See Icehouse Canyon to Icehouse Saddle hike description at Dan's Hiking Pages
The San Gabriels’ eastern high country called to me again, this time to a summit I’ve not yet conquered: Bighorn Peak (8441’). It does not get as much attention as its taller neighbors, Cucamonga Peak (8859’) to the southeast and Ontario Peak (8693’) to the west. But I’ve had my eye on it for years.
I’ve long pondered attacking Bighorn by climbing straight up the ridge from Icehouse Saddle. And after last week’s climb up Register Ridge, I was feeling ambitious to do another rigorous, unconventional climb. Last year when I was at Icehouse Saddle I did some exploring around the slope but did not find any clear route. I’ve not found any write-ups for it, but the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks Section did mention that it is doable and one of the climbing archive reports mentioned climbing it, but with little detail, and 10 years ago. The topography does not appear to be unreasonably steep, but my main concern was the thick blanket of manzanita. And with an elevation gain of 860 feet, I had to realize that it was like climbing from the Baldy/Hardwood saddle to Baldy’s summit, only with 160 feet more and no trail. But I was ready for the challenge.
With the blazing temperatures for this weekend, I knew I would need an early start to beat the heat. My alarm woke me at 4:00 and off I headed to Icehouse Canyon. There were only a few cars in the parking lot (in the daytime it’s usually packed). The car thermometer read 74 degrees...not cool.
5:30 AM - Start hike at Icehouse Canyon (4900’). It’s still dark and the constellation Orion shines brightly above. A flashlight is necessary to guide my steps. This first mile is one of my favorite sections of the trail with its streamside charm, but this morning I can only imagine it in the dark. Reach Chapman Trail junction (1.0 mi.) at 5:59. I don’t need the flashlight any longer, but it’s still too dark for decent pictures. Shortly I cross the creek and arrive at the boundary to Cucamonga Wilderness (1.8 mi.) at 6:20. I keep pressing on.
At 6:24 I see the first rays of sun landing on West Baldy’s south ridge to the west. I love watching a new day emerge. I am aware that I’m the only one on the trail, a rarity in Icehouse Canyon. I contemplate the possibility of arriving at Icehouse Saddle without encountering a single person. Cross Telegraph Wash, hit the 2-mile post at 6:39, and begin the steep section climbing the north slope. The trail condition is much better here. Pass Columbine Spring at 6:48 and start the switchbacks. Shortly a lone hiker catches and passes me. My solitude streak is broken, but oh well, it’s still quite peaceful. At 7:13 I pass the upper junction to Chapman Trail (3.0 mi.). Only 0.6 mile to go. Views toward Baldy open up and I reflect on last week’s adventure sitting on the rim of Baldy Bowl. I press the pace with hopes of reaching the saddle by the two-hour mark.
7:30 - Icehouse Saddle (7580’) (3.6 mi.). I step into my first sun of the morning. It’s not breezy yet. The lone hiker sits resting. We chat briefly. He leaves as two more hikers arrive. After I look around the saddle, one of the hikers asks if I’m Dan. They are big fans of Dan’s Hiking Pages. James and Bob are hiking the Three Tees today. It’s good they got an early start. Other hikers arrive. I think I’m procrastinating my adventure climb. Leave the saddle at 8:10.
I walk up Ontario Peak Trail about 100 yards and find a spot to begin my climb. It’s steep with loose footing and I am picking my route though thick patches of manzanita. I’m hoping it gets better because 860 feet of this would be quite taxing. I see no human-made paths, but evidence of bighorn sheep is abundant. I follow a bighorn path as it leaves the ridge taking a tangent to the right on the slope of a wash. I soon realize that this route is not going where I need to go. I turn east and start a steep, rugged climb back to the ridge. At 8:46 I achieve the ridge again. This is certainly the better route and the brush has thinned out. I sit on a log and enjoy some food. As I continue, views open up east to Etiwanda and Cucamonga peaks. The route is somewhat steep but quite decent, although I’m negotiating some deadfalls from the fire years ago. I get excited as I see the ridge mellowing out as it gets closer to the top.
9:21 - Ridge junction intersecting the ridge coming up the Cucamonga/Bighorn saddle. Wow, this is great! Views open south to the human sprawl. Cucamonga Peak looms to the southeast. The route bends west and follows the rocky ridge. The rugged landscape is stunning. I enjoy soaking it in. This is bighorn sheep country, so I tread gently and slowly and hope to encounter the herd.
9:38 - Bighorn Peak (8441’). What a splendid peak! Sweeping views in all directions from the nearly treeless summit are amazing. It’s warm now. Haze murkies up the vast human sprawl to the south with Saddleback poking up on the distant horizon. This is a great vantage point to view Mt. Baldy and its surrounds. I sit in the warm sun on a comfortable log and sign the peak register. As I enjoy the quite solitude I think about the multitudes who will assault Old Baldy today. I have cell reception so I call my wife and upload a photo to Facebook. I decide for my return to head west and descend through Kelly Camp.
10:20 - Leave Bighorn Peak. Shortly I stray off trail to explore an impressive outcropping of rocks hanging on the steep southern mountainside. Continue on but can’t find the trail. Found it but lost it again. As the trails drops into a saddle choked with brush, the route disappears. I ponder a shortcut down Delker Canyon but decide to stick with the plan. The ridge steeply climbs to a high bump (8210’) but I follow what I think is the trail around the northern flank. Trail disappears again. This is turning out to be more of an adventure than my cross-country climb to Bighorn Peak. I climb the steep slope and finally find the trail which descends to the ridge. The scenery is amazing. Fluffy white clouds begin to gather to the north.
11:17 - Junction with Ontario Peak Trail. I’m back on familiar territory as I was here a year ago en route to Ontario Peak. Turn hard right and take the descending trail. Views are open as the trail meanders through an area that was incinerated years ago. Soon I arrive in welcome shade.
11:38 - Kelly Camp. No one here. I wander over to the spring and sit and eat. Leave Kelly at 12:12 for the 1.0 mile descent to Icehouse Saddle. Scenery is still wonderful. Thunder clouds gathering over Baldy cast interesting shadows on the mountain. I pass a ravine (Delker Canyon) that appears that would have made a good shortcut from the ridge coming down from Bighorn. I explore a spur ridge on the left.
12:57 - Icehouse Saddle. A couple large groups are leaving. The breeze is warm. I mosey north up Three Tees Trail for a couple hundred yards to get a view of my route up Bighorn Peak. Leave the saddle at 1:05 at an earnest pace taking advantage of the good trail here. It’s hot now and I’m glad it’s downhill. Stop at Columbine Spring and get some more water. Pass the 2-mile post at 1:55, cross Telegraph Wash, photograph some metamorphic rock, and arrive at the wilderness boundary at 2:11. Sit and enjoy the shade while having a snack. I’m amazed to see several hikers dragging themselves up the trail en route to the saddle. Why would anybody punish themselves like that in the blistering heat? Continue on and am glad to reach the streamside section with shade and the refreshing sounds of the creek. A Boy Scout troop comes plodding up the trail. I ask where they are heading and an adult leader says the saddle. Not to meddle, but it seems to me that it is a regrettable lack of judgment to inflict such punishment on these boys. Scouting is supposed help boys fall in love with hiking. None of these kids or adults look like they are enjoying themselves in the sweltering heat.
My 4GB memory card reaches capacity. So the section I walked in the dark this morning won’t get photographed today. Oh well. I pass Chapman Trial junction at 3:53. My pace is slow on the rocky trail. Even though I love the incredible beauty of Icehouse Canyon, I always dread the descent because of the poor trail surface for much of way. For me, it makes footing tedious and laborious. The streamside stroll is pleasant. Various ones are enjoying playing in the cool stream. I’m dreaming of a cool shower and cold Coke.
3:24 - Done. Parking lot is still quite full. My car thermometer reads 93 degrees.
Epilog - Another amazing day of hiking in the San Gabriels’ high country! Incredible scenery! Conquering a new peak and doing it the “hard way” is most satisfying. I thoroughly enjoyed the surprising amount of solitude. I didn’t encounter one person in my 5-hour loop from the Icehouse Saddle to the peak and back to the saddle. And there were very few people on my descent from the saddle. I climbed more than 3,600 feet covering 9.5 miles...a most respectable workout. I am so thankful for the ability to hike these wonderful mountains.
See my blog post: Ontario Peak Hike - August 21-22, 2010
See Icehouse Canyon to Icehouse Saddle hike description at Dan's Hiking Pages