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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Into the Heart of Wilderness: Hiking to Big Horn Sheep Country


Initially, I felt hesitant writing about the series of three hikes where I attempted to reach Fish Fork Campgrounds -- because I never found them -- but, perhaps my note could still serve as an aid to anyone trying to a locate the place in the future. The fact that I no longer reside in the States will inhibit my further endeavors, so I have to register these attempts as my best efforts.

A note on this trek: (1) the hike is relatively long, isolated and quite poorly marked. (2) Water is only available at three places unless there is still snow on the ground. (3) As the name suggests, the place is Big Horn country, so mountain lions are probably also around. While there, several times I had distinct sense of being watched and my normally calm dog was also positively spooked. Hiking alone for the outlined reasons is probably not recommended.

There are two other ways to reach Fish Fork, hiking up through the East Fork of the San Gabriel River from Chrystal Lake, or from the direction of Mt. Waterman. This blog offers a trek description from Manker Flats through Baldy. Because of the length and elevation variations, this hike is best attempted after the snow completely melted from the peaks but before the hottest summer months, giving a relatively short window for ideal conditions. During my first attempt on May 6, '08, there were only few spots of snow on San Antonio Peak. At the same time the north face, however, still had two feet of snow cover and occasionally six-feet-high drifts, even down at 7000'.

The backside of Baldy does not have a marked trail, only a cross-country path down to the saddle (8659 ft.) and up again toward Dawson Peak (9375 ft.) on a relatively well-worn trek. In many ways this part of the hike is one of the most visually dramatic, thanks to its giant roller-coaster quality and because of the view offered up to the San Antonio Ridge running perpendicularly in the back, the double peaks of Dawson and Pine Mountain along the ridge line up front, and the Wilderness down to left.

Continuing halfway between Dawson Peak and Pine Mountain, the trail goes off left and runs a bit below the peak of Pine Mountain, eventually reaching the old and barely noticeable signpost of Fishfork Junction. At this area where I had the singular pleasure to run into a band of big horn sheep. This is also where the last tangible evidence of any kind of trail planning is visible in this region.

The junction turns 180 degrees and follows the trail going the opposite direction for a while until it soon entirely disappears among a series of fallen large pine trees and becomes detectable only occasionally from this point on. From here I can only provide GPS points and their corresponding descriptions. I also must add (with some reservations) that I think I found the Upper Fishfork Campground, although I can't be entirely sure because my assumption is only based on a split in the trail at the end of my last hike where I also found a rusty coffee can.

At N 34.18.324' W117.38.665' the trail runs down in a two sets of switchbacks and veers off the right approximately following the path of N 285' W 692', N 295' W 772', N 219' W 823', N 262' W 39. 011'. The trail here is a little bit easier to follow as it moves along the mountainside and crosses a couple of wooded canyons. The second canyon also holds a seasonal creek providing a source to replenish the water supply at N 478' W 38.974'. At N 499' W 39.457' the trail reaches an open mountainside overgrown with dense brush. Here the on-again-off-again trail switchbacks down to a high, wooded outcropping forked by rushing water from both sides some 1000' below. The coordinates to follow are: N 502' W 652', N 405' W 728', N 395' W 832' (a fine spot to camp). Further on the trek goes lower, off the right to another mountainside following the points of N 395' W 908', N 531' W 864'. At the second set of coordinates where the trail splits again to a waterfall on the right and to another wooded lowland straight below. I suspect that the trail going to the waterfall is where the Upper Fishfork Campground is(was) located. I did not go to that direction because I only saw the fork in the trail on the way back.

Again, I did not physically located either of the campgrounds, although I assume I got quite close to both of them, if they still exist. I do not know if anybody else manage to find them lately because I could not see any shoe print or sign of human disturbance of any kind. The country, however, is magnificent and definitely worth further exploring.