Leaders: Alan Coles, Frank Goodykoontz
Some years ago I led a private trip starting from South Park and going over Tahquitz Pk, then down the Desert Divide over Red Tahquitz, South, Antsell, Apache and Spitler and exiting at the Apple Canyon Trailhead. It was a long and tiring day but a very beautiful and memorable hike. It seemed like a good idea to do the same trip again with a slight modification to make it more scenic and a little easier. So I secured a precious permit for 15 people on the popular Devil's Slide Trail from Humber Park well in advance. Late September is usually a fine time to do this hike when the air is cool, dry and exceptionally clear. Mother Nature, however, seemed to have other plans. The summer thunderstorm season was supposed to be over but on a year when every season seemed to be delayed, nothing was unexpected. Heavy rain and lightning had struck the LA basin only a few days before this trip and the weather forecast called for more of the same on the day when we would all be standing on top of some tall rocks. I decided to proceed with the trip anyway since thunderstorms are usually localized and rarely last for more than half an hour at any specific spot. Several of us drove up Friday evening and spent the night at or near the Apple Canyon Trailhead. The ground was drenched and a heavy mist lingered around the nearby meadows causing an eerie glow through the moonlight. The sky was clear and cold, not even the slightest sign of a cloud. Still, the leader warned everyone the next morning to bring raingear and be prepared for a heavy downpour. Twelve participants showed up, split equally between men and women, and all seemed ready for the worst. There were no clouds in sight yet but the cool, humid early morning weather suggested another day of eventful conditions. I asked everyone to sign a waiver and all complied since almost everyone was familiar with them on SPS and DPS hikes. This is a new procedure for the HPS but one which may be necessary to retain our fine outings program. With a long hike ahead of us, little time was wasted and everyone signed in as soon as possible. The group squeezed into 3 vehicles for the relatively short drive up the highway to Humber Park. There, the air was cold and invigorating and the group was ready to move. Tom wanted to know our starting elevation so I pulled out the map and told him. At that instant, several arms simultaneously extended themselves bearing nearly identical watches with the same large yellow buttons. The altimeter watch: the latest HPS fashion trend. We briskly set off up the trail and stopped only once to remove warm clothing. The heavily saturated air made sweating easy but the cool temperature more than compensated for it. We passed thickets of ripe currants, gooseberries and blue elderberries before reaching Saddle Junction in about 1 hour. After a well deserved rest, we took the Tahquitz Valley Trail as it meanders through several splendid meadows full of lush native grasses and ferns that hinted of autumn. A few small brooks still running well so late in the season were crossed before we rejoined the PCT and followed it up the slope to the turnoff spot for Red Tahquitz. The Forest Service has tried to obliterate the use trail that previously was very well defined (probably too well) here. Even though some in the group had previously climbed this summit, everyone decided to go anyway and it didn't take long to reach the top. The view was outstanding especially to the south where we could see the peaks we planned to climb and the long journey back to our cars. Clouds began to build above us and mighty Antsell appeared very formidable to those who had heard the horror stories about it. We descended the east ridge which goes very well and then dropped to the south to intersect the PCT once again. Continuing on down the trail we passed colorful bouquets of fall blooming asters, fuchsias and rabbit bush with their vivid cyan, red and yellow hues. We reached the turn off point for Southwell and quickly ascended the peak. The sky overhead was suddenly very dark and I decided not to stay on top the peak. We returned back to the trail where an early lunch was taken by the group while the 2 leaders conferred on the sudden change of conditions. Normally one of 2 things happen when a quick cloud buildup occurs. Either the storm hits soon and dissipates afterwards or it stalls for a while and builds up later in the day. It was still early, around 11 am so anything was possible. I have personally experienced both scenarios many times in these mountains which teaches one not to take any unnecessary chances. We needed a full 2 hours to do Antsell and there is no quick way off the route if a storm hits. After 20 minutes conditions remained static. Everyone felt ready to push on so off we went down 2 long and superfluous switchbacks to the saddle where the old Sam Fink Trail takes off. Here Frank took over as leader and we began the tedious boulder and brush climbing. A few drops of rain were felt but any serious threat was still an hour or two away. After working for nearly 45 minutes we came to the "big crack". Climbing it wasn't much more difficult than going up a staircase and even the most apprehensive hikers had little trouble ascending it. Once up it, there was a short and easy scramble to the top.
"This is it?" was the surprised expression for many in the group. All of the horror stories about this peak didn't materialize. So we had a little breather and took in the impressive sights. There was another group of people on the rock to the south practicing mountaineering techniques none of us had witnessed before such as rapelling head down. They also seemed intent on bringing the mountain down with them.
Clouds were still building around us so after 10 minutes Frank once again led the way taking us down the SE ridge. This turned out to be much better than previous routes I have used and no one seemed to have much trouble. After descending the rock, we encountered the most dangerous part of the trip: the loose scree in the gully. I asked our "friends" on the rock above us to restrain their avalanche promotion activities so that we could proceed downward with less chance of severe injury. Even though we had a small group, it still took considerable time to descend and avoid the loose rocks being dislodged by our feet. We all made it down safely and took another break well out of harms way. A few minutes later, members of the other party came running down the slope with rocks crashing everywhere. They greeted us as if nothing unusual had happened and continued on their way to who knows where.
You know it's a long day when conversation turns to coronary clogging cuisine, that ever so unhealthful combination of grease and salt that seems so appealing after a hard hike like this. We sat and munched on trail food and contemplated what we would like to have when it was over. But there were still 2 more peaks left on the agenda, so off we went again.
We passed the turn off for the old Apple Canyon Trail and continued on down the PCT to the gully north of Apache. It was a short but hard climb up to the summit with our increasingly fatigued legs. Finally, we all reached the top rock by 3:30. There was a downpour to the west towards Hemet with heavy thunder while to the north rain had started over the Tahquitz Valley area as well. From our still safe vantage point we were able to watch this fascinating change occur around us.
We left the peak after a refreshing break and regained the PCT just south of the summit. The trail from this spot south is actually the old Desert Divide Trail which doesn't waste a lot of time getting up or down. No long meandering switchbacks here, the trail goes straight down to the saddle between Apache and Spitler where it intersects the new Apple Canyon Trail. At this junction well into the afternoon, Rosina and Bruce and Paula Peterson had enough and signed out.
The others pushed on up the trail and then the 1/2 mile of use trail that winds its way through an enchanting black oak, white fir forest and meadow to the summit of Spitler. Thunder was ominously getting louder and rain was falling over Antsell. We took a short food and water break and surveyed the long distance and exceptional terrain we had traversed. Finally, it was time to return so we followed our steps back to the saddle and began the long descent back to our cars. Despite the recalcitrant weather, not a significant drop of rain fell on us the entire day, the third week in a row that this happened to Frank.
We took one last break on a broad rocky outcrop that overlooked the Garner Valley. The sun was about to set casting an orange glow through the remnants of the storm highlighting and distorting beautifully grotesque forms of century old manzanitas and red shank that surrounded us. Thunder had abated and an alpenglow descended on the peaks we had surmounted earlier emphasizing the jagged rocks and trees which tenaciously cling in the gaps between them. It was one of those moments when you wish you could slow down time and take everything in.
Time did indeed seem to slow down for the final thirty minutes that it took to return back to the cars just as darkness had begun to set in. Almost everyone felt the 11 hour hike was enough and opted for the comforts of a warm bed at home. There was still the need to get Frank, Barbara and Bob back to their cars at Humber Park so after making a few wrong turns due to extreme darkness caused by wet streets we finally reached them.
Barbara took off and only Tom and Bob stayed. After searching around Idyllwild for awhile we found one restaurant, O'Shaugnessey, that was still open after 8. Tom had the rib dinner which consisted of enough meat to feed the entire Chinese army. Bob and I had the chicken which contained 2 of those processed patties that you find at places like Sizzler. Janet and Frank had soup and salad. The food was probably average but a long hike will even make horse meat taste like sirloin.
Tom wanted peaks to the south and Frank was interested in Castle Rocks. The rest of us didn't care too much and the thought of sleeping out at the Fuller Ridge Trailhead was a very appealing one to me since it is one of my favorite places. So we broke up and the rest of us took off up the Black Mtn road reaching it by 10. It was a warm, quiet and calm night under a brilliant sky. We all slept soundly except for a few obnoxious mosquitoes.
Sunday morning we were in no rush so we took our time eating breakfast and watching puffy clouds float by. We put our packs on around 8 and began an easy pace up the damp trail with the fresh aroma of chinquapin lingering in the air. The rustic trail has been recently reworked but there were no noticeable scars as it passes though a dense forest and around large boulders. Along the way there was a small white fir that someone had decorated with colored M&M's, 3 months too early for the holidays. We left the trail at the usual location and began a mellow ascent to the top of Castle Rocks. On top we enjoyed the clear views and appreciated the significant geology that separates San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountains. Those who have only hiked this far on the Fuller Ridge portion of the PCT have missed a truly great trail. It continues along this impressive ridge working its way up and around massive rock formations and passing several small streams before reaching the tranquility of Little Round Valley. I have led several backpacking trips on this route doing the 4 San Jacinto Peaks and everyone seems to enjoy it. On this day, however, we were content just returning to the cars reaching them before 11.
After a short lunch, we drove over to Boulder Basin CG and hiked the road to the top of Black. There we watched as the clouds began their build-up again, this time without concern. Half an hour later we returned to the cars and drove home. A very nice weekend.
Thanks, of course, to all participants who did extremely well: Rosina Mueller, Alice Cahill, Tom Moumblow, Bob Beach, Greg Gerlach, Nancy Bell, Paula and Bruce Peterson, Barbara Pedersen, Janet and of course Frank who seems to be the magic charm that keeps the rain away (it must be his old orange rain parka!).