Under the right conditions, the Cucamonga Peak trail transcends what one expects from a local Los Angeles hike. Two years ago on a beautiful winter day, a ten month old Callie and I shared an amazing experience on the trail. I was blown away by the prospect that a hike with scenery and solitude that matched the Sierra was within such close proximity of my doorstep. That hike was a huge inspiration for the creation of this website, and I have been looking forward to returning to it ever since.
Mileage: 12 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 4300 feet
Day(s) Hiked: 12/20/13
Dog Friendly: Yes
Editor’s Note: Winter hiking in the backcountry in very dangerous. Please do no attempt to replicate this hike without the proper experience and equipment.
It has been a dry year so far in Southern California’s mountains, and we have been anxiously awaiting a chance to go hike our local mountains while they were blanketed in snow. This past Friday, a small storm provided a brief window when snow transforms the San Gabriel Mountain’s higher elevations into a temporary snowy landscape. This is, in my opinion, the great secret of Los Angeles. Most Angelenos are oblivious to the fact that a winter hike like this is attainable within less than an hour drive from downtown.
When we arrived at the trailhead for our visit on this trip, I was a bit disappointed to see no sign of snow anywhere around the trailhead. On our last few winter trips to Icehouse, there was ample snow around the trailhead, to the point where the parking lot resembled a bumper car track. I don’t park my car there on crowded icy weekends, but on this weekday the trailhead wasn’t icy or crowded. We geared up and headed up the trail, searching for the snow that supposedly dusted the local mountains.
It didn’t take too long to find the snow. After about a thousand feet of elevation gain from the trailhead, snow dusted the landscape while the morning light began to beam into the canyon.
As is often the case in Icehouse Canyon, the trail had much more consistent and deep snow coverage as we ascended the switchbacks towards Icehouse Saddle.
After reaching Icehouse Saddle, we continued on the trail to Cucamonga Peak. With the recent snowstorm, the trail was mostly obscured by the fresh layer of snow of the hillside.
Trust me, that is the trail. Callie let me lead the way on these sections. The snowdrifts varied from a few inches to about a foot deep. Our previous knowledge of the trail was imperative to safely navigate this section.
The backcountry here provides a sense of immense beauty and isolation, which is important to consider when hiking out in this country in the winter. As expected, we did not see anyone after we left Icehouse Saddle until we returned to it and were close to our car. Any mistake out here could be disastrous.
However, that isn’t meant to imply that this hike was dangerous for me and Callie. It is just important to be constantly recognizing, avoiding, and mitigating risk. In the case of this hike, there was little snow coverage presenting any concern prior to the recent storm, the storm’s snowfall helped soften some of the sporadic icy slopes along the trail, and the snowpack was not deep enough to cause any avalanche concerns on the trail’s steep slopes.
We were able to capitalize on the perfect conditions and utilize our knowledge to do it safely, and it was marvelous.
The trail from Icehouse Saddle to Cucamonga Peak starts out by going around the east side of Bighorn Peak. The first mile is mostly flat, with a bit of a dip in the middle that adds a few hundred feet of elevation gain. Once the trail reaches the saddle between Bighorn and Cucamonga, it switchbacks up to the summit and becomes much more steep, gaining about 1200 feet in the last mile and a half.
There were a lot of clouds clinging to the southern faces of the slopes, due to the sun quickly melting away any snow still lingering on that side of the mountain range. As we began to ascend the switchbacks up towards Cucamonga, the clouds enveloped the mountain around us to create whiteout conditions. I knew that the weather forecast for the day was favorable, so I was not too worried about it. It was quite beautiful actually.
It didn’t take long before we were back hiking under sunny blue skies. In the afternoon sun on the western slopes of Cucamonga, the conditions were spectacular. The snow was soft and deep, the wind was calm, and the sun was warm enough for me to shed most of my layers.
The north facing slopes were the opposite. The wind was gusting about 25mph, which was enough to blow snow in our faces and suck the warmth out of me pretty quickly. With wind chill it was dipping close to zero degrees. I stopped and put some layers back on, and in that short timeframe of having my gloves off my fingers became numb. To make things worse, the snow here was icy and sporadic, as any of the recent snow from the storm was getting blown off the face.
The next mile of the trail alternates between the two sides of the mountain. We rushed through the cold stretches and lingered in the sunny ones. The clouds occasionally cleared up enough to provide glimpses of the Pacific. Callie often led the way – her paw prints revealing the hidden trail on the snowy landscape. She has become quite adept at sniffing out trails over the years. At one point I continued off trail past a switchback for a few paces, and when I realized my mistake and looked back, Callie had already turned the corner and was heading up the mountain on the right course.
A couple hundred feet short of the summit, the trail intersects with another route up the mountain that starts on the southern side near Buck Point. From here, any trace of the trail to the top was lost under the fresh layer of snow. That was inconsequential though, the slope is very moderate and any route will do. Just keep heading up the ravine until there is no more left to ascend.
The view from the top of Cucamonga is one of the best in the Angeles National Forest. You can see the entirety of LA all in one view on a clear day. Unfortunately, it’s tough to get those conditions after a recent snowfall, since the melting snow creates plenty of nearby clouds to block the view. It’s a trade off that I’m perfectly willing to accept.
I pulled out our super awesome dog Santa hat and tried to get Callie to pose for a Christmas picture. I explained to her that I carried this hat up 4,000 feet and that she should try to at least show a little holiday cheer. She was unimpressed.
Heading back down, we retraced our steps back to the trail. The Baldy Bowl was clearly seen in the background, and it was surprisingly barren of snow. Any hopes that this storm would help kickstart winter in the San Gabriels were easily dashed with that view.
By the time we left the summit, it was already close to 2PM. Since we were hiking on the second shortest day of the year, we were already running low on daylight and I elected to focus on getting back to civilization more than savoring and photographing the scenic landscape. At the same time, I proceeded with extra caution as I hiked down the slope. Most accidents in the mountains happen on the descent, and the slopes here were steep and icy. A simple slip could easily send one sliding uncontrollably down the mountain. I carried an ice axe in case of that scary possibility, but like my SPOT emergency device that I always carry, I intend to never use it for its intended purpose. So, I made my way down the more exposed switchbacks at a slow and deliberate pace.
Soon enough, we were back at the saddle between Cucamonga and Bighorn. The contrast in the amount of snow on the slopes was pretty startling. The southern slope of Bighorn, only a few hundred feet away, was completely dry while I was standing in four inches of fresh snow.
At this point, the light hitting the mountains was beginning to turn golden, which while beautiful, further highlighted the fact that my remaining daylight was quickly running out.
Once I got back to Icehouse Saddle, my anxieties about the hike vanished and I was able to enjoy the last section of the hike without any worries. The snow on the trail had melted out much more quickly than I had expected, and by 7000 feet it was very patchy on the steeper slopes.
The Icehouse Canyon trail, normally packed full of people, was empty on our retreat to the trailhead. After such an incredible day, hiking alone as the mountains soaked in the sunset’s glow was the perfect icing. I was filled with tremendous gratitude to be able to live a life that affords moments such as this one. California truly is the gift that keeps giving.