“Old Mt. Baldy (officially Mount San Antonio) stands as the grandest summit of the San Gabriel Mountains. No other peak in the range rivals its huge mass and lofty splendor… Old Baldy (10,064) stands as the third highest massif in Southern California, behind San Gorgonio Mountain (11,499) and Mount San Jacinto (10,804).” – Dan’s Hiking Page
Last weekend, Shacky and I attempted to summit this mountain on Saturday and again on Sunday. We reached the peak on Sunday only.
This climb was both the hardest physically (yes, harder than the Pinos hill due to elevation), as well as the most spectacular in beauty that I have ever experienced.
Reaching the top was an “AHA!” moment, and something I’ll never forget. Such a great sense of accomplishment, an elevation PR for me, and jaw-dropping views.
Here’s what we did:
With the Robillards plus dog in tow, we headed out for the West approach from Mt. Baldy Village to Old Mt. Baldy Trail (aka Bear Canyon Trail, Bear Flat Trial, Mt. Baldy Trail, Baldy Trail). There are four ways to ascent the mountain, and this one has been labeled “The hard way to do Baldy”.
Here is a very accurate description:
“The no-nonsense trail begins at Mt. Baldy Village and first treats you to the woodsy charm of Bear Canyon with its gurgling creek and rich canopy of oak, bay, fir, cedar, and pine.
After Bear Flat it then emerges into open chaparral where numerous switchbacks steeply transport you to the ridge and an open conifer forest with expanding views.
You climb the ridge for miles and are treated with varied topography, shade and sun, sweeping vistas, remarkable rock formations, dramatic cliffs, mature forest, wind-swept bareness, and the top-of-the-world feeling as you conquer the highest summit in the San Gabriels.”
This trail is also rich in history:
“John Robison writes that this trail was built in 1889 by Dr. B.H. Fairchild and Fred Dell, who envisioned a great observatory on the summit. Their dream never materialized… With the extension of the road to Manker Flat and the construction of Devils Backbone Trail in 1935-36, Mt. Baldy Trail lost its place as the main route to the summit. But for many today, it is indeed their favorite route to Old Baldy.”
Source: Dan’s Hiking Pages
I was immediately mesmerized by the lush greenery along this trail. Thick, towering trees and hot, humid spots made me feel as though I was far from California and transported to a tropical, forest-like land. It was something I imagined I might see on a lush B.C. Canadian trail.
The trees seemed to envelop me completely with their thick, gnarled branches and curious formations. Instead of mostly rocky ground, there were patches of thick, dark, and rich earth.
It was the type of ground where if you accidentally drop a seed, it wouldn’t surprise you to see it sprout immediately. I was in heaven and the dog was prancing like she had just come home. She would later throw herself across the creek and roll in the dirt.
It was mentioned that not many attempt this route, although we saw a fair number of hikers and one runner out there. It is approximately a 13-mile round trip with 5,744 feet of elevation gain. We spoke to one hiker, who described a way we could turn it into a 20-mile run, ascending and descending three difficult peaks. That’s now on our To Do List.
I was surprised at the lack of runners we saw, although at these inclines it was nearly impossible to “run” anything. Still, it’s grueling training for such a short distance, and I was surprised we didn’t see more athletes.
I was also surprised at how late the hikers were starting their trek. It seemed that most of them left around 8 a.m. or later. We started running at 7, but it would have been comfortable to start as early as 6 a.m. On Sunday, we started at around 5:30 a.m.
Since it was only about 6 miles to the top, I expected that we’d be finished this run in about 3 hours or less. Two hours later, we had only advanced 3 miles. And I was already feeling like death.
Jason Robillard was cruising on his mountain legs, bouncing along ahead of us and occasionally waiting in the shade for us to catch up. Shacky was next, but started slowing down and feeling nauseous until he was able to eat something.
I was hiking with Shelly, and my legs felt like lead. I was taking deep breaths, and found it difficult to keep up a conversation. As soon as I’d stop to rest, I felt great and immediately wanted to continue. But five steps later, exhaustion would sweep over me again. I couldn’t believe how hard each step was.
There was no level ground on this climb. It was up, up, up. In the first mile, I thought it was fairly steep. Then Shacky told us we weren’t at “the steep part” yet. The steep part was indeed an ass-kicker.
With only 2 miles left to the summit, we decided to turn back. I didn’t think I could go on one more step.
Running downhill was tricky, but insanely fast. I couldn’t believe it has taken hours to get where we were, yet the descent feel like mere minutes.
At the bottom, we decided to drive 5 miles to the waterfall and hike up near the trailhead we would be taking the next day. I was thrilled see snow on this trip, and by the waterfall I played in it with the dog.
It had been over a year since I had seen snow. Back in Canada, I would wonder every winter how awesome it would be to have snow, but not the cold. Now here I was in the hot sun, sweating from a run, playing in the white stuff. It was everything I imagined it would be.
We finished the day with 10 miles, and completely wiped out. After a good meal, we turned in for an early bedtime and a 4 a.m. wake up call the next morning. Going to bed, I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful or rewarding ascent. I would be wrong.
Shacky and I arrived at the new trailhead, just below the waterfall while it was still dark. Since we didn’t have headlamps, we waited about 20 minutes for it to get lighter, then set off.
We were ascending on the South approach from Manker Flats via Baldy Bowl. It was approximately 8.5 miles round trip, with 3,900 feet of elevation gain. The trail has been referred to as a “glorify use trail”, which means it was developed more by use than deliberately engineered.
The roads and parking lot were abandoned, except for one hiker—an older Asian man who started a few minutes behind us. We quickly ran ahead of him.
The turn off the road onto the trailhead was so obscure and difficult to spot, that we had to measure the exact mileage and squint our eyes to make out a near-invisible “trail” carving its way through the rocky gravel at a very steep incline.
We headed up, not even sure if it was the right way. Soon enough, we could soon see the trail more clearly and spotted a hiker’s log. I wrote down some motivating verses from memory, and we proceeded.
The trek was incredibly steep right from the start. It didn’t ease into an incline like yesterday’s route—one minute you were standing upright, the next minute you felt like you were scaling a wall. And that’s how it remained for the entire ascent.
I thought this would be the “easier” run based on mileage, but it basically takes the 6-mile climb from yesterday’s route, and condenses it to 4 miles by making it more steep, more technical, and more insane.
Dan’s Hiking Pages summarize this route simply by saying: “It’s not for wimps.” Truer words were never spoken. Dan also adds: “Don’t attempt to hike in snow unless you are trained, equipped, and experienced in mountaineering. People die on this mountain.” This would be Shacky’s first running experience in snow.
The trail was much more rocky than yesterday, but equally lush with trees. We saw a green cabin in the distance which served as our 2-mile mark. It was built in 1937 and can be rented out.
Our trail instructions said that if guests were renting the cabin, they may invite us to “top off our canteen” with the spring-fed tap flowing directly into the kitchen. There were indeed guest in it, but they went inside and closed the door as we passed. We tried not to disturb their privacy.
The trail had more water access and small creek crossings than yesterday’s run. We could hear the waterfall below us and fresh, cool water trickled at our feet. The dog drank freely.
Occasionally, we would come across patches of snow. We threw it around with the dog to cool her off, as well as ourselves. I took handfuls of snow and washed my face, neck, and arms. I even let some trickle down my back.
After we passed the green cabin, we came upon an incredibly rocky section. We were weaving through boulders, trying to make out the trail. We went off-trail several times, but as long as we kept going up, we were generally on the right track.
Soon, snow covered the ground completely and we were shuffling through it, trying not to slide straight down due to steepness. We lost the trail since all we could see was snow, so we just tried to make the best possible route for ourselves. It didn’t look like many people had been through here. On the entire ascent, we didn’t see a single soul.
Finally reaching the ridge at over 8,000 feet, we saw a group of hikers packing their bags and getting ready to head down. They were surprised to see us and said we had come up “the hard way”—we didn’t know any better.
It seemed that a few people hiked up, camped at the top, and then hiked down the next day. That’s what these guys were up to.
We stopped at the ridge to eat. My stomach was growling and I was glad I brought a sandwich. We gave Ginger water, and she shared half my sandwich. I also had a Rise bar and Acclimate, a powder that’s supposed to aid in elevation issues. My only real issue was that it was hard as hell. After a few minutes of rest, we headed back out.
Despite the steepness, we hadn’t yet reached “the steep part,” according to our instructions. I rolled my eyes and just couldn’t imagine what that steep part would look like. When we got to it, it was basically bouldering. I scrambled along after Shacky and Ginger, and had to stop a couple of times because my legs were literally shaking. I thought they would collapse right under me.
When it was over, we were so close to the summit, I could taste it. But first, we took a small detour through some deep snow and came upon a breathtaking lookout. The drop was steep and immediate, and I was nervous about Ginger getting too close and slipping off the edge. Shacky sat down and Ginger sat with him. I took their picture.
Less than a mile to go. Shacky and Ginger went ahead, with me scrambling behind. When I turned around, I spotted the older Asian hiker right on my ass. I couldn’t believe it. How had he made it this far??
I pushed myself to get to the summit before him, where I was greeted by a happy dog and a tired Shacky. I was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of accomplishment, and ran to every corner to look at the views. The mountain is called “baldy” because of the lack of trees at the summit.
I felt like I was on top of the world. There was nothing higher as far as the eye could see. We celebrated and Shacky attempted a snow angel. By then, the Asian hiker had reached the top and we chatted.
His name was Mr. Kim he had hiked to this summit over 200 times. He told us how he summits every weekend, rain or shine. He never misses a week. My jaw dropped. The dude made us ultra runners look like pansies. I still have no idea how he finished only minutes after us. Well done, Mr. Kim.
Leaving the summit, I was refreshed and fulfilled. But what would await me was something I did not expect from a trail referred to as “the Devil’s backbone”.
I expected a treacherous and difficult descent. Something devilish. But the backbone was my best interpretation of what heaven must be like. The ground was solid and rich. The trees were immense and lively. The path was narrow and adventurous, with sharp drops if you’re not careful.
If you looked to the right: snow-capped mountain peaks. To the left: postcard-worthy views to take your breath away. I ran fast and tried to understand what I had done to get so damn lucky. I felt insanely blessed.
It was over all too soon, as we quickly reached the ski lift. We didn’t have money, so weren’t able to buy a beer at the store. We won’t forget our money next time!
It’s also possible to ride the ski lift down to the road, but we opted to run to the bottom instead. There was a shortcut that followed the path of the lift, but it was incredibly steep with tons of loose rocks. However, it was only a 1-mile descent, as opposed to 3 miles down the fireroad. We opted for the rocky trail.
I was scared going down the shortcut. With every step, I was sure it would be my last. Shacky threw caution to the wind and just flew down. I inched my way along.
All we had to do now was follow the road back to the car, another 1/4 mile or so. We finished strong, and it was easily the most memorable run of my life.
I was incredibly proud of Ginger, who had never run at elevation and had zero issues. We kept an eye on her the whole way, continued feeding and giving her water, and she thrived with every step.
On the rocky sections, Ginger would run back to check on me. If I heard her coming, I’d yell that I was ok. She’d peek around a boulder to make sure, then run back to Shacky.
Sometimes she went off on tangents that were even more steep than anything we climbed, and I couldn’t believe how strong her footing was on these crazy inclines. I had never seen her like this.
Ginger’s secret is out—she’s not a dog at all. She’s a mountain goat. And on this summit, I found my own mountain legs.
Life is better at elevation.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”
– Edward Abbey
Photo Credits: Robert Shackelford, Jason Robillard