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Tahquitz Peak and Tahquitz Loop – Apr 7, 2012

This is a quick story about a day hike I did on April 7th.  The route goes up the Devil’s Slide Trail from Humber Park to Tahquitz Peak via the PCT, then down the South Ridge Trail and back to Humber via the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail – for a total of around 12 miles.

I’d done a hike up Marion Mountain Trail under very snowy conditions some weeks earlier, so I drove toward Idyllwild not sure of what trail conditions would be.  Weather forecast was for a warm 60 degrees midday.  Snow had probably been melting in most places for weeks.  So I brought some light cold-weather gear, microspikes, etc., but not the snowshoes and heavier stuff I’d used on Marion.  As it turned out, it was quite a hot day, and I could have done with a lot less.

I got to the ranger station in Idyllwild around 7:45am, but it didn’t open until 8 and I wasn’t sure I even needed a permit for the trail (turns out I did, of course), so I was about to bail when Mike drove up.  I’d met Mike at the start of the Marion trail hike and we’d done part of the hike together, and stayed in touch afterward.  I thought he was working over the weekend (as did he), so it was a surprise to see him.  He was off to Marion again.  Odd that two people from San Diego drove 2x to climb in Idyllwild and arrived within minutes of each other in the exact same places both times.  Good omen, I guess.  In any case, I hadn’t brought snowshoes (which might have been necessary on Jacinto) and needed to get back to SD earlier, so we both went off to do our separate hikes.

Devil’s Slide Trail
I got to Humber Park and the Devils’ Slide Trailhead around 8, and was on the trail by 8:10 after some dithering about what to bring or not. I left most of the extra cold weather stuff, extra water, food, etc., as it looked to be a warm day already and the snowpack seemed light in the trees above. Twenty minutes up the trail, I took off my vest. Twenty minutes after that, I stripped off my lower baselayer (long-underwear) and was hiking comfortably in nylon trekking pants and a t-shirt. Winter, it seems, was done.

Devil’s Slide rises from the parking area at 6,480 feet and reaches Saddle Junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) junction at 8,100 feet, providing a gradual climb of 1,620′ over 2.5 miles. For most of the rise up the canyon, Suicide Rock is visible through the trees to the West, while the granite face of Tahquitz Rock looms more substantially over the first part of the trail to the East. I’m not a climber, but I understand the Rock offers some great technical routes. It also completely obscures Tahquitz Peak from the Devil’s Slide Trail.

The trail was clear of any substantial snow until very near the top, where I finally put on Microspikes. The snow was melted and packed down, so the spikes were purely to prevent slippage on somewhat ice trail segments. A few more switchbacks and you’re at the junction. It’s a very pleasant and moderate climb through the trees, with occasional views of the valleys to the West.

At the Junction, I ran into the one other person I’d seen at the lot earlier in the morning. We talked briefly, and it turned out that he was heading to Tahquitz as well after a snack and rest break. He thought the trail ahead (mostly on the PCT would be hard to follow) so he hoped someone had blazed a trail for us. As it turned out, no one hard. A few minutes after I left him at the Junction, the PCT was 90% covered by snow melting so fast that all prior tracks had been covered. The entire rest of the hike to the top was a series of guesses about where the trail was hiding under the packed snow.

After 1.4 miles, I reached a sign rising from the snow announcing another trail junction. The Devil’s Slide Trail (?) continued to Tahquitz by turning hard right from south the west. The PCT turned left east. The sign pointed in the direction of Tahquitz, which is fortunate, because there were few other visual clues as to the right direction. I followed an almost random set of footprints up the flank of a nearby rise, pretty sure it wasn’t the trail, but hopeful they had found a better path though the snow. As it turned out, I guesses right, but I wouldn’t know it for a while.

The footprints followed a fairly calm path along the ridgeline and then turned sharply uphill (clearly not following any trail). I followed them up a steep climb to the ridgeline, where for the first time I could see the ridgeline itself and Tahquitz peak (and the watchtower) further to the west. I followed the footprints along the rocky ridgeline simply because the view was nice and I didn’t want to go back downhill to follow the presumed path of the trail. Shortly, however, I came to a pile of rocks that were dangerous to climb in microspikes and somewhat exposed, so I headed down the flank so I could continue the traverse in open snow.

That’s when I realized why the ridgeline was the better path. The duration of the hike traversed a steep and somewhat exposed slope. If you fell and slid, you’d either hit some nice rocks and trees or end up several under feet below, possibly worse. I’d skied for years on far steeper stuff so I wasn’t worried about being able to self-arrest, but it made you far more aware of what you were doing — especially with just microspikes and trekking poles (and no ice axe). The snow then turned into hard-packed crust, so to be safe I kicked steps in the slope until that got too annoying, and then kicked steps back up to the ridgeline. From there on, it was just a few minutes of rock hoping to the summit.

Tahquitz Peak
I’d never been to Tahquitz before, and the view of and from the watchtower is quite beautiful. Without the usual haze, views to the west and the ocean would have been stunning. Regardless, it was a beautiful sunny morning for a break and a snack. I sat down to hit, thinking I’d head back down the same way in a few minutes, and be back at the car shortly — barring a possible detour through Tahquitz Valley. It had taken a bit less than 2.5 hours to get to the top, so if I left the peak by 11am, I’d be back at the car by 12:30 and on the way back to San Diego.

And then, a woman appear from behind a rock. She was wearing tennis shoes, a t-shirt, and had neither poles nor microspikes. I looked at her. She looked at me. You could tell she was confused as well. I guessed she had come up the South Ridge Trail from the other side of Tahquitz, but I couldn’t believe the conditions were that different. As it turns out, they were completely different. She had seen almost no snow, and it had been warm and sunny the whole way up. She couldn’t seem to understand why I’d come up from Humber. But for me, this meant instead of having to backtrack, I could try out a new trail and book down in safe conditions while still getting back at a reasonable time.

South Ridge Trail
According to my map, I could go down the South Ridge Trail and then traverse back to Humber via the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail. This would add several miles and more climbing to the hike, but I’lll take a loop over out-and-back any day of the week. So off I went. Just past the rock from whence the woman had appeared, I came to a trail sign pointing down the Ridge Trail and back toward Devil’s Slide — the trail I had not quite followed. It didn’t look like anyone else had either.

The South Ridge Trail was hotter and far more exposed than Devil’s Slide, offering more consistent views and very easy hiking. It descends from Tahquitz at 8,846′ to trailhead parking at 6,480′ — the exact same altitude as the Devil’s Trail starting point — in an easy 3.6 miles. This is a great trail for gradual day hikes or even trail running. On the way up, I met people in jeans and short with dogs and kids. Clearly, this was the easy and scenic path to Tahquitz. It was also the hot way. I was down to shorts and a t-shirt quickly, and even then as I run-walked down, it was hot more my tastes. I missed the 40 degrees of that morning…but that’s just me.

About 1/3 of the way down, I ran into two very nice rangers who asked for my permit. I suddenly realized I should have gotten one earlier, and was trying to figure out if hiking 4 trails without a permit (on the loop) was better than 1. As it turned out, the only penalty was to send me back to my car, but since I was on the way down anyway, it didn’t really matter. They were quite friendly about it, and we ended up exchanging information about the snowpack on the other side of the peak.

A Few Dirt Roads and the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail
From the bottom of south Ridge, you have to go down a winding dirt road for a while, then up another gradually curving dirt road to the Ernie Maxwell Trailhead at 5,720 feet — making for a climb of 760 feet back to Humber Park (well, 700 to the trailhead at the other end, and another 60 feet back up the paved road to the parking lot).

The Trail cuts up from the side of the dirt road and gradually rises through the woods back toward Humber. It’s a very pleasant, gradual hike of some 2.6 miles, but due to the heat (about 70 degrees), I thought this was the hardest park of the hike. I was just hot and a bit tired, plus psychologically I think I had really finished the interesting part of the hike. Otherwise, I think it would be a very mellow and beautiful hike across the Fern Valley wall.

I got back to the car at 1:20pm, which meant 5:10 hours round-trip, 4:40 if you exclude lunch. Not exactly lightening fast, but not terrible. The only thing I would do differently next time is remember that I run hot and, given the weather forecast, take altogether less stuff. Three hours later, allowing for a visit to Nomad Ventures mountaineering store in Escondido, I was back home — making for a great day-hike within a very reasonable drive of San Diego. Perfect day all around.

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