Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Kick-Ass Day Hike Sans Mountain Driving

After eyeballing this hike for a while, this week I finally decided that the time was right to do it: a Mt. Wilson Trail-West Fork Loop combo. Due to the length of the trek (approx. 30 miles) and elevation gain (700' - 5700'), a long but relatively cool day is required to avoid extensive night hiking and heat exhaustion, while maintaining a substantially brisk pace. For reference: it took me 12 hours to complete this hike with a half hour stop at West Fork Campground.

The first leg (Sierra Madre-Mt. Wilson section) should not take more than three hours to complete. There is a possible alternate starting point, Chantry Flats. I decided against this latter option though, in fear of not making it back on time and getting locked in.

Once reaching Mt. Wilson summit and start heading down to Newcomb Pass, the trail at this section suffers from various degrees of disrepair. Although the view is astounding, this goat trail is cut into a near-vertical face. At times, the footing is less than adequate, so trekking poles here truly come handy. Further down as the trail starts to levels off, the only occasional manzanita overgrowth creates some obstacles.

Arriving to Newcomb Pass, there is a bench for temptation, several beat up National Forest Service (NFS) signs and a memorial plaque commemorating a dead volunteer. Please note that the Wilderness Press: San Gabriel Mountains recreation map shows only three possible directions to proceed from the Pass; there are in fact four choices. To continue to Devore Campground, one must take the trail directly to the left. Further down as the trail crosses the Rincon-Redbox Fire Road, it does it in a rather awkward fashion: hikers have to walk on the fire road approximately 30 feet left to find the continuing and barely visible track.

Below the fire road, a series of narrow canyons shelter expansive groves of California Laurel. Consisting 60-80% of this single species of trees in the area, the canopy here takes an unusually bright, green appearance and some respite from the dirty-old oaks. More uniquely, some green grass grows here even as late and dry as in September, hinting of higher levels of ground moisture in these canyons.

Further down, Devore Campground is reached at the west fork of the San Gabriel River. Being a typical backpackers' camp, the site's only notable feature is perhaps its vicinity to a fine swimming hole. The trail here takes an East-to-West direction and runs along the riverbed to West Fork Campground. Continue to Strayns Canyon (which not once marked on any of the worn NFS signage), hikers must take the left at all trail branches.

Strayns Canyon might as well be called strains canyon. The first half of the path runs straight up without any switchbacks gaining 800 vertical feet. After that, the trail levels off somewhat and later climbs the north slopes of Mt. Wilson, through richly covered groves of pine. Once below the antennae, the trail pointing to "Mt. Wilson parking lot" takes its hikers back to the top of Mt. Wilson-Sierra Madre Trail, to proceed down to the starting point.