Mount Baldy via the Backbone Trail from the Notch
Date Hiked: June 18, 2011 and October 10, 2009
Best Season: Autumn Spring Summer
Check Trail Conditions: Mt. Baldy Visitor Center Interpretive Site (909) 982-2829
Notes: *Adventure Pass required if parking anywhere else. Off-Season lift tickets are $20 in-person or $15 online. While dogs are permitted on the ski lift, we do not recommend it. Kid-friendly only if your kids are experienced on strenuous trails.
- Distance: 6.34 miles round-trip
- Elevation Gain: 2,315 feet
- Route Type: Out-and-Back
- Trail Type: Dirt and rock
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Parking: Ski Resort Parking Lot (Free)*
- Locality: San Gabriel Mountains
- Nearest City: Baldy Village, CA
- Kid-Friendly: No
- Dog-Friendly: No
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At 10,068 feet, Mount Baldy is the highest mountain in the San Gabriel Mountains, and the highest point in Los Angeles County. It is the third highest point in Southern California, behind Mount San Gorgoni0 (11,503 ft) and Mount San Jacinto (10,834). It is probably the most recognizable mountain in Los Angeles and Orange County, with its snow capped peak visible through much of the winter, and it’s namesake barren bald cap looming over the region in the summer.
We have hiked to this peak twice, both times taking what many consider the “cheater route”, because it utilizes a ski lift to climb the first 1300 feet of elevation, and knocking about half the miles off the potential total if you hiked your way up to “the notch” instead of riding the lift. But screw those guys, because the paths under the chair don’t look all that interesting–one is a steep loose gravel and dirt trail, and the other is a meandering fire road. And the 6+ mile, 2,315 ft climb from the top of the lift is anything but easy. We recently climbed Mt. San Jacinto on another “cheater route” that was more mileage (10 miles) and more elevation (2,400 ft), but we both agreed that Baldy was tougher to climb.
A review of the elevation profile generated by my DeLorme PN 40 GPS unit afterwards showed why: The average grade for Mt. San Jacinto was 13%, while the average grade for Mt. Baldy was 19%. And while grade on the trail to Mt. San Jacinto rarely get up over the 20’s, on Mt. Baldy there are two different sections (which means four sections round trip) where the grade hits the 40-50% mark. If you don’t know what that means, it means that at a 50% grade, for every 100 feet you move, you climb 50 feet. So the average grade on Baldy was nearly 50% more than Mt. San Jacinto, and the worst sections were almost twice as steep!
We purchased our lift tickets online for $15, and headed out early (for us) on Saturday morning. While the Icehouse Canyon and Manker Flats Trailhead parking areas were packed with cars, the parking lot at the ski area (at the very end of Mt. Baldy Road) had plenty of parking available. At the parking lot is a small store where you can buy hiking supplies and lift tickets, or redeem your online lift ticket voucher for an actual ticket for the lift (don’t head up to the lift with just your printed voucher like we did). There were a lot of hikers milling about here, giving us a hint of how busy the trail and summit were going to be. There are also portable toilets in the parking lot, but since there are legit flush toilets next to the chairlift at both the top and bottom of the hill, you probably should skip it if you’re at all squeamish about these sorts of facilities.
The chairs themselves are doubles, carrying two people on a wooden seat with a safety bar you can pull down if you wish. Technically, they allow dogs on the lifts, as long as they fit, but as much as we love hiking with our beagle, we just weren’t comfortable trying to hold her on our lap for the ride up, so she stayed at home. The lift carries you over two alternate routes to the top, as mentioned above. One looked steep and slippery (adding about 5 miles rt to the hike), and the fire road trail (adds 7 miles rt to the hike) looked a bit boring (though we have subsequently twice taken this route for the really, really cool Moonlight Hike to the Notch, where they have a BBQ dinner on the Friday night closest to the full moon in all the warmer months of the year) .
At the top of the lift, there is a restaurant and bar, with a nice deck overlooking Manker Canyon and the San Antonio Creek Valley all the way into the Inland Empire on a clear day. This day was not clear at all in the LA Basin and Inland Empire, and it was heavily overcast and grey, with very low clouds. But almost as soon as we started up Baldy Road into San Antonio Creek Valley, the clouds and marine layer cleared, and we had beautiful blue skies and a cloudless hike. So just because it is cloudy down here, doesn’t mean it is a crummy day up there!
We vowed to reward ourselves with a beverage at the bar on our way back, and set out on our trail.
Almost immediately, there was a little bit of confusion, as there are at least three options to get started. A very obvious fire road heads straight out to the left (northwest), which is what we took the first time we made this hike, but had determined was too steep and gravelly to be the correct route, though it did connect to the main trail. Another fire road heads towards the right, appearing to go southeast, but we would later find that this road also hooks around and joins into the main trail. On this day, we took the third, narrower trail under the chair lift in front of us, which is the only shaded trail of the three, but still pretty quickly dumps you onto the fire road that started to the right.
This trail starts a very steep climb, on often loose trail conditions, and is quite exposed. It took a bit of encouragement to some of our group that the trail really did improve once it got to the Devil’s Backbone section, and that this stretch wasn’t too long. We did finally hit a couple of nice resting spots in the shade at the edge of the trail that offered views of the Cajon Pass and the Mojave Desert to the north. Fortunately, this steep and exposed section of trail really did only last slightly less than a mile total, before hitting the Backbone.
Aside from the peak itself, the Devil’s Backbone is the highlight of the hike. It is a very narrow stretch of trail with relatively steep drop-offs on both sides and views of the desert to the north and the LA Basin to the south. This area can be very treacherous in high winds, I have been told (which happens a lot up there), but on a calm day, anyone who doesn’t have severe acrophobia should be able to manage it. The half mile or so of the true Backbone section continues to be fairly exposed, but it does level out a bit, making it seem like a respite from the steepness of the first section–and the scenery really is excellent.
The next mile climbs pretty relentlessly again, though not quite as steeply as the first section. And it does have pretty regular shade along this stretch, with large boulders and fallen logs that allow decent rests along the way (which we definitely needed).
The last half mile is another real butt-kicker, where you’ll climb another 700 feet in elevation on loose rocks with a poorly defined series of switchbacks to get to the top. We actually hit snow at the bottom of this stretch, at least on the side of the trail. And while some stretches of this trail were more clearly marked than others, there were many clear alternate paths up that allow one to either pass slow groups in front of you (we passed a few) or allow faster groups to pass you (there were a lot of those).
It took almost an hour for us to climb this last half mile, but the top was definitely worth it. It is by far the largest summit area we have climbed (as opposed to Mt. San Jacinto, which was a series of boulders at the top), with plenty of room for the hundred or so folks gathered at the top to lounge around at the top against various manmade rock wind shelters, which were only needed for back support on this particular day.
Our group spent almost an hour at the summit, resting, snacking, hydrating, and taking in the 360 degree views at the top.
We also took the obligatory group photo in front of the summit marker before heading back down the mountain.
The first time we climbed Mt. Baldy, we returned via the Sierra Club Snow Hut to Manker Flats Campground trail, which was a 4,000 foot and 5.4 mile descent which we nearly didn’t make, because of how hard it was on our knees. We prefer loop hikes to out-and-backs generally, and going downhill seems easy on paper, but it appears that when you get to a certain age and a certain degraded level of fitness, downhill is hell on the knees, and more painful than uphill in several ways. We have found that hiking poles help a lot, but we still try to avoid long, steep descents whenever possible.
So this time, we returned the way we came, and while it was certainly difficult and at times, we had to go very slowly in order to not injure ourselves, it wasn’t as bad as the Manker Flats route. We still fell several times, slipping on the loose rocks and gravel, and I even completely ripped out the crotch of my pants on one fall (sorry ladies–no pix… ;-D ).
On the narrower sections of the trail, there really was no option but to go slowly and carefully. On the wider fire road stretch at the end, I found that creating my own traversing trail from side to side on the way down was much easier than just heading straight down hill, but your methods may vary.
In the end, our 6.3 mile hike took about 6 hours (not including chairlift), if you count the frequent rest stops, picture stops, the lengthy stop at the top, and the careful walk back down. I know young (and old) fit people make it much faster than we did, but that is pretty much our pace.
We did stop at the Top of the Notch Bar and Restaurant at the end of our hike. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a total rip-off, and the cold beers and views of the mountains made a splendid finish to the day.
We used this hike as the first meet-up for “Titan Hikers”, open to folks who work at California State University, Fullerton, with Colleen. Including me (a CSUF grad school grad) and one other spouse, there were eight of us altogether, at various levels of fitness and experience. It wasn’t easy, but all of us made it, and I think all of us felt a sense of achievement at the top. So if you’re looking for a signature hike you can brag to your friends about, and a peak that you can point to with satisfaction and say “I climbed that” for the rest of your life, I highly recommend it.
Mt Baldy via Devil’s BackboneView in a larger map