I rented some snowshoes and headed to Idyllwild yesterday for what I thought would be a relatively short hike up to San Jacinto Peak via the Marion Mountain Trail. Turned out it was a bit more rigorous than expected given the unbroken snow, but it was still a great day hike.
I parked a bit less than half a mile from the trailhead by the closed gate to Marion campground, where I met a nice guy named Mike who looked like he’d hiked pretty much everything, everywhere. His pack was serious. His mountaineering boots were serious. Fortunately, he’d done the hike several times before and he was friendly enough. Plus I was glad there was someone else heading up the same trail — turns out, he was the only other human being I saw until getting back to Idyllwild that evening.
Mike started up while and finished getting ready. I was trying to figure out what to bring, or rather what not to bring, as I always tend to overpack, so I started off about 15 min behind him. At the trailhead (see attached picture), there’s a sign that says, “Mt. San Jacinto 5 1/4 [Miles]”. This is nonsense. Every map and comment I’ve found online says it’s 5.8 to 6 miles up. Not that big a deal, but a high discrepancy (12%) for such a short hike. At the time, I was slightly pleased that the hike was going to be shorter than I thought…
The initial hike up out of the valley is incredibly pleasant, in this case with light patches of snow in the shadows. After crossing over a dirt road a half-mile or so up, the snow got more serious, with slightly deeper patches. As you rise up out of the valley, you get some great initial views to the west of San Bernardino (even in the haze, it’s more attractive then you might think) and the granite slopes above.
I caught up with Mike just as the snow got deeper and I started what was to be a rather enthusiastic hour or so of postholing up to my butt for no apparent reason other than stubbornness. Mike was putting on gators and I joined him. He had very serious gators.
After another half hour or more of trail finding through slightly heavier but still patchy snow, we arrived at the junction with the Pacific Coast Trail, Deer Springs and Seven Pines Trails. The sign there (see pic), indicates that it’s another 3.2 miles from there to San Jacinto. I stared at the sign. I looked my map. This is when I realized the sign at the trailhead was off by quite a bit. But now we were fully into the snow, the trees and it was beautiful, so I didn’t really care. More postholing!
From this point on, I suffered from what I can only assume was a mild form of insanity. While breaking trail up to my nethers in soft snow under breakable crust, I kep thinking that the snow would pack down just a bit further ahead so why bother putting on snow shoes? I was following a barely visible trail, more of a wind-blow-filled trace, and no one had been there in at least a day, probably more. But it was better to just carry snowshoes than use them. Carry them past the Fuller Trail junction. Carry them up the switchbacks and around the corner leading up to Newton Drury Peak. And then keep carrying them until I reached a point in the canyon below Little Round Valley where the people who’d made the barely visible trail — clearly wearing snowshoes — had turned around. That was the point where I realized it might be worth the effort of putting on the snowshoes. You know, ’cause that’s so hard to do. What got me about all this was that when Mike caught up a few minutes later, he was also still carrying his snowshoes. Why? I have no earthly idea. Madness.
With snowshoes on, we did a map and GPS check and headed up across the ridgeline of Drury toward the canyon that led into Little Round Valley. Over snow, manzanita, and occasional rocks in our snowshoes. Took ’em off about 10 minutes later, then back on 5 min after that. And then, to my relief, I finally arrived in the LR Valley. I wouldn’t see Mike again after that — I think he decided it was too late in the afternoon to continue (it was nearly 1pm, I think). So I trudged into the valley on a general bearing toward the campground. Beautiful. Silent. Totally alone. It was quite splendid.
Once I cross the valley, I decided to take a slightly less than direct route up to the peak so that I could keep the snowshoes on. The net result was a rather zig-zaggy pattern that brought me way too far to the south and toward Jean Peak, where I then turned up the ridgeline toward the peak. My logic in this was that if I left an obvious path up the peak by staying on the snow, I could follow it back easily on the way down.
Regardless of what was a rather indirect path, I got to the peak around 2:15pm, took a picture, and promptly started eating like mad. I was starving. The views in all direction were nice, the smoggy, and not quite as nice as when I’d been there the year before with my (then) girlfriend. But this time I’d come up the hard way, on my own, and I didn’t mind the views a bit.
It had taken about 5.5 hours to get to the top; a bit longer than I would have liked, but if you make allowances for the snowshoe madness and some navigational indecision, not too shameful. In any case, it meant I could get down well before sunset.
I run-walked-shoed back to the car in just under 3 hours. Just below LR Valley I saw Mike’s tracks as he headed back and followed his steps in the trail I’d broken earlier all the way down. I ran out of water a bit after that, so next time I’ll need to bring more, but it was otherwise a fun descent. Round-trip was around 12.5 miles. Beautiful day.