Mount Wilson looms over Los Angeles, peering down from from the Angeles Forest, squinting at those of us who live closer to sea level. At a little over 5,700 feet, Mount Wilson is one of taller peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains, and it is one of the suggested training hikes for Mount Whitney.
I have gone to hike Mount Wilson several times in the past. But each time, something happened and the hike had to be scrapped. After attending the Mount Whitney class at REI, however, Sylvie and I knew we needed to tackle Mount Wilson. And according to a little internet search, there was a 10.5 mile trail up and down Mount Wilson that would serve the dual purpose of upping our mileage and our altitude!
Apparently, I should have done more than a little research. If you were ever involved in my outdoor education and/or building my general survival skills, please stop reading now. I made some really stupid, rookie errors that I know better than. I mean, I REALLY know better than what went down, and we’re lucky we didn’t end up on the 10 o’clock news. But, because right now I am chronicling the learning process associated with preparing for hiking the John Muir Trail, I need to eat some humble pie and honestly record this experience.
On an early Sunday morning, we set off to hike Mount Wilson from Chantry Flats. The reviews were great for the trail. There was some rain in the forecast, so I repacked my supplies with an emergency blanket, matches, a compass, a really complete first aid kit, and a few other things that I hadn’t been packing but really should.
From Sierra Madre, we drove up, and up, and up, and finally reached the park. We easily found great parking in the packed lot, and walked over to the little pack store to pay for our parking for the day. As I hadn’t been able to get my printer to work that morning, I decided to buy one of the trail maps. There were two options: one with the entire trail system for that area, and another that had better details, but didn’t include the peak of Mount Wilson. I asked the ranger if he thought that lack on the second map was an issue, and he said nope – that it was easy to find the trail down. So, I bought the more detailed yet less complete map. We asked a few other bits of trail advice, repacked Sylvie’s new pack, and off we went!
The hike down to where the trails start is a very steep almost mile trail along a paved road. The road eventually turns to dirt, and as it makes this transformation, there are all these very cute cabins that begin popping up. Sylvie and I decided that it would be lovely to rent one and come back and hike from there. Alas, later research shows that, while they might be some of the most affordable properties in LA, you cannot rent them, you can only buy them. And they are rustic, with no electricity, gas, or indoor bathrooms.
At this point (Fern Lodge Junction), you can choose the Upper Fall Trail (AKA The People’s Trail) or lower trail (Fiddler’s Crossing) to the waterfall – Sturtevant Falls. We chose the upper route, and the trail instantly becomes a bit more challenging than the slowly winding road we’d been on. First, the trail is pretty narrow. Second, it becomes pretty crumbly in some places. Narrow + crumbly = a little harrowing. The one time we needed to pass another group of hikers, we had to pick the passing spot carefully. That said, this portion of the trail was truly beautiful with the changing colors of the fall leaves highlighting the colorful geology and small stream the trail follows.
The stream leads right up to the falls, where you can over look it from the trail. We chose not to hike down the bit to the base of the falls, but to enjoy it from our perch and then continue on.
The trail soon opened up and began its new pattern of slowly winding through the woods. It was a really beautiful fall day, and the smell of the woods was reminiscent of my hiking time in college in the Berkshires. It was easy to feel very far away from the rest of civilization, with only the trees and birds for company.
We stopped for a bite at Spruce Grove Camp – some cuties and some bison bars with cherries and habaneros that sounded better than they tasted. After this quick break, we walked through Sturtevant Camp, with a lovely lodge and cabins you can rent, and then continued our way on up. The trail quickly becomes much steeper, and the grade continues to increase pretty much to the summit. My lungs greatly dislike altitude so the steepness slowed me down a quite a bit.
At Spruce Grove Camp, Sylvie saw a sign for bears and began to worry about the possibility of running into one as this part of the trail was so sparsely populated or used. So, we started singing to make our presence known. However, as the trail became steeper, I could no longer sing and keep my breathing even at the same time. So, I told Sylvie that the bears were probably far away, that the chances of us seeing one or even a sign of one were very slim. As I finished saying this, we come upon a huge mound of scat right in the middle of the trail. This pile of bear shit was not new, but nor was it more than a day or two old. Needless to say, this erased all my reassurances that there was no chance of an ursid encounter.
And then the skies darkened. And while they didn’t quite open up and pour, they certainly did began to weep. For this, we had prepared! So we took a moment to pull out the rain gear, and weatherize ourselves and our packs. While the rain slowed us down a bit, I now began to worry that we might meet more than rain at the summit. But, at this point, it was as much distance to retrace our steps as it was to go on and come down the other side… or so we thought.
The hike took us through different forest types, which the ecologist in me was geeking-out over. (Note to self: go back and photograph these different zones.) As we reached the smaller forest of the top of Mount Wilson, with its steep switchbacks, we now encountered rolling fog which made it difficult to see more than a few feet in front of your face. But, no. This wasn’t just just fog, we were walking in the clouds.
The vapor makes for a lovely, yet creepy environment to hike, wrapped in a blanket of wispy whiteness. But, it makes every step a new mystery, and the hope that every switchback is the last becomes more frustrating than comforting when you just can’t see where you’re going.
Finally, we see the fence above us and know we’re almost there. As we crest onto the peak of Mount Wilson and the mist turned to wet sleety snow. While we’d packed for rain, we definitely weren’t ready for snow. We have no hat and no gloves, which I know better than. We wandered around the Observatory campus a bit before we found the cafe and the the hot chocolate that saved us. We really hadn’t been eating or drinking enough for the calories we were burning. And, while I didn’t feel hungry, I recognized that I was acting in a hangry way. We asked for advice on the best way down from the lady at the cafe and off we went.
As we walked across the parking lot to the trailhead, we passed the Montrose Search and Rescue truck. We thought about confirming directions with them, but a) we thought we knew where we were going, and b) it seemed like it might curse ourselves to talk to search and rescue. And there were others headed to the same trailhead so we all couldn’t be going the wrong way, could we?
Off we went, almost running down the trail. We reached the bottom of the first chunk of trail where it meets the road. The road had three branches. The first went to the tower array behind a fence, clearly not the right direction. The second was kind of tucked away and very rutted. The third was the well-maintained if dirt road. It seemed odd that there were no trail signs here, while the rest of the route had been so well-signed. So, that must mean we need to walk on the road, right?
So we started down the road. The road that increasingly goes further away from the direction we need to go to get back to the car (west instead east). But sometimes trails do this. They go west for a bit just to cut back hard east. And now we are running up against the clock for sunset. I am okay to hike after dark (though I prefer to do so on trails I have been on before), but Sylvie really doesn’t want to. Do we stop and flag someone down? Will there be anyone to flag down? If we do get a ride down, how do we get back up to the car? We didn’t even leave our itinerary with anyone. Does anyone know where we’re at? Who will worry if we don’t report in? I start to get panicky. Sylvie wants to just keep going because of the worry of time, but I want to stop and think about things before I get us lost in the snow on what really is a rural mountain peak, despite the fact that we can see downtown LA RIGHT THERE.
So now, I am giving myself a pep talk – you have been in more rural areas than this, unsure of where to go, and you have been fine. What does your training tell you? Your training tells you to stop and think this through – don’t make decisions from emotions, but make them from knowledge. So, I do. I tell Sylvie that we need to stop and think this through. I think back to the rutted road which goes the direction we need to go, and I suggest that we go walk that for 10-15 minutes, and, after that time if we don’t feel secure we can go back to the peak and flag someone down for help.
So, we start down the trail, and just about 10-15 minutes down the trail when we are thinking that we’re going to have to turn around, there it is: a sign. The trail sign that says we are going in the correct direction. We still have almost 6 miles to go, but at least we know we are going the right way.
At this point, we essentially train run down the majority of the descent. There are a few places too crumbly to safely run, but otherwise we go at a very fast clip all the way back to Hoegee’s Camp. We took Lower Winter Creek trail back, which had been recommended against. Now I understand why – it puts you back out at the bottom of the trail, where you have to go back up the steep trail that you came down at the start. This versus the Upper Winter Creek trail that ends in the parking lot.
We made it back to the parking lot just as twilight is fading. Glad to be back, and a little more humble about what we had bitten off, and the challenges we might face along the way. Overall, this hike forced me to dust of some knowledge that I had been kind of ignoring. Hiking in Southern California is amazing, but it is often so easy in terms of the conditions – not too hot, not too cold, almost no rain, definitely no snow or ice – that you get spoiled and I had gotten lazy in taking the precautions that I know better.
From here on out:
- No more 10+ mile hikes (except: Catalina) until the days are longer again, and even then we need to start early like 7ish
- Trail map for the entire trail is a must
- Gloves and hat must be added to our packs ASAP
- Pantalones should be brought with in case of surprise inclement weather
- Add bear bells to packs and we can use them as needed
- Make sure we leave/email our itinerary with someone before leaving the house
- Add some emergency TP to our packs
This hike was definitely a learning experience, and I hope we don’t have to learn anything else on so steep a curve as we move forward in our training. Just writing it down embarrasses me to know we did so many things wrong – that I did so many stupid things – when I have the training to know how wrong they are. But I guess I need to take my own advice that I give my high school students: if you made it through, take the lessons and let the rest of it go.