Mt. Baldy! Time for some high country hiking at its best. When I went to bed on Saturday night I had not picked out a hike for Sunday yet. But somewhere in that netherworld between sleep and consciousness, I chose Old Baldy. It’s been three years since my last ascent, so I figured it was time to pay the grand summit a visit. And I had good hikes under my feet in recent weeks, so I felt I was in condition enough.
Rising 10,064 feet into the sky, massive Mt. San Antonio stands as the crown of the San Gabriels. There are several routes ascending its lofty heights. I decided on Ski Hut Trail, my favorite approach. And if I have time and energy, I’d like to wander over to West Baldy, a summit I’ve not yet conquered.
I arise early Sunday morning, gather my stuff, and make the 40-minute drive to Manker Flats below the Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts. Dozens and dozen of cars are parked at the trailhead. My car thermometer reads 60 degrees. I reach for my sunglasses and they bust in my hand. I reach into the glove box and my other ones aren’t there. Now what? Typical of this hike, there is lots of bright sun reflecting off rock; there is no way to ascend Baldy without eye protection. So I throw the pieces of my sunglasses into my pack and figure if I can repair them with tape from my first aid kit at the ski hut, I’d continue my ascent. If not, I’d turn back and try another day.
8:00 AM - Begin hike (6160'). The walk along the paved road is a nice way to get warmed up. The canyon is still mostly in shadows. After rounding the bend I can see my destination high up San Antonio Canyon. The green ski hut looks no bigger than a Monopoly house perched on the mountainside. I pass San Antonio Falls, which is still flowing but not as showy as when fed by snow melt. Road is dirt now.
8:22 - Reach subtle junction to Mt. Baldy Bowl Trail, popularly called Ski Hut Trail. It amazes me that such a popular trail to a significant peak doesn’t even warrant a sign. I begin climbing the steep, single track footpath and at 8:27 I sign the register. My pace is deliberately slow and in low gear; I want to give my body the best opportunity to perform well today. The narrow trail bends north and cuts across the steep canyon slope. The sun is now shining on the shire walls across the canyon. Other hikers, the first of many, pass me heading up. A line of haze obscures the distant valleys to the south. My destination appears far away. I climb higher and higher. The scenery is magnificent. As I cross the stream the ski hut is imminent. Stop to photograph some Indian paint brush and Bigelow's sneezeweed.
9:58 - Sierra Club San Antonio Ski Hut. This is always a nice place to rest. I’d like to stay here some time. The views are absolutely amazing. Sitting on a splendid log bench, I go to work with surgical precision to repair my sun classes. After about 25 minutes and several feet of first aid tape, the repair is complete, howbeit, really ugly.
10:40 - Leave the ski hut, cross the stream, and begin my westward traverse along the jumble of fractured boulders at the base of Baldy Bowl. Photos can’t capture the stunning scale of my surrounds. I chat with a man and women from Orange County who are making their first ascent of Old Baldy. Reach the section of trees at 10:56 and begin climbing the canyon’s west wall. The trail degenerates into a web of use paths carving up the steep mountainside. It’s ridiculously steep. It amazes me, given the huge popularity of this route, that a real trail isn’t built here. Trees provide welcome shade. Stop to chat some more.
11:35 - Ridge (8800') - Take a planned break and have a snack. Talk with a gentleman who is a member of a search and rescue team. He has a handsome service dog getting a workout on the trail. Begin the ridge climb at 12:05. The route starts moderately but soon begins to climb like a home-sick angel. Manzanita carpets the slopes accented by tall pine and fir. The scenery is spectacular and the sky a deep blue. The air temperature is not bad but the sun is warm. My pace is turtle-slow as I chug up the crazy steep ridge. Hikers coming and going. The massive south ridge of West Baldy dominates the west skyline.
12:40 - Reach a spur trail and wander 100 feet over to the edge of Baldy Bowl. Looking over the edge makes my feet tingle. In some ways the views from here are far more breathtaking than from the summit. I get out my iPhone and am amazed I have reception. Call my wife and upload a photo to Facebook. Almost feel guilty for being so high-tech in such a ruggedly beautiful setting. Resume at 1:05. Trail mellows out briefly before starting to be crazy steep again. At 1:22 I take another side jaunt for more stunning views into the bowl. The hut is a tiny green dot far below. In another 5 minutes I pass a mini-bowl, a recessed section which would make a good campsite. The route now transitions to the broad apron skirting Baldy’s summit. I continue at a turtle’s pace meandering through patches of manzanita. My excitement builds as I inch closer to the summit.
1:57 - Mt. Baldy summit (10,064')! Wow, I’m always impressed with the grandeur of this mountain! About 30 people here. Haze rests on the 360-degree horizon. Weather is perfect. Slight breeze. I chat with the man and women from O.C.--Randy and Kathy. A seven-year-old boy is there with his father. What an accomplishment for such a little guy. My original intent was to stay briefly then hike over to West Baldy, but I linger, soaking in the extraordinary panorama. Hikers come and go. I wander around the bald summit and take pics from different perspectives. As the time approaches 3:00, I debate if I should hike to West Baldy or not. You know, it’s never going to get any easier or more convenient!
West Baldy (9988') is on the left, Mt. Baden-Powell (9399') is in the middle, and Pine Mt. (9648') is on the right.
3:00 - Leave Baldy summit and head west. The trail skirts along the south side of the ridge en route to the saddle between Baldy and West Baldy. I scout the terrain looking for a way to bypass climbing Baldy’s summit on my return. I feel a little excitement as I’m on ground I’ve never covered before. At 3:12 I reach the saddle and begin my summit climb. It’s not bad. I survey the views in all directs to appreciate the varied landscape.
3:20 - West Baldy (9988') - Wow! Great views, better than Baldy in some respects. A rock cluster makes a perfect place to sit. I snack, study the map, and soak in the panorama. One of the grandest summits in the San Gabriels, and I have it all to myself! Hikers on Baldy look like ants. I stroll over to the west edge to get striking views into the East Fork San Gabriel River. The mountains to the west form a picturesque array of textured blue silhouettes in the late afternoon sun. Note to self: Spend the night up here in clear weather!
3:50 - Leave West Baldy and arrive at the saddle in 6 minutes. Along the way I’ve been eyeballing a tangent that would cut across Baldy’s south apron to descend directly to the trail. I see no establish path but an off-trail route looks quite doable. I weave through patches of manzanita and am careful not to descend too steeply so that I don’t undershoot the trail. The plan works nicely and I intersect the trail just above the mini-bowl. Minutes later I reach the mini-bowl and stroll over to the edge of Baldy Bowl for another view. Spectacular scenery! Continue down the ridge, navigating the steep, rough web of paths with care. Hardly anyone now on the trail and I’m feeling some solitude.
5:02 - Reach the ridge junction (8800'). Sit and have a snack. Leave at 5:15 and begin the steep descent east into the canyon, now mostly in shade. Cross the base of Baldy Bowl and arrive at the ski hut at 5:45. A group of hikers ask if I heard someone calling for help. I hadn’t. Soon a helicopter appears overhead and for the next 30 minutes the chopper noise provides the soundtrack for the hike. My legs are weary now and I’m ready to be done. My steps are slow. The lighting is very different. Only 11 people signed the register for the day. Arrive at road at 7:12, finally. Enjoy a casual stroll down. The setting sun creates a picturesque scene toward the valley below.
7:35 - Done. Yahooo! What an amazing 11 ½ hours. It’s 74 degrees. There’s only about 8 cars left. I’m so ready to be home in the shower.
Epilog - Spectacular day of hiking! Magnificent scenery, wonderful weather, a challenging trail, some adventure, and two grand summits. Mt. Baldy lives up to its place as the crown of the San Gabriels. And adding West Baldy to the day was an added bonus.
See Introducing Mt. Baldy and Mt. Baldy hike descriptions at Dan's Hiking Pages