I've always had a penchant for hiking/climbing along ridges. A visit by a British friend of mine, Lawrence, now living in Indiana, who wanted to go on a weekend backpack, gave me the impetus to try out a backpack on Mt. San Jacinto that I've had in mind for some time.
Ten of us, me and Patsy, Lawrence and his girlfriend Deborah, Cad, Ced, Doug, Jon, Alex and Judy, met at 8 pm Friday night and car-pooled out to Apple Valley, where we spent the night.
Next morning, we awoke and ate breakfast in time to arrive in Idyllwild at 7.30 am. Although I really wanted a permit for the State Parks Tamarack Valley campground, I knew from calling them on Friday afternoon that there would be no more than 2 sites available. Just in case both these sites were already taken, I asked Doug to wait at the Forest Service office, just around the corner, to reserve a permit for a campsite in the Desert View Zone. Mt. San Jacinto is under the Jurisdiction of both the USFS and the California State Park. Separate zones, separate permits and separate offices! This is just as bad as the Canadian system.
I was the first in line at the State Park office when the door opened and I was able to procure the second last permit for Tamarack Valley. I asked Carl to hightail it over to the USFS office and tell Doug not to get the other permit. Too late! Carl was a minute too late. The USFS staffer wasn't too happy when Doug handed back the permit saying he didn't need it after all. "Why did you ask for it then?" Doug told him the story but this is unlikely to bring these agencies to their senses. It's just more work for everyone, both us and the rangers.
I picked up a permit for Alex, who was planning to dayhike to the summit with Judy. Where was Alex though? He showed up a little later, sweating and dirty. His car had got stuck in the sand as he left Apple Valley and no one had noticed. It took him and Judy half an hour to free the car - and I thought they had just popped over to the grocery store.
We drove up to the South Ridge trailhead, passing a large rattlesnake, left Doug's truck there, drove back to the State Park office and picked up the others, except for Alex and Judy who'd headed for the Marion Mountain trailhead. Alex didn't want any more experience with bad dirt roads! We drove eight people in two trucks up to the Fuller Ridge trailhead, at 7,700 ft the highest trailhead on Mt. San Jacinto aside from the upper tram station, although I don't count that as a legitimate means to access the Wilderness. We packed up and set off at 10 am down the trail.
The Fuller Ridge trail intersects the Deer Springs trail after 5 miles and heads up to Little Round Valley, where we were passed by Judy, running down from the peak, and some time later by Alex who stopped to share his food with us. Also along the way, we ran into Debbie who has been on several Sierra Club trips with us. We topped off our water bottles at Little Round Valley and headed on. We were soon waylaid by two rangers, who asked to see our permit. Of course, I couldn't remember where I'd put the damn thing. Finally I remembered that I'd put it in my wallet. I pulled out the wallet. "Do you guys take American Express?". No, I thought not. I gave them the permit and they signed it off, happy to have come across yet another group of law-abiding hikers.
On San Jacinto there weren't very many people. The view was obscured by a high layer of smog, extending upwards to about 11,000 ft. This is the worst smog I have ever encountered from either San Jacinto or San Gorgonio. To think that we were toiling uphill, breathing deeply and filling our lungs with that crap.
My old San Jacinto 7.5 minute topo map, held together by Scotch tape, shows a trail descending from below the eastern side of the summit to the vicinity of Tamarack campground. This trail has been removed from the newer maps, both the topo maps and the San Jacinto Wilderness maps. Since it affords a shortcut to the campground and just because it's secret, I had to find it!
The official trail descending the east side of the peak makes a large switchback, switching from north to south. The "secret" trail takes off from this trail after this switchback and after passing a draw. After the trail passes the draw, keep taking compass readings off the peak on the right hand side of the trail, Jean Peak. When this bearing is 230° grid north, look for a parallel line of rocks heading sharply back to the left; this is the "secret" trail.
The upper part of the secret trail is somewhat hard to follow as it switchbacks down through a talus field, but ducks help mark the way. Soon you reach a flat area where the trail skirts the edge of a slope overlooking the valley below. This section of the trail commands a fine view of Cornell Peak. After following the edge south for a little while, the trail begins to switchback down through chaparral. Although this is for the most part benign, a little judicious pruning is warranted in places.
The secret trail intersects the Round/Tamarack valley trail halfway between the Tamarack Valley and Round Valley campsites. At this point our group split into three, some going to Round Valley about five minutes distant to fill water bottles, some going ahead to Tamarack Valley to look for a campsite and a couple staying behind to guard the backpacks of the water bearers.
Water in hand, we headed toward Tamarack Valley and were met by Lawrence who guided us to our home for the night. It was almost dark. We picked out level spots and started dinner. Entertained by poetry and jokes, sharing hors d'oeuvres and drinking Margaritas, all we missed was a campfire. Campfires are forbidden by the State Park although they are allowed in the National Forest region of the Mt. San Jacinto Wilderness with a yellow post site permit.
Next morning after breakfast, there was little enthusiasm for climbing Cornell Peak. Cad and I had climbed it previously, so it was no loss to either of us. Instead, we set off on the trail at 9 am, stopping briefly in Round Valley to replenish our water supply before heading uphill to Wellman Divide.
We reached Tahquitz Peak at 1 pm and ate lunch in the shade; it was uncomfortably hot. We could hear the intermittent rumble of thunder and off in the distance, over Thomas Mountain, sheets of raining were failing.
Oddly enough, the fire lookout tower on Tahquitz has been abandoned and is failing into dangerous misrepair. As we set off down the South Ridge trail, clouds interceded on our behalf and we walked down in the shade. Half a mile before we reached the trailhead the rain started. It was nothing serious, just enough to change the character of the forest.
Everyone piled into Doug's truck and we drove over to the Fort. We bought some cold drinks and left the others to browse Idyllwild while Doug drove Cad and me back to the Fuller Ridge trailhead. Allow a full two hours for this car shuttle.
At the trailhead we found a daypack beside the tailgate of the Bronco. I looked inside for identification but couldn't be sure to whom it belonged. I wasn't going to chance not taking it and having to drive back there, another two hours. It turned out that the pack belonged to Deborah and nothing inside had been touched. That's honesty!
Everyone met at Senor Rubens for dinner. This place was a disaster. I guess the current owners don't care since it is currently up for sale. The asking price is $155,000. If you buy it, make sure you have soap in the bathrooms! I make it a policy never to return to a restaurant that has as much trouble as Senor Rubens did in providing soap in their bathrooms.
The men's bathroom was out of order all the time we were there and there was no soap in the women's bathroom. I had to hang around making a nuisance of myself (at which I've fortunately had much practice) for a full 10 minutes before I finally got some soap. It's little wonder that people get sick eating in restaurants when not even the kitchen staff can wash their hands adequately after using the bathroom. When we were leaving, neither of the bathrooms was working! I offered to go to the Fort if they gave me a quarter so that I could open the door to use those bathrooms; instead they had us wait. The staff was far from gracious. As we were getting into our cars, I noticed one of the girls who worked there returning from the nearby grocery store with a bottle of liquid soap in hand. Next time, I'm going to La Casita for my Idyllwild Mexican dinner fix!
I highly recommend this trip if you can arrange the car shuttle. All in all, this was the best backpacking trip that I've done on the San Jacinto massif. The only trip that offers comparable scenery is to hike the Desert Divide but this is a spring or fall, not a summer trip.
This trip requires 10 miles hiking each day with 4,000 ft gain on Saturday and 2,000 ft gain on Sunday. Reliable water can be found at Little Round Valley and Round Valley. A detour could be made to get water from Tahquitz Creek before you reach Tahquitz Peak. Even without using the ephemeral streams, Patsy carried 1 quart of water and I carried 1.5 quarts (although I did use a water bag to carry water from Round Valley to our campsite). Our backpacks(*) weighed less than 25 lbs. The car shuttle requires 2 hours driving time from Idyllwild to the Fuller Ridge trailhead and back. High ground clearance vehicles are mandatory; 4WD is helpful but not essential.
How does one carry a light backpack? Here is my formula:
Pack and sleeping - Gregory Two Day pack (has a well-padded hipbelt)
Moss Starlight tent without the flysheet (I left the flysheet in the car)
no sleeping bag (Patsy carried one Marmot down bag with a coupler kit that we shared)
Clothes - pair of shorts, T-shirt, sun hat and both a thin and a thick pair of socks to wear whilst hiking - Danner Mountain lightweight boots - Moonstone rain jacket, pile jacket and a pair of long pants - Lifa lightweight polypropylene tops and bottoms, an extra pair of socks, wool hat and a bandana
Cooking and food - 1 pint white gasoline (Ced carried the Whisperlight stove) - 1 quart Margarita for the pot-luck hors d'oeuvres - mug and coffee filter holder - four apples, hot chocolate mix, ground coffee and coffee filters (Patsy carried the rest of the food)
Other essentials - San Jacinto Peak 7.5 min topo map and permit, Silva Ranger compass, Swiss Army "climber" knife, wallet and keys - Petzl Zoom headlamp, first aid kit, sunglasses and sunscreen - Katadyn water filter, REI water bag, a 1. 5 quart water bottle, 1 oz liquid soap and a toothbrush (Patsy carried the toothpaste)
Of course, you might not be so lucky as to have Patsy and Ced along to carry the sleeping bag, food and stove. In this case you should probably save some weight by leaving the quart of Margarita home!