cycles, and the overlying powder was generally shallow. Although I made a concerted effort to put in a track as faithful to the trail routes as conditions permitted, further strong winds and blowing powder in the high country were erasing tracks within hours or even minutes.
As last week, 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. There are layers of hard ice and firm icy snow beneath the fresh powder, and crampons are ideal at present everywhere above 9000 ft, potentially lower in places.
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 8000 ft (possibly lower in places) obscured by moderate snow, and even fresh tracks being erased by spindrift snow in places. Strong winds expected on 11th-12th, and again on 14th, will likely obscure many tracks. Cautious navigation is strongly recommended everywhere.
As described above, crampons – with hiking poles and an ice axe, depending on terrain – are currently ideal everywhere above about 9500 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, on both flanks but especially 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 (e.g., see photo below).
Snowshoes are useful in lower 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. They are not currently recommended for traversing moderate angle slopes above 9000 ft that have challenging ice underlying shallow powder. However, snowshoes will become increasingly useful as conditions warm sufficiently for snow to become soft above about 9000 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 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 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). If there are “Road Closed” signs further down at the junction with Forest Drive – sometimes the case at weekends and holidays when snow is present – then those nine spaces are also theoretically unavailable for legal parking.
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.
February has been more settled than the very eventful January, but temperatures remain on something of a rollercoaster ride. Temperatures have been largely above seasonal in the first week of the month, then following a brief cold spell another period of temperatures well above seasonal is forecast for 8th-10th. Thereafter a cooling trend will take temperatures well below seasonal again including the possibility of minor precipitation on 11th-15th February. Forecast precipitation is currently only a dusting of snow at mid and upper elevations, but combined with strong winds this will be sufficient to complicate route-finding.
At San Jacinto Peak (10,810ft/3295m) 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.
At the Peak on Wednesday 1st February 2023 at 0935 the air temperature was 16.6°F (-8°C), with a windchill temperature of -8.0°F (-22°C), 13% relative humidity, and a wild NNE wind sustained at 21 mph gusting to 35.2 mph.
At the Peak on Monday 30th January 2023 at 1110 the air temperature was 15.5°F (-9°C), with a windchill temperature of -0.4°F (-18°C), 98% relative humidity, and a light SSE wind sustained at 3 mph gusting to 8.4 mph.
All trails above about 6500 ft are currently snow-covered, and partially snow-covered above 5500 ft. Snow cover is shallow up to about 7000 ft, but relatively heavy above 8000 ft. Melting on sun-exposed slopes is already well underway, e.g., on lower Devil’s Slide Trail, South Ridge and lower Deer Springs trails. Steady melting is expected with warming temperatures this week, especially at mid elevations and on sun-exposed slopes.
Note that tracks discussed can be obscured quickly by drifting of snow from strong winds, sometimes in days or even hours. Strong winds expected on 11th-12th February, and again on 14th, will likely obscure many tracks with spindrift.
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.
Ernie Maxwell Trail has a well traveled track to follow along its entire length, through the increasingly patchy icy snow. Average snow cover is 60%, but is nearly continuous near Humber Park. Spikes are recommended especially in the morning as the snow is now hard, compacted and very icy in places. Three significant trees are now down across the trail, including two major hazards (one new in gale force winds on 26th January) that are not easy to hike around both roughly halfway along the trail. All have been reported to US Forest Service.
Devil’s Slide Trail has a traveled and largely compacted track to Saddle Junction in place already. The lower half of the trail in particular is very icy. Spikes are recommended at least for descending, and will become increasingly important with increasing compaction and freeze/thaw cycles. There are two new treefall hazards to pass on the upper trail.
Otherwise, reliable posthole tracks are in place from Saddle Junctions through to San Jacinto Peak via Wellman Divide, but parts will become obscured by drifting snow. From near Miller Peak I put in a track up the East Ridge, rather than continuing on the Peak Trail round to Summit Junction, but this track was being partially erased by spindrift within minutes.
Tracks are in place around Skunk Cabbage Meadow, and south from Saddle Junction toward Chinquapin Flat.
By 1st February there was a somewhat meandering snowshoe track from Round Valley (and presumably Long Valley) up to San Jacinto Peak, ultimately using the East Ridge route from near Miller Peak, that generally followed lower angle terrain and avoided the traversing slopes of the Peak Trail. However there was no sign of that route by 6th, due to drifting snow.
On South Ridge Trail there is a posthole track to Tahquitz Peak requiring spikes at least, but preferably crampons, specifically for the uppermost switchbacks. South Ridge Road remains closed and is about 50% clear of snow (checked 4th 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 required. 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 last week.
SNOW DEPTHS measured on 6th February 2023 are as follows. The first number is the current average total snow depth at that location followed in parentheses by the maximum depth where known so far this winter, generally immediately following the major storm sequence on 14th-17th January 2023. Note that averages are given; due to strong winds accompanying storms there is extensive drifting. Altitudes are approximate.
San Jacinto Peak (10810 ft): 36-40 inches (winter max depth 45-48 inches), drifted >50 inches in places
Wellman Divide (9700 ft): 38 inches (45 inches)
Annie’s Junction/PCT Mile 180.8 (9070 ft): 44 inches (48 inches)
Long Valley (8600 ft): 20 inches (24 inches)
Saddle Junction/PCT Mile 179 (8070 ft): 18 inches (22 inches)
Devil’s Slide trailhead at Humber Park (6550 ft): 0-3 inches, partly melted by afternoon of 6th (6 inches)
Idyllwild (at 5550 ft): <1.0 inch, largely melted by afternoon of 6th (4 inches)
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