If you’re looking for Fall colors in Southern California and some nice views on a clear day without a ton of work, one great choice is Stoddard Peak below Mount Baldy. We had tried to do this back at the end of March, and while the shaded beginning was enjoyable, and the clear views from the peak were outstanding, way too much of the hike was totally exposed, and on a warm early spring day, a lot of it was not pleasant at all for Colleen or the dog. There were also swarms of little gnats that increased the unpleasantness to the point where we never even made it to the final peak, because some in the hiking party were just no longer in the mood for the relatively difficult path to the summit.
Not having finished the hike to Stoddard Peak annoyed us greatly–especially the fact that we had agreed that if we were to write it up, we would have to call it “Stoddard Peak Ridge”, because we hadn’t actually made it to the peak. So this past week, on a day after a good rain, when it was predicted to be cool and clear, we thought it would be a perfect day to make another attempt to make it to the peak, and for the most part, we were right.
The hike itself is just over 6 miles and just under 1,000 feet in elevation, so it is a nice mid-range trail that will get the blood pumping, but on a cool day, is within reach for anyone with a decent range of fitness and a willingness to do some brush-busting and perhaps a bit of scrambling in the dirt near the end.
If you don’t know how to get to Mount Baldy, what the hell is wrong with you? But if you head on the 210 east, get off on Baseline, turn left, and then turn right at Padua, the first right. Head north up this road past some great houses with river rock fences until you get to Mounty Baldy Road, just before you hit the base of the hill. Turn right, and you’ll shortly begin up the canyon. You’ll go through two old tunnels, and shortly thereafter you’ll see a sign for Barrett-Stoddard Road on the right side. Turn right into the small parking lot if you want to be safe, or go further down the dirt road past the small hydro-electric plant and park there if you feel comfortable (some do, we haven’t). You need to have your National Forest Adventure Pass on display if you don’t want a ticket. We did see some broken auto glass in the parking lot, a vivid reminder never to leave valuables visible in your vehicle when parking at a trailhead.
You start on a short descent (about a third of a mile) down the dirt road past the hydro plant and across the bridge over Baldy Creek, the lowest point (altitude-ally speaking…) of the hike, at about 3687 feet elevation. On a warm day there are some awesome swimming holes and small waterfalls to play in all the way along the creek under the bridge. Some are right under the bridge, but others are more easily reached by following the crumbling remains of Old Baldy Road due south from the parking lot. When we were here in March, there were quite a few people playing and relaxing in the water, but on this chilly November day, the creek was quite empty.
As you head up the old Barrett-Stoddard Road from the bridge, it begins a steady, but not steep, climb that really never stops until near the top–when it actually gets quite steep (see elevation profile below). At the very beginning, you can still hear (and occasionally see) Baldy Creek below, but after a half mile the trail heads east up the mountain, away from the creek.
When we left home in Orange County, we could clearly see the snow on Mount Baldy and the surrounding range, and it looked like it would be a perfect day for clear views. As we got closer, we saw some fog/low clouds in the valley in front of the range, but figured it would burn off. Even when we parked, we had great views of Baldy, and were looking forward to what we’d be able to see from the summit. But shortly after we crossed Baldy Creek, the fog moved in above us, obscuring the peaks we were headed towards, and at some point not too long later, it sat down on top of us, which really brought out the greens and yellows of the foliage in our pictures, but totally eliminated any decent views into the valleys or the neighboring peaks from this point forward. You will be able to see the difference in the quality of the photos between the foggy day and the sunny day in some of the comparisons below, with better long range photos on the sunny day, but better close-ups on the foggy day, without the bright sun washing the colors out.
About this time, you will also cross the county line, leaving Los Angeles, and entering San Bernardino, but the line is unmarked, with no warnings whatsoever that you have entered the 909. Shortly thereafter, you will encounter a dirt road posted as private on the right (stay straight) and a driveway on the left (stay straight) just before you hit a cute little group of cabins right on a couple of creeks that cross the road at about the 3/4 mile mark. Both times we were able to cross the creek and stay dry by rock hopping, and the second crossing even has a little pedestrian bridge on the right side, but it was very narrow and appeared to be overgrown with poison oak (there’s a LOT of poison oak near the water crossings on this hike), so we rock hopped instead.
From here, there is a great tree canopy, and the fall colors were beautiful! A lot of the trees are evergreen, but there were enough colored trees and leaves that stood out brightly amongst the darker greens.
Just shy of the one mile mark you come to a locked gate, intended to prevent motor vehicle traffic. It also says no shooting or hunting beyond that point, but that didn’t concern us today. Walk on past the locked gate and continue up this very shaded section of trail. Enjoy it, especially on a warm day, because it doesn’t last long!
Somewhere around the 1.25 mile mark, you’ll leave the shade and hit another exposed section. You’ll briefly hit another area of shade with another smaller water crossing about a half mile further, but from there is just one more very small spot of shade just before the final climb. On this most recent cool November hike, this wasn’t a big deal at all, and on an early morning hike it probably wouldn’t matter, but on our warm March 31st hike, it really got warm in the afternoon sun and we desperately needed the final shade spot at the 2.5 mile mark for a rest and cool-down before the last stretch.
Exposed does not mean boring, though. On the hot clear day, there were nice views of Mount Baldy and occasional views into the Inland Empire, and into the canyons and meadows below the trail. Even on the foggy day, there are varieties of plants, flowers and rock formations that keep it interesting and relatively scenic throughout.
Shortly after the last shady part, you’ll emerge onto Stoddard Flat, a wide, flat (duh) area. But as the main trail appears to head due south as you come onto the flat, you’ll almost immediately look for a faint, single track trail heading off to your right, up the hill there. The first time we hiked this, we weren’t sure whether that was the right path or not, but a nicely placed geocache we had downloaded happened to be located right there at the junction, and the geocache description confirmed that was the right place to turn (This is the third or fourth time that a well-placed geocache has pointed my the right direction when we weren’t sure where we were going). There are usually some rocks here at the junction as well, and we placed several more there in an attempt to make the turn a bit more obvious.
This is the worst part of the trail, by far. It is much steeper and is very narrow, requiring you to bust through the brush, frequently crashing through bushes on both sides of you as you head uphill. Some of them are quite prickly, and after a rain (as it was in November), it can get you quite wet as well. If you are sensitive to being scratched and scraped, you may want long pants and a long sleeve shirt or jacket for this stretch, even if the weather might otherwise call for shorts. I braved it without, but Colleen chose to don her jacket this time after getting scratched up pretty good last March. Fortunately, you’re only climbing about 100 feet or so in elevation and it is over with pretty quickly.
You will hit two different false summits on the way to the real one. The first one is what you see as you start up the trail through the brambles, but by the time you get to the top of it, you’ll definitely see the next, taller one. The trail along the ridge here between the two minor peaks is quite easy (the trail isn’t well marked, but every little path leads to the same place), and the second false summit has some really nice boulders to relax on. Unfortunately, it is still completely exposed, so on a hot day, it is really, well, hot. And on our March visit, there were swarms of gnats that really made Colleen completely miserable. From here, on a normal day, you can see the actual Stoddard Peak about 1,000 feet away, but on this particular day, we couldn’t see it at all! When you can see it, it really doesn’t look much higher than the peak you’re on, really maybe only 20 feet or so, but getting there can be a bit tricky.
There is no obvious easy way to get to Stoddard Peak. Both require a bit of tricky scrambling down a fairly steep piece of sandy ground. This is where we quit in March, as Colleen and the dog had reached their fill of heat and gnats, and I wasn’t certain that the rest of the trail to Stoddard Peak wasn’t all difficult, so we just turned around here, within sight of our goal.
This time I tried a lower path to get from the 2nd peak to Stoddard Peak, but it was just as messy as the higher trail I found. But feeling fresher than we did in March, neither were as intimidating as they seemed back then, and we all forged on through. Once you get past the first drop from the second peak, the rest of the trail was really quite easy, so we were really kicking ourselves for not having insisted on completing the hike last time.
You’ll know you’ve reached the true peak when you see the metal summit sign, and a few feet away there are a pair of cans protecting a peak log/journal covered by some rocks. In March, there would have been a grand view, but as you can see, we couldn’t see a damn thing on this particular day. But we did rest a while on the boulders there before heading back down the mountain.
Climbing back up to that second peak wasn’t nearly as difficult as climbing down from it, and while the steep climb back through the brush required some careful foot placement to avoid slipping, once we were done with that, the rest of the hike back was a breeze.
In March, we took the time to rest again for a bit at that first/last shady spot a half mile or so from the summit, because we knew it was going to be a while before the next one. In fact, I wound up carrying our dog for part of it until the next shade and water crossing, because while she can do a 13 mile hike on a good day, she does not dig hot and exposed hikes at all.
This time, it wasn’t an issue, as the temperature was perfect for hiking, somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees. And as we feared, sitting at the peak, as we started on down the hill, the fog started to lift! We began getting nice views of the valley and Mt. Baldy Rd. below, and even some views of the Inland Empire from the trail.
As we returned to the parking lot, the clouds and fog cleared almost entirely, so we snapped a few pictures of the summit (and the two false summits) we had just climbed, and grumbled about how nice the view probably was now…
We frequently have trouble with our knees on the way down mountains and hills, but most of this trail has a moderate enough slope that it really didn’t bother us like it usually does, again, making it a nice option for folks who don’t do a whole lot of hiking. We thought that for someone that hardly hikes at all and has bad knees who just wants to see some decent fall foliage, you could really park the car by the bridge at Baldy Creek, and just walk the mile or so past the cabins to just past the locked gate and turn around, hitting the best parts of the hike. And if you’re really in bad shape or just hate hiking/walking at all, you could even probably drive all the way to the locked gate and just walk around through the wooded part for a bit and snap a few photos, as long as you weren’t afraid to drive through some shallow water crossings, but there isn’t anywhere to park for any length of time up there.
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