One of the happy consequences of drought in the West — and there aren’t many — is being able to hike to peaks in the winter that normally would be inaccessible. Such is the case in SoCal’s Angeles National Forest, where snow and ice make peak bagging treacherous and Angeles Crest Highway is typically closed at Islip Saddle. Not this year. At least until possibly this weekend, with a mega-storm in progress.
Last Sunday, we summited Mt. Baden-Powell — at 9,399 feet, the fifth-highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. The hike is 8 miles round-trip, with 2,800 feet of elevation gain. Think nearly 3,000 feet up in 4 miles sounds insane? Imagine 42 switchbacks zigzagging to the top.
The trailhead at Vincent Gap is right along Angeles Crest, about 53 miles from La Cañada. Past Islip Saddle, where steep mountainsides hug the road, we had to dodge a lot of rocks on the pavement. We figured there must have been either an earthquake or animals like bighorn sheep scooting around up high, setting loose the rocks. But a Forest Service info officer I later talked to thought the rockfall might have been from recent rains. Hmm. It hadn’t rained at that point for nearly two weeks…I HOPE Caltrans is clearing those roads more often than that.
At any rate, the trail on the north slope of Baden-Powell — it’s part of the PCT — starts uphill right away, and it’s a conifer lover’s dream. At first you’re surrounded by sugar pine, Jeffrey pine, white fir and incense cedar. As you gain elevation — if you can catch breath enough to take notice — the more exposed forest becomes lodgepole pine and gnarled limber pines.
If you need the bench at about the sixth of seventh switchback, you’re probably in a spot of trouble because there’s way more elevation to gain and at least 30 more switchbacks. Like Mt. Waterman, this is classic Angeles High Country, reminiscent of the Sierra. The trailhead elevation of 6,585 feet could compete with many a Sierra hike. There really aren’t any breaks in the relentless elevation gain, so flatlanders living at sea level definitely want to take it easy and guzzle plenty of water.
About 1.5 miles in is a turnoff for Lamel Spring, which is usually just a trickle in warmer months. In about another mile, the steepest switchbacks start. This is also where we started to see patches of snow and even some ice on the trail. It was mostly slushy, but there were a few spots of hard-pack ice. Which is why the dad we saw carrying his child in a pack ended up turning around before hitting the ice. Keep in mind that what goes up, may possibly slide down on the way back.
A quarter mile from the top, there’s a junction where the PCT continues to the right. The path to the left — still straight up — leads to the summit of Baden-Powell. A hard-to-miss landmark here is the Wally Waldron tree, a 1,500-year-old limber pine named for a Boy Scout volunteer. If the trees remind you of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, that’s because these gnarly limbers are the only trees that share those high desert slopes.
The summit is bare except for a dead tree trunk, along with a monument to Lord Baden-Powell, who founded the Boy Scouts organization in 1907, and a hikers’ register.
Once we caught our breath, it was taken away again by the amazing views. The summit is directly across the East Fork San Gabriel River basin from, and slightly west of, Mount Baldy. We were more than a vertical mile above the canyon of the East Fork San Gabriel and the Sheep Mountain Wilderness.
It was a bit hazy, but to the west we could just make out Catalina Island and the coast. With storms moving through now, Baden-Powell will likely be tough to access for a while, but once the road reopens and it’s safe to hike, the views should be clearer and astounding.
One thing I’ll say about this trail that really bugs me: I’ve never seen so much evidence of hikers cutting switchbacks. People: cutting switchbacks causes erosion and trail damage. Please stop! I finally had to say something to the hikers in back of us, and the response was genuine surprise. Maybe people just don’t realize the damage they’re causing. At some point, I think the Forest Service needs to line the trail with rocks or logs at those shortcuts.
To find out if Highway 2 is open after this weekend’s storm, you can check Caltrans’ road conditions site. Even if Highway 2 is closed at Islip Saddle, Vincent Gap can be reached from the west, from the Wrightwood end of the highway. Here’s video of the summit benchmark and a glimpse of the views…enjoy, and be careful out there…