Into thin air on San Gorgonio

Yesterday I summitted San Gorgonio via the Vivian Creek Trail. It took 4:50 to get up there (11,503 ft) and 4:03 to get down (6,080′) for 18 miles in 9 hours, but my overall moving time was 8 hours and that is pretty great for me so training has really paid off. I must say the GPS continues to not be fully accurate, something I don’t like, saying 18 miles but showing just over 17 in the elevation map; not reading the summit correct, varying elevation at the car, etc. I mean, it’s accurate enough to read and use, but the stats are annoyingly wrong and not sure what to make of it.

I felt pretty slow getting near 11k, but after that was great – the mean, hot sun on exposed trails probably wasn’t helping but the reality is the air is thin at that altitude and it’s pretty hard to be above 10k even in the Sierra Nevada for practice. Going down should have been faster, and I’m telling you I did jog in places, but I guess when you are tired and the path is mostly rocks there’s only so much you can manage speed-wise: I ain’t out to trip or fall, which is always my main fear hiking solo. My recovery was fast, I managed known issues pretty well, and I felt physically pretty good the entire time (standard back pain and knee complaints aside, strength training helps so much), though I am wiped from it just being a tough day plus I don’t think I ate enough so I did have a couple pouts coming down when I was extra hot and tired. My left front inner calf (does that make sense?) hurts again – on San Antonio I thought it was maybe a cramp but now it’s so localized it’s probably a repetition injury, like a sore ligament or something, not exactly shin splints, though – and I had a new shoe problem that hasn’t occurred in many, many miles that maybe was swollen feet from an extra long trek plus the instability of these runners on a trail that is mostly rocks – some seam rubbing on the outside of one foot.

Anyhow! I was driving before 5am and there were not many people out. It was cool in the morning but the thick fog on the final drive into the mountains sadly disappeared just before the parking lot. The day was cloudless and very sunny. Luckily, the way up is shaded in in the morning by not just Gorgonio (the entire range around the trailhead in a U facing east is above 10k) but also very dense pine forest despite the impossibly steep mountainsides. After bathroom trip, I walked up a rough dirt road for 1/2 mile before crossing the giant, rocky wash to the actual trailhead. The trail heads straight up with very steep switchback to the 1 mile marker. WHEW. Now that I’m all very worn out, time to do the majority of the hike! haha! It started by following it’s namesake, Vivian Creek, and it’s lush plant life through 2 campsites, but it was dry on this trip. That was a nice break – it felt flat, though the elevation map proves otherwise. Time to climb again – up and around more steep slopes until reaching High Creek Camp and it’s namesake waters, which were plentiful. Backpackers filtered water and I sat on a fallen log which is familiar to me. I haven’t been here in years but still this lovely place exists and I can swing my tired feet while listening to falling water in the all-day shade provided by a dense pine forest.

Now that I forced myself to take a break, even if only a few minutes, it’s time to climb. A slog of too many switchbacks get me up another steep slope and up onto a ridgeline. The view are astounding… San Jacinto looms south and a bit east, the saddle back (I was atop one last weekend) is visible above dense clouds to the southwest, and the eastern slopes from the trail down were all burned: blackened tree husks above brush just starting to sprout new green leaves. Now the trial followed the ridgeline up relentlessly – either straight or small switchbacks in steep areas. Trees start to thin out or get small and twisted, and this is where I get a bit tired as the 10k boundary is crossed and left behind. Ahead, I can see where the trail just straight up traverses the side of the mountain, leaving the ridgeline and clinging to the wall. I can see people walking on it and it seems far but I’m on it in no time. I just sucked it up and pushed though without much breathing breaks. People I passed are long gone, people I’ve been going back and forth with are no where to be found (honestly, some must have turned back because I didn’t see them again), and people that passed me are already at the summit.

A helicopter circled and I stopped to watch. By all accounts, it was a training mission. They flew dramatically, very low, made lots of circles, and landing on a clear, flat spot just southwest of the summit. Neat. The rest of the way is pretty flat – just a final short climb to the top. I must say I don’t remember it. It seems a smaller area than I recall, and there are lot of stone structures (not uncommon on bald mountains – wind breaks), and the very top is a small pile of boulders. Since the ridge is so high and long, and the area around the summit seems flat and wide, it’s not a very exciting summit to get to – you’re just kinda there. Lots of people today spread all over and chatting. I looked around and exclaimed ‘ta-da!’ and got some giggles and conversations from it. As expected, a fair few are training for Mount Whitney and, I think, this is about a good a trainer as you can get for some high miles on a steep but well-maintained trail – but, as others were discussing, nothing prepares you for sucking air above 13k trying to get to a 14.5k summit. Anyhow, I’ve run out of things to say and despite laughing at fat squirrels begging (this was a good crew – they did not feed them and no one was going to steel the sign, just holding it for pictures whom everyone but me helped take), so I leave. I’ve become quite poor at taking breaks. My feet and tummy would probably appreciate it if I did more substantial rest stops.

The way down was uneventful – it’s down, it hurts, it feels like I can’t go as fast as I “should” etc. I break again at High Creek Camp on the log want was so happy to just be there in that beautiful place. A backpacker stops me just after leaving and he’s young and new to these mountains and training for a Whitney overnight trip so we talked about hiking and plans and how lovely this small strip of meadow was. <3

I complain to myself all the way down that I’m tired and it’s so dang hot. I jog some bits, when it’s not too steep or rocky, including the final road back. I’m happy to be at the car but it’s soooo hot! Stupid weather forecast, it must be mid-80s – and it is. 70s my butt! I open the wee cooler and enjoy a cold boiled egg and chocolate protein drink while listening to laughter from the picnic area as kids are swinging dangerously in hammocks. I smile, start my car, and try to relax on a stressful drive home.

A hot Modjeska Peak

The training continues, this time super locally (25 minute drive on local streets). Most of the area to the east is closed due to a devastating fire, but this area was green and lush looking (when you are in it, it’s poking brush and cactus). I’d never been on this trail before, idea and hiking partner (shocker, I know, me not being solo) was my boss! Second highest peak in the Santa Ana Mountains at 5495′ (barometer on GPS consistently incorrect at this point), it’s just over a half mile west from Santiago Peak (5689′ and covered with microwave and telecommunication antennas), and this hike comes right into the saddle between that gives the area the name Saddleback which can easily be spotted from peaks all round SoCal. GPS:

The parking was along a dirt road, which was surprisingly graded (used to be a near riverbed of rocks), and now lined with blocks to prevent off-roading. We started out pre-dawn near 1240′ for our 4255′ climb (plus some additional gains and losses for an extra 600′). For a few moments, there were clouds and they were lit cotton candy pink over views across Orange County all the way to Catalina – very clear, though a marine layer sat atop the ocean.

The morning was mercifully shaded by the rest of the mountain range, including the ridge up to Santiago. The middle section follows a drainage and is also shaded by twising oaks – and there was water higher up. We did reach a section that was very lovely but difficult to enjoy as there was a swarm of annoying bugs (didn’t seem to get any mosquito bites…), so we just pushed though before the heat arrived.

We gained the rocky, brush-covered peak in 3:17. Very much a thigh burner on the way up as I felt a tad shaky. Snacked, made idle chatter, admired the views in all directions, and started the decent. There are some overly steep parts, but overall less rough on the knees that some previous recent hikes – that they are already sore is besides the point. Most of it was just steep dirt and, fear of slips aside, you could jog it – but I just shuffled. The last 3.2 miles were rough for me, though, because it was way too hot. I am not made for this stuff.

So, my poor companion not only had to listen to me prattle on about nothing endlessly, or some TMI, but now some complaining and he slowed for me as I had to get my body temperature down. Only a couple breezes and the occasional cloud cover to help out, I finished the last of my two liters of electrolyte-supplemented water when, at one mile left, we saw the cars below get close and I just tried to push through it. Honestly, my eyes still sting and I have more weird heat rashy patches in places nothing rubbed – gotta figure that one out or, you know, stop hiking when it’s hot. It was 90F plus bare soil in direct sun.

Anywho – GPS says 14.66 miles (a bit was extra from a missed turn, another danger of my chatting) with moving time of 6:01, total 6:26. If you read the other trips, you might be thinking – wait, that seems way faster. You’d be absolutely right. The reason is no thin air. Maybe 1/2 hour was pushing a tad harder since I wasn’t alone, but nearly all other hikes started near where this one topped out and climbed to over 10k’ where the air is dry and thinner and that counts for a lot. Leg muscles are large and less oxygen usually means a slower speed or frequent breaks to catch a breath. Not so today, this was just exercise!

Hair so sweaty it dyed my visor.
Trail so dirty!

It was a very dusty trail and my toes were almost muddy, my legs sported a dark dirt tan though I was wearing full length pants, and my arms and shoulders still got a bit too much sun despite being covered. It was very sweaty business and my white runners visor is all pink in the back from my hair color sweating into it and my lower back was drenched (I used a hip pack for day hikes – the only Osprey pack I’ve ever liked [loved] a Tempest 6: I never have to take this thing off with bottle holsters, hip belts, and pockets I can reach, I bought grey from REI, but here’s the brand’s page: The shower was much enjoyed, and a protein-packed, cool lunch of salmon and cream cheese wraps was followed by a nap. Whew! Until next time, mountains!

Cottonwood Trails of the Eastern Sierra

Smoke from the Dixie fire filled the high desert. When I was driving up early Saturday the Inyo Mountains were not visible at all and the Sierra was faint from the 395. I was not optimistic about hiking. The winding, steep Horseshoe Meadows Road felt like being in a void: nothing could be seen over the edges, little going forward… then the last turn and decent to the Cottonwood trailheads proved nearly clear. It was still slightly hazy, but became less so as the day went on. Only a couple breezes smelled of smoke, though the first day I admit my mouth felt dry and I did cough a few times. So, despite nearly everywhere else in Sierra Nevada, this area proved the most clear and by Sunday almost totally – couldn’t say that for anywhere else! 🤗

I took the 5 to the 14 to the 395 both ways this time rather than just the return drive. The morning sun hitting the colored, columned cliffs in Red Rock State Park proved too difficult to resist and I stopped in a lovely place with nearly no one else to worship at an awe-inspiring cathedral of red and gold and white structures – gazing overhead and from afar I decided it was more beautiful than any stained glass windows. 🤩 It wasn’t hot yet, so my hopes for the weekend were high! RIP me.

I made it to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead about 10 and got started at 10:30. It’s a very mild climb with limited mountain views, lots of pine trees, and, eventually, a bunch of lakes spread throughout the large upper drainage – Mount Langley nearly always in view, though this was not a summit trip this time. Lake 3 was lovely, 4 and 5 fairly similar, and I walked to the base of Old Army Pass and did consider an ascent… but it didn’t look like fun and it was already 1:30, a terrible time to start a climb (best be off peaks by 2 even in fair weather). So, time for something new and I headed south, around Lake 1, to South Fork Lakes. Cottonwood trails are very crowded, but now I was alone and it was lovely. Mountains, lakes rippling in the occasional large breeze and by ducks making dives and lined with flowers, twisted pines growing out of the rocks which were everywhere and mostly tan but sometimes a bit of peach or pink and maybe some white quartz… 🥰

So… I wasn’t paying attention, having much fun on the trial, and passed where I should have turned, I guess, though I never saw a junction, and ended up at Cirque Lake where the trail ended. Whoops. 😉 Don’t tell anyone, but I went off trail here – it was mellow (no real chance of being cliffed out) and the drainage was dry so I just set off cross country, saying “sorrrryyyyy” to some of the plants I stepped on (ala Thor from his visit to Dr. Strange). I walked on some paths, but they weren’t from people, they were from years of marmot use and were covered in generations of poo and led to holes under rocks and disappeared. When the drainage when a bit steeps, I stuck to the very soft sand / pine needle ground by the pines and many a critter were very angry about it: birds and a marmot where dismayed by my unexpected presence. Sorrrryyyy. 😬 After a rather steep bit down I found what looked suspiciously like a couple switchbacks… I was debating if it was a bear path, if those where large paw prints, when I spotted at cairn (stack of rocks). I don’t know where the “trail” was before, nor after, but I sure was on something for a few feet there.

Anyhow, I was in another drainage meadow and the actual trail should have been to my north, but I couldn’t see anything and crossing soft mud wasn’t my idea of fun so I just stayed south and the going was pretty okay, still on soft ground under pines for the most part, sometimes grasses in the dry marshes. Eventually I crossed the mostly dry creek and looked for the trail proper… I thought it would be kinda light and use-y but, nope, lol, it was really proper and quite the luxury after 2 miles without a clear path! It immediately crossed a meadow and this was the BEST PART of my entire trip. It was after 4pm, silent save some insects and birds in the pines, and small stones crossed a long, narrow, wet field. It was absolutely full of flowers floating atop a sea of green grass. 😭 A deer pondered me nearby, wee butterflies were about, the sound of a creek… total paradise. 😍 I should have stayed longer. I might return and do just that. ❤

After that, the watershed actually had water and was sweetly tumbling nearby, covered in green and bordered with some flowering corn lilies. There was a squat structure someone built of wood – no idea what it was about, but the area was so serene it didn’t seem scary but, rather, made total sense to me to want to build here. *sigh* After that it was back to dry trails and I met back up with the way I’d come in for a very hot, very tired 1.5-felt-like-4 mile trek out. 10k start, 11.2k top a couple different times (ups and downs), so pretty easy and I ended just shy of 15 miles on the day. A good trainer for elevation itself, not so much for elevation change. But it was a nice day and only slightly too warm, but overall pleasant with a breeze.

I drove to Whitney Portal as I debated what to do the next day, but it was still kinda icky air there despite the joyful yells of those returning from successful summits. I decided I wouldn’t be hiking here and drove all the way back down – taking a moment to study the extensive recent fire damage (wow, brutal and complete, still areas with pink fos drops) – and ate some pulled pork with a soda for a late dinner in town where it was 92F at 7:30pm. Then I tried to check out a BLM campground in the dark – it was okay but it was still so hot so I just wasn’t interested… I made long drive back up to Cottonwood and cheated by sleeping in my car (I was too exhausted to figure something else out). Shhhh, no telling anyone. 🤫

I had a fitful but fairly full sleep and took a couple photos of the incredibly clear skies: the Milky Way was easily visible and I swear there wasn’t a black spot, totally full of stars. Just lovely… but too lazy to try for better images, I just enjoyed it out the window and for each bathroom break. It was downright cold overnight. I swear it was sub 40 when I finally got up at 6:30, having cuddled in while ignoring the sun. I had no warm gear, so just stayed huddled in my bag as I prepped for the day.

I was on the trail to Cottonwood Pass by 7:20am with my arms wrapped around myself for warmth… an hour later it was mid 70s with a brutal sun, and by the time my hike was done it was in 84F… at 10k feet elevation. SUUUUCCCKKKKED. It was actually nice a bit after the start – the second 2 miles where the trail actually climbed and the pass was windy and full of vistas. I was going to revisit Chicken Spring Lake and the views off the PCT just above it which look at so many dramatic mountains, but decided to do the loop instead just because it was new. It was too flat, which hurts me for whatever reason, and long, sandy, and terribly hot. The PCT stays pretty level turning this way and that around the range, mostly with views of large meadows (some with cows 🙃) eventually meeting up with Trail Pass for an 11 mile loop. I was really mad: nothing seems direct, but rather the trail meandered seeming to prefer no shade and the most gentle slopes possible. 🥵 Boring, hot, bothered to tears, I am left with some heat rashes including one around inside of my legs near sock line that I’ve had before recently that I can’t figure out (rest are bumps from sweat, no big deal, but this stings). But… it’s done and it’s always worth doing something new. Just below 10k to just above 11k elevation -nothing hard, only thin air and with all the training this wasn’t an issue for me today.

The drive home was often in 104F heat, sometimes higher, so taking a stop wasn’t interesting to me. Traffic was meh… worse once finally on the 5 and I decided a stress / potty / food break was in order. Haven’t had fast food often, but Wendy’s fries hit the spot, as did a chocolate shake. Burbank was only mid 80s, so it felt nice, haha. Much cursing and exasperated sighs ensued, but we all seemed to survive and then I was home and enjoyed a shower – what a blessed thing to have whenever I want! Onto planning the next punishing adventure as I limp about the house. 😄

Lovely San Jacinto

Whew, another tough one! I revisited the steep Marion Mountain Trail for the first time in many years: a 5.6 mile (official, my elevation map shows 11 total, which is a bit low, but some people claim 11.4+?) one way trek to the summit of San Jacinto (a rare peak that is a pile of large boulders, usually they are small rocks or just dirt – everyone, regardless of trail, has to do a bit of scrambling / hopping to get up there). The trailhead is off a road that leads to campsites and is at 6480′ elevation (official, my map showed 6300′) and is a mostly relentless ~4500′ gain to the summit at 10834′ (new GPS has proven consistently incorrect elevation when high up) – 2300′ of it is in the first 2.5 miles with a few knee-bustingly steep bits care of tree roots and rocks for big steps. GPS:

San Jacinto is a lovely mountain. It’s covered with often dense pine forest, a couple creeks were still running and full of flowers (yellow deerweed, grayswamp whiteheads with monarch butterflies, red columbine, purple lupine, and seemingly endless fields of California corn lily topped with large bunches of white flowers – which I’d never seen the plants do – amongst a lot of other finds) and birds (small ones playing in water, tweeting adorably), the small valleys offered not just a slightly more flat trail but also fields of lush greenery (ferns and more corn lilies), the views are outstanding in all directions and not just from the summit but often from some open switchbacks in thorny or flowered brush buzzing with all kinds of bees and giant flies.’

It was warm, but higher up the breeze was cool in the morning and lots of trees for shade. My knees complained, still sore from last weekend, and the drive home showed 104F – yikes! Not very many people, did have some nice conversations – just a lovely day despite over 7 hours for just over 11miles! Whew!

Oh, and I touched a few caterpillars because of a savior complex (wanted to move off trail so they wouldn’t get stepped on) and they weren’t friendly so very sore fingertips for hours (first hour stung like hell). 🤦‍♀️