We decided this spring that we wanted to push ourselves a little harder in our hikes, and try for more mileage and more elevation. Our first bigger effort of the year was the aborted effort to climb Mount Baden Powell, where the snows turned us back. After two more warm weeks of weather, we figured the higher elevations would be clearer of snow, and decided to try another hike we’d heard great things about: Ice House Canyon.
Our original plan was to hike up to Ice House Saddle, which was 7.2 miles round trip and an elevation of 2,660, which would be just a bit more than the most elevation we’d done previously (Trabuco Peak), in fewer miles. So we knew it would be steep, but were quite confident we could make it, based on our success at Trabuco. By the time we were done, we had added on a “side trip” to the top of Timber Mountain, and took the long way back down, giving us a total of 11.9 miles and 3388 feet in elevation–blowing away our highest elevation and also exceeding the most mileage we’d ever done (at least since we’d been paying close attention).
As per usual, we slept in later than intended, and sipped coffee and ate breakfast longer than intended, and didn’t get up to the Mt Baldy Visitor Center Interpretive Site until about 10am. If you don’t already have your annual or daily Adventure Pass (and if you don’t have an annual pass, why the hell not?) for parking, you can get it here. And even if you do have your annual pass for parking, you’ll still need to stop here to get your free wilderness permit. It is a very cool interpretive center, with signs and photos and dead animals telling the natural history of the area and the human history of Baldy Village. They also have a small store with maps, books, hiking gear, and touristy crap. The Rangers are usually helpful there as well, and the one I spoke with that morning was able to fill me in on the trail conditions we could expect.
As we approached the parking area and trailhead, there were already cars parked along both sides of the road, and sure enough, the parking lot was totally full. We were able to find a spot about 1/4 mile back down the road, which was certainly closer to the parking area than we have gotten on our trips to Sturtevant Falls or Winter Creek by Chantry Flats, but still not optimal. Two weeks later, when we passed by the same parking area on our way to hike Mt Baldy, it was even more crowded, even though we were there earlier (9am). So I don’t know how early you have to get there to park in the actual lot, but I wouldn’t count on it, and you shouldn’t get too discouraged if you have to hike a bit to get to the beginning of the hike.
Adjacent to the lot at the Ice House Canyon Trailhead were some pit toilets, trash receptacles, and some picnic tables. The trailhead itself was very well marked, as was the trail. It was also quite crowded–a sign of things to come.
The first two miles of the trail are beautiful, staying very close to the creek, which was running very full when we hiked it in early June. There were also a number of cabins along the way, which looked like they would be great to stay in, though it would take a bit of an effort to get the kind of food, beverages, and other provisions I typically like to bring for a week (or even a weekend) in the mountains, as there was no motor vehicle access, and even a wheeled ice chest would be very difficult to haul back to many of the cabins. About a mile in, you will pass the sign for the Chapman Trail, which heads off to the left, but you will keep going straight.
This entire stretch was uphill. Not painfully steep, but you were acutely aware that you were climbing with every step you took, and we did find ourselves stopping regularly to catch our breath. Shortly after the last cabin, and before we left the creekside for good (about the two mile mark), we came to the sign officially marking the beginning of the Cucamonga Wilderness (you did stop and get your wilderness permit at the ranger station, didn’t you?).
Shortly thereafter, the trail narrows and leaves the creekbed and starts to climb up the canyon wall. According to the official elevation profile (embedded below) I got from my DeLorme PN-40 GPS, the trail is pretty uniformly steep from the trailhead all the way to the top of Timber Mountain, but it definitely felt steeper from this point forward. It is likely because it was now a little less shaded, and not as close to the water, so therefore a bit warmer, and also because not much further was a series of switchbacks, which make it feel like you are climbing a more severe grade than it felt when you were just walking along the creek.
It also started to feel more crowded, probably because the switchbacks kept more of the trail in view at a given time, and everyone was stopping a lot, which created lots of opportunities to pass, get passed, and then re-pass other hikers along the way. There were actually entire busfulls of tourists from Asia on the trail, all very well outfitted, leaving us to wonder if these were hiking-specific tours, or if they were merely day trip options from more touristy tours (“Today we are hiking Ice House Canyon. Tomorrow, Hollywood!”).
The first few switchbacks start around three miles into the hike, and not too long after that was a neat little waterfall at the end of the canyon, visible from the trail. This waterfall is very possibly only seasonal, but when we were there, it was loud enough that you couldn’t miss it, even though it wasn’t super close to the trail.
From here, the trail seems to get steeper, as it goes up another series of switchbacks, as it travels the last 3/4 mile to the Ice House Saddle. Very shortly after the falls, you will come to the upper junction of the Chapman Trail that we’d passed down below, but we continued on towards the saddle, with the trail once again almost entirely shaded.
Just before the 4 mile mark on our GPS (and 3.6 miles according to the USFS trail list), we hit the saddle, which was a zoo. Lots of people were milling about, or sitting on fallen logs, eating their lunches (a big group next to us all had sushi, giving us ideas for future hikes). We also stopped here to rest and eat some jerky and trail mix ourselves, and our beagle Holly finally took her first rest of the entire hike. The breeze here was quite cool, and on this particular day, it was cold enough that Colleen had to put her long sleeved shirt back on. On a different day, I could see where the weather might change very quickly, making the standard warning to bring extra layers of clothing very important to heed.
The saddle is a major crossroads, with three different trail systems connecting here, all very well signed and posted.
As we sat and rested, we decided we felt good enough to go ahead and climb to the top of Timber Mountain, which our trail guide and the sign said was less than a mile away (guide said .7 miles, sign said .9 miles, gps said 1 mile), and only about 700 additional feet of elevation. It seemed a shame to be that close to a peak and not bag it, so after enjoying the views and the people watching at the saddle, we forged onward.
The stretch of trail to the summit was not particularly scenic. It was all switchbacks, some shaded, some exposed, and our legs actually felt worse after the rest than they did before. But as we were wondering if we could make it, an 8 year old kid came buzzing down the trail from above, well ahead of the rest of his family, grinning with pride at having climbed to the summit. We decided if he could do it, then so could we, and pretty shortly thereafter we were there.
There were some nice views from the summit, looking into Hesperia and the Mojave Desert to the north, and Telegraph Peak over to the West. From here, you could continue on to the rest of the “Three T’s” (Timber, Telegraph, and Thunder Mountains) and Mt Baldy, but there was no way in hell that was happening today. We signed the peak log, rested a few minutes and headed back down hill.
We were immediately feeling the days effort in our knees, and walked carefully back down towards the saddle. Again, as we were starting to pity ourselves, we got shown up–this time by an older couple (easily in their 60s) in full backpacks who passed us from behind. Since we hadn’t seen anyone else on the small summit, I asked where they had come from. They said they had hiked from Baldy Village, to Mt Baldy, and all three T’s that day, which is such a ridiculous amount of climbing and hiking, that I can’t contemplate ever being able to do that in a day! Oddly, we passed the same couple again two weeks later when we hiked Mount Baldy!
It was getting later in the afternoon, so we only stopped briefly at the saddle on the way down, before proceeding on our way. We had read in our trail guide (and confirmed with some fellow hikers), that while the Chapman Trail alternative was about two miles longer to get back to the trailhead, it was less steep, and given our poor history with our knees on steep descents, and our preference for loop hikes over out-and-back hikes, we decided to take the Chapman Trail.
It was a really neat trail, and had we not already been so tired and sore, I’m sure we would have enjoyed it a lot more. Most of the route was very narrow, and hugged the canyon walls quite a bit above the creek and trail below. It was almost entirely exposed, and might have been miserably hot in the middle of the day, but in the late afternoon/early evening sun, it was quite pleasant.
But while it was moderately less steep (as you can see in the elevation profile below), it was by no means easier. The trail was very rocky and uneven, and we felt every bit of the extra two miles we had to hike. But it was very different terrain than the canyon trail, and I enjoyed the new scenery and the massive boulder fields and weather-beaten trees on the exposed mountain-side.
At about the 9 mile mark (or a little less than 3 miles from the trailhead if you came directly here via the lower Chapman Trail junction) was Cedar Glen Camp, a very nice backcountry campground, with good shade, large sites, but no facilities, tables, or fire rings. In fact, the sign specifically warns that campfires are illegal, and even stoves require a permit.
From here, the Chapman Trail gets a little more serious about descending back into the canyon, and we had to take it pretty slowly. As much as we enjoyed the new terrain, we were both regretting the extra two miles we’d chosen to hike, and questioned whether we should have just gone back the way we came.
Finally, at about the 10.5 mile mark, we rejoined the main trail along the creek. The sun was setting behind the mountains by now, and it seemed like the trail was wetter and muddier than it was on the way up, and also rockier than we recalled, but I’m sure it was mostly a function of our pain and fatigue.
When we got back to the trailhead parking lot, it was nearly entirely empty, and there weren’t any cars left on the side of the road, either. We got back to the truck just as it was about to get dark, almost 9 hours after we started. That included lots of rests, lots of picture stops, and talking to fellow hikers along the way, but it was definitely a long-ass day for us! Holly the Wonder Beagle could have turned around and hiked the whole thing again, but we were quite beat by the time we got to the truck.
Ice House Canyon really was a great hike, and if we were in even moderately better condition, I’m sure we would have enjoyed it even more. The canyon itself is beautiful as it follows the creek, and returning via the Chapman Trail gave an entirely different perspective to the hike. Fortunately, you can choose to make this hike as big as you want, by just doing the hike to the saddle, or just to the peak and back, or just the loop to the saddle and Chapman Trail, or do the whole thing like we did.
View Ice House Canyon to Timber Mtn (6-4-11).km in a larger map