The San Gabriel Mountains – Cajon Pass to Mill Creek Summit

The San Gabriel Mountains are a rugged chain of peaks and ridges that run west from about I-15 to I-5, east of Los Angles. About 60 miles of the PCT traverses this range, including the highest point on the PCT outside of the Sierra Nevada.  While either end of the PCT passing through this range is a bit barren, most of the high country is forested with a variety of pines and other trees.

Partway through this section I had a knee start to give out on me, so I took advantage of having Sue and a car along and, after the first night, was able to slack pack through most of the range.  So much more enjoyable only carrying a camelback rather than a full load.  A quick trip to Pasadena to pick up a knee brace broke up the journey, but saved the trip.

The first day out of Cajon Pass was going to be long, 22 miles with about 5500 feet of elevation gain in the first 18 miles. I started up the trail at about 5 A.M., a bit before sunrise.  I seldom walk by headlamp, so this was pretty interesting.  At one point this blooming cactus loomed at the side of the trail.

The trail passes under I-15 first, then wanders around before eventually passing through another tunnel under the railroad tracks. Looking back, my end of the tunnel is illuminated by my headlamp, but the far end is shrouded in darkness.  When the sun came up I found that I was really disoriented for a while.  Looking back at where I had come did not look at all like what I had imagined in the dark.

 I found this unusual, at least to me, plant down near the bottom of the ascent,  Each flower stalk had multiple puff balls along the stem.  I saw what looked like the same bush many other places, but only in this small area did they have multiple puff balls per stem.

Another nifty flower that I saw only in a single place.  I don’t know if this is the flower or the seed head, but they were soft and fluffy.

 I am loaded down on this climb, carrying 6 liters of water, and my tongue is dragging the ground when I came upon this message written in the trail.  While I really appreciated the encouragement, I definitely did not feel OK.  It was a very hard day, but worth it in the end.

To the north of the ridge I was climbing is the San Andreas Rift Zone, with a road running along it.  Beyond that is another ridge with the desert to the north.  The little town of Wrightwood is at the west end of the road.

 Before starting to hike the PCT in southern California last year, I had heard of poison oak and poison ivy, although had no experience with them; at least until I hiked Oregon and northern California over the last few years.

But suddenly I have to contend with this thing called Poodle Dog Brush.  It is pretty common along the southern portion of the trail, especially in areas that have recently been burned. It looks soft and fluffy, but if you touch it you will likely come away from the experience wishing you had not.  And of course, halfway up this long climb comes a half mile stretch of Poodle Dog Brush, much of it hanging out over the trail.  It became a kind of dance, trying to move up the trail without allowing any part of me or my gear to touch this stuff.  I think I did OK.

The other side of the ridge was also a deep valley, with yet another ridge beyond it.  The trail stayed mostly on the north side of the ridge, but did shift to the south side toward the end.

Guffy Campground is probably the highest place I have ever camped at a bit over 8000 foot.  I was exhausted when  I got there and I think the altitude was starting to impact me.  The wind was howling over the ridge and it was getting cold.  Putting up a tent was the last thing I wanted to do, and even if I had managed it, I would have spent the night listening to it flap.  So I found a spot kind of out of the wind and did my first cowboy camp of the trip.  It was a bit cool with the wind blowing across the bag, but I snuggled deep into the bag and survived the night.

I love seeing these signs that give the mileage to either end of the trail.

 The desert to the north was frequently visible and stood in stark contrast to the ruggedness of the San Gabriel Mountains.

I do not know what this plant is, but it fascinated me.  It is similar to the Indian Pipes I see in the Olympic Mountains, but these were sometimes a couple of inches in diameter.  Usually they grew alone but sometimes were in clusters.

These little guys are everywhere.  They come in a variety of sizes, but seldom stand still long enough for a picture.  This guy was the rare exception.

The trail is mostly commonly traversing a slope.  But sometimes the slope is steeper than at other times.  And sometimes the slope is more stable than at other times.  Here the scree is stacked about as steeply as possible, and the trail is just a narrow ribbon running across it.  Sometimes you can walk the trail without paying a lot of attention to where you put your feet.  This is not one of those places.

This big old tree in a scree field has engulfed some rocks.  I think maybe this is a rare rock eating pine.

The Angles Crest Scenic Byway, SR 2, runs through most of the Gabriel’s.  You can see a couple of twists in the highway to the left.  Views like this are pretty common in the high country.

I am often amazed at the flowers that are growing out of the sand and gravel along the trail.  We spend so much time at home pampering our flowers, and yet seldom are the displays any better than what is found alongside the trail, in conditions that seem pretty inhospitable.

We camped in the Buckhorn Campground, and after the trip into Pasadena to buy a knee brace, Sue and I went for a walk, finishing up the detour from the campground back to the PCT, and then west along the PCT until we got back to the highway at Cloudburst Summit. It was a pleasant stroll for me, but it was Sue’s first exposure to hiking at altitude and was rough on her.

I later discovered that many hikers taking the Endangered Species detour from Eagle’s Roost just continue up the road past Buckhorn to Cloudburst Summit.  While it is a couple extra miles of road walk, it does save about 6 miles of trail.

The trail is generally very well maintained, but there is no way to prevent a tree from falling across the trail after the trail crew has come through.  And there are other places where the brush is overwhelming the trail, or the tread is failing.  But my hat is off to the many volunteers who invest countless hours in making my hiking experience so much better.

I know next to nothing about lizards, but these two seemed to be engaged in some sort of courtship ritual.  We watched them circle and spar for nearly 15 minutes during a snack break.  Very interesting.

This old snag on the way up Baden-Powell reminded me of the raven than is often at the top of a totem pole.  The climb up Baden-Powell is about 2500 feet in less than 3 miles; pretty steady up the whole way.  And I was gasping for air by the time I reached the top.  I don’t remember having nearly as much problem climbing Mt Etna in Sicily.  Course I was only 20 then.

There was some snow on the hillside as I climbed Baden-Powell, but this 4 ft drift was the only patch I actually had to walk on.  Weather reports from a coupe of days later indicate there should be several inches of new snow on the ground now.

 All day long, whenever the view opened to the south, the LA basin, there was just a sea of fluffy clouds.  They seemed to stop at about 6000 ft and were only spilling over the lowest gaps in the San Gabriel’s.  To the north it was just smoggy.

The summit of Baden-Powell and the trail leading up to it. It was an extra 1/4 mile and nearly 200 ft up, but was worth the extra half hour or so it took to go up and look around.

 Jaybird was another PCT hiker sitting at the summit when I got there and he took my picture with the western peaks in the background.  Don’t know how he got his name, but the fact that he was wearing a kilt may be a clue.

This Boy Scout monument is to honor the founder of the Boy Scouts, Sir Robert Baden-Powell.  In addition to the monument, there is a trail registry, a survey mark and a few wind blown limber pines at the summit.

This limber pine, at the junction of the PCT and the summit trail is named after Wally Waldron, another Boy Scout sponsor and is estimated to be around 1500 years old.  There are some really cool looking old trees in the area, but this is the only one that is named, as far as I know

This snag, with the clouds as a backdrop, looks like an Ent having a bad hair day.

If you look carefully you can see SR 2 at least 4 times in this picture.  This road will climb and fall a couple of thousand feet over the course of a few miles, and then do it again.  It is normally closed this time of year because of snow but opened early because of the dry winter.  There is hardly any traffic on the road during the week, but I hear it is pretty popular on the weekends, especially with motor cycles.

Another old tree along the path; this one with a kink in its back.  Something must have fallen on it years ago, and yet it survived.

Descending into the Islip Saddle brought me below cloud level.  And it suddenly got much colder and damper.  Visibility dropped from miles to just a few feet.  Fortunately I didn’t have to walk long in it.  The car was just a quarter mile away.

Between Cloudburst Summit and Three Points the PCT hits it’s 400 mile point.  I saw 3 different markers for this landmark mileage, but this was easily the most elaborate.  These are built by hikers with too much time on their hands, and various editions of the halfmile data.  I suspect this one is the current data since it agrees with what I have on my phone.

Poodle Dog Brush starts just before getting to Three Points and continues on for the rest of this section.  The patches through here are the most luxuriant I have ever seen, although it should be noted that I have not seen that much of the stuff, fortunately.

Leaving Three Points it was very cloudy and cool, although the expected rain never fell on me.  The sun came out briefly and I shed my coat, beanie and gloves for an hour or so, but that didn’t last long.

There are some very colorful bushes along the trail.  Most of the time the flowers are pretty small, but they make up for it by showing up in profusion.

I think this yucca is getting ready to bloom, but it reminds me of a peacock with its tail feathers up on display.  This plant, like many others, shares its spot on the ground with 2 or 3 other plants.  As a result, all of its leaves are forced to grow away from the center of the cluster.

 At the top of the climb above Mill Creek, the pine forest with only grass growing beneath it gives the appearance of a park.

In contrast with that are much of the lower hills, which, when seen from a distance, appear nearly barren and lifeless, but closer up are filled with life.  But life that generally exists with little to any water through most of the year.  When you get to those ‘barren’ hillsides, you may find the ground carpeted with tiny flowers, any one of which is hard to see, but collectively will change the color of the ground.

If I had to pick one part of the PCT in southern California to revisit, the high country of the San Gabriel Mountains would be at least near the top of the list.

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