HIKE05: Ice House Saddle

Confidence up, we flipped through the hiking guidebook with a mission to find something a bit more challenging. Never been to the Baldy area so seemed like a good enough time as any. Got up early and started the 60 mile drive out to Claremont and into the Angeles National Forest. 

Up a curvy road into the mountains we drove, discovering a tiny village surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks. At the end of the road is the small Baldy ski area, open on our visit for one last weekend of skiing and snowboarding. It was late April so the snow was long-gone at the base, but people were still making spring runs on a trail or two a couple chairlifts up the 10,064 foot mountain properly known as Mt. San Antonio. There are a few different hiking trails up to that summit, but we had heard you needed equipment for the dangerous snow and ice (we're definitely not there yet), so we opted for another nearby trail that crested at a 7,555 foot saddle between several higher peaks.

We found the Ice House Canyon trailhead at a crowded parking lot around 4900 feet.  We got started a bit after 930 with temps near a chilly 45 degrees. A bit cool for just a sweatshirt.  (We left the house an hour earlier with temps in the 60s).  Once we got going, the workout warmed us up and the sweatshirts peeled off. We definitely wouldn't have that sun and heat issue on this adventure.

The first section of trail follows the banks of a fast flowing snow-fed creek along the base of Ice House Canyon. We passed ruins of the original Ice Packing business and a series of waterside cabins.  The sound of flowing water was nearly deafening as it roared around massive boulders through a series of cascading falls.  As the trail makes a steady cliff-side climb, majestic pine and cedar trees provided plenty of shade.

We saw a few families with power cardio hikers mixed in early in the day.  The farther we got, the thinner the crowd as we encountered the same people again and again--passing and talking to a very friendly Asian couple many times. (I hope I'm making these kinds of hikes in my 60s!)  Many of the other hikers we saw were carrying poles for support. Silly poles, who needs em?

Among the many boulders passed, saw a few with very interesting sedimentary geology...

2 miles up the trail we entered the Cucamonga Wilderness--a pristine 12,000 acre protected area.  At this point we we started to find snow cover on the slope across the canyon. Our path remained dry--but that would soon change.

Just under a mile from the saddle, the trail goes into switchback mode for the last 1,000 feet of elevation gain. At first there was a patch of snow here and there.  A hiker walking down told us it would all be covered before long, but we should be ok to reach the saddle--and higher would require that same equipment we didn't have.  He told us poles would help, but he hated carrying them.  We agreed.  Seriously, who wants to carry poles!?

The trail became increasingly precarious the higher we got as the path of footprints followed a steeper grade than the gradual switchbacks hidden under the snow. Fortunately, the snow was hard and icy making it manageable (albeit slow) to continue up the hill.

When we reached the top--well not really the top, "notch" is probably a more accurate term--we found a small sun-drenched clearing with a few fellow hikers taking a lunch break before heading back down. Signs indicated a web of trails extending to the surrounding peaks from this major junction. Of course, all those trails were covered in snow--and not snow with a worn path of footprints. Thanks to the sun exposure, the saddle was an oasis of dry land surrounded by snow in every direction. Good time for a snack.

We sat down and enjoyed some trail mix and an energy bar as we watched a large raven (by our best guess) foraging for food.  Our older-Asian-couple friends crested the trail and we shared some pleasantries about  the perfect crisp, cool weather. The husband recommended we continue to Telegraph Peak (8985' and almost three more miles each way) when the snow melts.  Another day...

After some rest we started the decent back into the canyon.  Snow cover made wayfinding a bit difficult at times. In a few spots trees were marked to help. One particular marking failed in that regard...

When we neared the end of the thickest snow, I decided it was time to enjoy what we so rarely see in Southern California. Yeah, my pants were wet, but it was fun. They dried quickly but I ended up with big chunks of ice trapped under my belt--only realizing it a mile later when my ass still felt strangely chilled. Ghetto AC.

We opted to mix things up going back by taking the Chapman Trail--a 2-mile longer alternate route with a gradual ridgeline decent.  It was a nice contrast walking along this higher, dryer trail. The path crossed quite a few very steep stretches of sliding loose gravel.  Thank god we were on the sunny side of the canyon because this would be quite dangerous in the snow, until...

We rounded a bend back to a north facing wall and found ourselves once again crossing snow--only this time we were very high up and one wrong step would send us sliding down nearly a thousand feet. We followed the footprints where possible--this much less traveled trail wasn't as well worn as the other one--but in a few places the foot markings were only on the top of a very hard, icy surface.  The best plan was to lean into the hill for the best hope of avoiding a slide but it was difficult and frightening.  Sure wish we had those damn poles.

Mood change from before first crossing and trapped between crossings:

After each stretch of snow we thought we were done, only to discover more around another bend. Trapped between two long croppings of the white stuff, Liz entered a panic.  Going forward -- scary.  Going back --definitely scary.  We put that recent yoga training to good use and calmed down with some breathing exercises.  Then, another couple--the only other people we saw on this part of the trail--passed us and advanced through the last bit of snow.  After they survived, we got it together and forged on.  And with that, the snow was no more. We saw that couple again in the parking lot. Apparently they were as freaked out about the snow as we were--they just didn't want to stop and dwell on it.

After our little moment of extreme sport, we continued to a backcountry campground before switchbacking down into the canyon.  We passed some weird neuvo-hippies hanging out next to a little stream with two dogs. They gave us the evil eye. Or maybe they were high.  Not sure.

We saw a lot of interesting vegetation on the way down including these yucca cousins called "Our Lord's Candle". This strange plant grows for a few years until it dies in a massive stalk of a flower bloom (inspiring the candle name). And yes, if you fall into one, the spiky leaves are very hard and DO hurt.

Walked along the creek again for the last stretch--noticing something we missed going up--the fast water was crystal clear. Truly gorgeous.  The base area had filled with larger families more interested in an escape than a long hike.

In the end, we cleared 9.2 miles and 2700 feet of elevation gain all in about 6 1/2 hours (we can work on the speed as we go) I told Liz how proud I was of her for pushing through it with the only moment of "I can't" being tied to a snow crossing that was legitimately scary.  It was a fantastic day and we both felt great.  Amazing how far we've come since the disastrous hike near Santa Ynez only a month or so earlier. 

We rewarded ourselves with a tasty burger in a little Baldy village restaurant before trekking back to Hermosa Beach.  Slept well that night.

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