I mentioned in a previous post, this Winter and Spring of 2011 has been very unpredictable in Southern California. We’ve gone from cold and rainy to hot and dry and back again in the stretch of just a few days multiple times. One example is the hike we took last weekend (4-9-11) to Devil’s Punchbowl where the high desert meets the mountains of the Angeles National Forest. The weekend that we hiked Iron Mountain in San Diego, we had originally intended to hike Devil’s Punchbowl, but the rain we’d had all week and that was predicted again on Saturday made us cancel our plans and head to San Diego, where it was predicted to be less likely to rain.
That following week, temperatures hit almost 100 degrees, and we worried that we’d missed our window to hit Devil’s Punchbowl before it got too hot. But we scheduled the hike again anyways, and as we got closer to hike day again, we watched the weather predictions closely–not because they were predicting heat, but snow! Our hiking companions for the day bailed on us again, not wanting to risk getting caught in freezing rain and snow, but by Friday night, there was only a 20% chance of snow and rain, so we decided to take a chance and go anyways–and we were glad we did!
I had estimated it would take about two hours to get to the trailhead (and Google Maps agreed), but we were able to travel full speed nearly the entire route and made the 90 mile trip in almost exactly an hour and a half. You can get there from Hwy 138 off either the 14 or 15, but from our direction the 15 made more sense. The sign for Devil’s Punchbowl at Longview Road was almost exactly 30 miles from I-15 on Hwy 138, and from there it was only 7 miles of well-signed road south to the parking lot at Devil’s Punchbowl County Park.
Because it is a Los Angeles County Park, there was no need for a National Forest Adventure Pass, and surprisingly, no county permit fee, either. There was a nice nature center with live and stuffed specimens of rattlesnakes, king snakes, birds, and other species native to the area. They also had a paper trail map (also available online) that really was not very useful, except that the helpful docent explained what we were likely to see on the hike and what to look for at the end (though it was much easier than she made it sound).
We headed back to the parking lot, and at the southeast corner, behind a couple of port-o-potties, was the beginning of the trail. Fairly quickly up the trail there was a junction that on the left, took you to an overlook down to the Punch Bowl and the whitewaters and falls of the creek (apparently Sandrock Creek?) below. The leftward trail heads down 300 feet or so into the canyon on the one mile “Loop Trail”, before re-appearing behind the visitor’s center. There was a low-res sign there with a line drawing of both the Loop Trail and the Devil’s Chair Trail (ours). It looked like a great trail, but we wanted to be sure we made it to the Devil’s Chair and back first, and by the time we got back, we were tired and it was approaching dusk, so we decided to save it for another day.
It was cold as we got started, and the initial trail was largely desert scrub and manzanita, with occasional views down into the Punch Bowl and the creek below, as we steadily (but not particularly steeply) headed uphill. We quite quickly ran into fresh snow under some of the bushes from the night before, which Holly enjoyed investigating.
Pretty quickly we hit a “reverse Y” junction with a private dirt road, but it is pretty obvious that you need to keep going forward on the way up, though it is possible you might miss the Punch Bowl path right on the way back.
You soon hit another split in the road, but since both tracks rejoin each other on the other side of a green shed, it doesn’t really matter which way you go. Just under a mile up the trail, you’ll come to the actual split with the Burkhart Trail, which is pretty well-marked. You’ll want to stay to the left.
We were already warm enough by now that we’d shed both our jackets and our fuzzy hats, and even though we were starting to see more snow, it was quite comfortable in long sleeve shirts as long as we kept moving.
The trail dips a little bit as it heads down to a crossing over Sandrock Creek. Most days it is apparently pretty easy to stay dry while crossing, but on this day, it was running pretty good. While we still had no problem with it, it was clear that the normal path would have let us cross on the logs, while we had to do some rock-hopping as well.
Our first really snowy area started right past the creek, though the trail itself was mostly clear. We also ran into our first signs of the rough winter here as well, as there was a pretty freshly fallen tree laying across the trail.
We also hit a stretch of trail that looked like it had pretty recently been washed out, where a metal mesh had been laid to reinforce the trail. More fallen trees followed, each looking like they had been there no more than a year and likely significantly less (still had green leaves on them).
There were a couple of cool rocky outcroppings and boulders on either side of the trail that we probably would have explored further if we’d had kids with us (or if Colleen hadn’t been such a scaredy-cat), but we passed on by them.
Fairly shortly after the boulder above, we got our first views of the Devil’s Chair off to the left in the distance.
And not too long after that, we started descending rapidly towards the chair, on a series of switchbacks that finally took us to another signed junction with the Devil’s Chair on the left and the South Fork Trail on the right (which is a steeper way to access Punch Bowl from the East starting at South Fork Camp). As we started towards the Devil’s Chair, there was soon a railing to our right, to keep folks from falling into the abyss/canyon right off trail.
When you hit the very narrow ridge that leads out to the chair itself, there are rails on both sides of the trail, and by the time you hit the end (the “chair”), it is essentially a cage. It detracts a bit from the amazing view and the crazy ancient rock formations and natural processes you are looking at, but in the cage-makers’ defense, without the rails and cage, I don’t think very many people would risk the walk to the outcropping. Even more likely, the government folks who know better would have just forbidden access entirely. Given that, I’ll accept the safety railing’s intrusion into the wilderness in the name of maintaining access.
The overlook really is great. According to a very educational “virtual geocache” we read off my GPS unit out on the point, you are essentially sitting on top of the San Andreas Fault. Off to the left you can see the white metamorphic and igneous rocks of the Angeles Range to the left, and the reddish brown sedimentary rocks skewed at crazy angles to the right. In between is a dark line, which is apparently where the rocks were crushed together on the fault line itself. If you look straight down, you can see the same features immediately below, which places you essentially on top of the San Andreas Fault!
After taking in the view for a while, we headed back up the trail. While we knew that most of the trail would be downhill, the climb out of the Devil’s Chair back up the switchbacks was pretty steep (which makes the “total elevation gain” of 622 feet a bit of an understatement). We made most of the rest of the hike at a pretty steady clip, though we did still enjoy the view of the rocks from a different angle in the late afternoon sun on the way back.
While clouds darkened a time or two, and pure sunlight might have given us some sharper pictures at times, the alternating gray and sunlight gave us a variety of looks at the geological formations. It never did rain or snow on us, and the cloud cover did keep it from ever getting very hot, so in the end we were pretty pleased with the weather on this particular day. With a trailhead that starts at the 4,700 foot level or so and is largely through pine forests, I’m not sure how unbearably hot it ever gets, but since it does border right on the Mojave Desert, and many hikes warn of high summer temperatures, I think you’re better off hitting it in Fall, Winter or Spring, rather than Summer. There really aren’t any wildflowers you miss by going earlier (or much later) in the year, and other than probably having less water in the creek in the Fall, there really isn’t much that would be different about the views on the trail during those seasons.
On a final note, just to talk about how unpredictable this year has been, I mentioned above that we went from cold and wet to hot and dry to chance of snow again in subsequent weeks. Well, a week later we hiked again in the Angeles National Forest and the temperatures hit the mid-90’s! Just shows how unpredictable Spring in Southern California can be and how important it always can be to keep an eye on the weather before you hit the trail unprepared.
View Devil’s Chair at Devil’s Punchbowl in a larger map