location: San Gabriel Mountains (eastern Los Angeles County)
height: 9,399 ft.
elevation gain: 2,800 ft. (from Vincent Gap trailhead)
average gain per mile: 700 ft.
access: Angeles Crest Highway
management: Angeles National Forest (Adventure Pass needed to park)
maps: Angeles National Forest (U.S. Forest Service), Crystal Lake (Topo)
by Tommy Hough
The San Gabriels are a remarkable, if somewhat tortured mountain range, and the violent mechanics of their evolution never seems to be too far from the surface. Like the smaller, more serpentine Santa Monica Mountains to the west which wind through L.A., or the neighboring San Bernardino Mountains to the east across Cajon Pass, the San Gabriels appear to have a terrible urgency about them, as though they were thrust up from the fractured ground only weeks ago.
It may be the lower, chaparral-filled slopes of the range coupled with the frenzied heights the mountains reach in such short distances that give the San Gabriels their wild immediacy, but the sheer slopes of this fault-controlled high country, which fall away to the Mojave Desert to the north and the massive coastal basin to the southwest, add a sublime vertigo to nearly every point along the Mount Baden-Powell trail.
There are two popular routes to the Baden-Powell summit, both originating from the Angeles Crest Highway. One begins at Dawson Gap and adds an additional 1.25 miles and two summits to the eight-mile round trip described here, diluting the elevation gain with the additional distance but offering a better sample of the surrounding high country. The other trek, described here, is a more straight up, switchbacked affair. At four miles from trailhead to summit with an honorable elevation gain of 700 ft. per mile, it’s an outstanding hike.
After getting my pack together and chatting with a pair of horseback-riding hunters who were heading into the adjoining Sheep Mountain Wilderness, I started up the trail. In the wake of some rainy weather earlier in the week, I found the trail to be pleasantly scented with a damp, earthen aroma often absent from Southern California's outdoors during the fall. The rain had cut a few gulleys across the soft clay on the trail's lower reaches, and there was sizable windfall from the storm's winds, but none were impediments to a reasonable pace.
The Baden-Powell summit trail boasts some impressive conifers, with a great deal of White fir all the way from the trailhead to summit. As I gained elevation I also found dozens of mature stands of old-growth Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine. Ponderosa sports clusters of three needles, with each needle averaging about three to four inches in length, and both the Ponderosa and Jeffrey have a characteristically rugged bark and an almost "burnt" appearance. I also found a fair amount of incense cedar along the Baden-Powell trail, with its flat-faced, pleasantly green, broad, triangular needles resembling an extended hand ready to shake yours.
Views across the Sheep Mountain Wilderness and the vast drainage of the east fork San Gabriel River to 10,064 ft. Mt. Baldy are constant from the Vincent Gap parking lot, but become more hit and miss after a mile up, as Mt. Baldy begins to hide from view as you slowly switchback up and over Baden-Powell's north slope. The north-facing views towards the Mojave Desert and the flanks of the San Gabriels leading down to Palmdale are striking when viewed from the steep inclines of the trail above the giant trees.
Against the backdrop of the Tehachapi Mountains in the distance, I spotted several sailplanes – motorless soaring aircraft – as I often have on trips into Southern California's high country. On previous trips up Mt. Baldy and Hot Springs Mountain in San Diego County, sailplane daredevils have careened dangerously close to the mountain summits – so close that the rattling of the aluminum lining of the sailplanes could be clearly heard. On this day, however, most of the sailplanes seemed content to catch updrafts coming up from the lower ridges of the range towards Palmdale.
I made my way up to the two-mile mark in reasonable time, but it wasn't much further past this halfway point I began to encounter snow which had fallen earlier in the week. The novelty of seeing desert environments in the distance while standing among giant fir trees in winterlike conditions is one of the pleasures of hiking in Southern California. The rapid, visible change from high country forest to desert terrain below is also a testament to the mountain-building processes inherent in Southern California's fault-controlled landscapes.
In fact, the Punchbowl branch of the San Andreas Fault is visible from here as it passes through Vincent Gap on it's way to the "Devil's Punchbowl," a similarly remarkable area protected as a Los Angeles County park, and now included in the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. The main branch of the San Andreas Fault cuts through the San Gabriel range just east of Vincent Gap along Highway 2 from Wrightwood, past the Mountain High ski resort, to the intersection of County Rd. N-4 at the Angeles National Forest Big Pines Visitor Center. It is here, at this junction, the San Andreas Fault attains its highest elevation of 6,862 ft., before plummeting into the Mojave Desert below on the way to Tejon Pass.
The trail switchbacks grew shorter as I kept pushing up, stopping to admire the grand views opening up to the north, where I continued to spy sailplanes corkscrewing into the sky in the distance. Other peaks of the range now came into in view, the San Andreas Fault could clearly be seen like a trough burrowing its way across the landscape to the northwest towards Palmdale, and the variety of fir trees continued to grow to massive size, though some began to take on a more gnarled, wind-blown Limber pine appearance along the ridge’s crest.
I finally arrived at the saddle just below the summit, and what a view – the ground slopes off precipitously to the southwest into the Sheep Mountain Wilderness drainage at over 1,000 ft. at one go, but the view is staggering. Mt. San Gorgonio, the snow-capped 11,400 "Old Grayback" ceiling of Southern California in the San Bernardino Mountains can be seen behind the similarly snow-capped Mt. Baldy complex in the foreground, with the peaks of Mt. Harwood and West Badly running along Mt. Baldy's ridgeline. The Baden-Powell summit stands to the west as Baden-Powell's immediate neighbors, Throop Peak and Hawkins Ridge, can be seen to the northwest. A treat for the eyes.
A few ancient Limber pines are found along the saddle, where I can only imagine the ferocity of wind howling during Pacific storms and winter blasts. One Limber pine is noted by the Forest Service to be over 2,000 years old, dubbed the Wally Waldon tree for the Boy Scout leader who led the effort to build the monument to Lord Baden-Powell at the summit, now just 250 ft. up from the saddle.
A careful, deliberate set of steps led me over a small icefield, and within another couple of moments I’d reached the snowy summit of Mt. Baden-Powell, 9,399 ft. above sea level and towering high above the San Gabriel Mountains, second only to nearby 10,064 ft. Mt. Baldy. I took my pack off at the concrete Lord Baden-Powell summit marker, best known as the founder of the Boy Scouts of America.
Having a mountain summit to yourself is a wonderful thing. No cellphones or traffic or work worries, just the same immense views that were present 1,000 years ago. Even in the face of a changing climate, this is always a humbling reminder of the temporary, passing qualities of human life compared to the seasonal resilience and permanence of the earth.
I frequently paused to take in the magnificent views on the way back down, as the late afternoon sun cast a golden alpenglow on the undisturbed snow cover high on the Baden-Powell slopes. The trees, reaching to immense size at these elevations, stood as sentinels of the mountain as their shadows grew longer, and as the valleys and canyons below slowly began to lose their day’s sunlight.
I made my way back below the snowline, where footing was easier on the well-worn trail, and after a brisk two hour hike down was back at the trailhead at Vincent Gap as afternoon gave way to dusk.
Lace up your boots, have fun, and be safe.
For current information on the Mt. Baden-Powell trail and locations to buy a day-use permit or U.S. Forest Service Adventure Pass, call the Santa Clara / Mojave Rivers Ranger District at (661) 269-2808 or the Grassy Hollow Visitor Center at (626) 821-6737. According to the Angeles National Forest, the Big Pines Visitor Center is "temporarily closed," but the center's phone is (760) 249-3504.
Tommy Hough is president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.
All photos by Tommy Hough unless otherwise indicated.
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