Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pine Mountain and Dawson Peak Hike - October 29, 2011

View south from Pine Mt. toward Dawson Peak and Mt. BaldyVisit my photo album for this hike

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After climbing Mt. Baldy from the south, east, and west this summer, I figured it was time to climb it from the north approach over Pine and Dawson from Blue Ridge. I hooked up with my new friend Don and off we went. We had planned to leave my house in Azusa at 5:30 AM but that got delayed until 7:30. We headed east then north through the Cajon Pass, west through Wrightwood, then started our drive on Blue Ridge Road (3N26). It was recommended that high-clearance vehicles be used on the rough road, so Don’s big four-wheel-drive pick-up served us well. After 7.2 miles of back-roading we arrived at the trailhead for the North Backbone Trail, aka The Other Devils Backbone. The pointed summit of Pine Mt. loomed high above us to the south.

View south toward the steep section10:03 AM – Begin hike under beautiful sunny skies with a chilly breeze. A sign indicates that we are entering Sheep Mountain Wilderness, in which we will spend the entire hike. A trio of young backpackers are a few minutes ahead of us. The trial begins at an elevation of 8240’ and steeply drops 130 vertical feet to a saddle then begins a climb of 1,500 vertical feet to Pine Mountain. This rugged high country is stunningly beautiful. Massive Mt. Baden-Powell looms to our west. Looking back toward the trailhead, we notice a large group of hikers beginning down the trail. Razor-like sections of the trail that drop steeply to both sides bear resemblance to Devils Backbone Trail. Mature pine and fir dominate the landscape. We catch up with the three backpackers and I am recognized by Eric, who emailed me awhile back with questions about this trail. They are heading to Baldy Ski Lifts.

The steep, rocky section of North Backbone TrailWe climb up and over a bump in the ridge (8555’) and face a really steep section with jagged rocks and loose footing. We are sharing the trail now with the large group as we negotiate this dicey section requiring hands and feet. Cross another razor section and meet the leader of the group. They are from OC Hiking Club. The topography widens out some as the trail climbs the northwest face of Pine Mt.

View west from Pine Mt.11:38 - Pine Mountain (9648’)—second highest peak in the San Gabriels. I’m a little puzzled in that the topo map shows the trail skirting along the west flank 200 vertical feet below the summit. I did not see any trail bearing to the right, rather, the trail led us directly to the top. The group from OC Hiking Club are enjoying lunch. There are great views south, west and north while views toward the northeast and east are obscured by trees—perhaps the reason for the name, Pine Mt. The huge mass of Mt. Baldy dominates the view south. Tiny figures can be seen on its summit and climbing its east ridge. We notice that the portion of our summit to the east is a little higher so we wander over there and find the summit register among the rocks of the horseshoe-shaped wind barrier. We sign the register and soon the others join us in signing in. They leave and we explore the summit some more. Meet up with Eric and company.

View west from the south ridge of Pine Mt.Leave the summit at 12:27 heading due south. The trail soon gets steep and it drops straight down the ridge. I never did detect any route coming in from the west as shown on the maps (USGS topo and Harrison map). As we descend I ponder having to climb this steep route back. The large, broad summit of Dawson Peak to the southeast invites us to climb it. As we approach the saddle, low brush nearly envelops the trail and nastily scratches the legs. Trail maintenance anyone?

12:41 - Pine/Dawson saddle (9151’). Now we start a climb of 424 vertical feet. In a few minutes we pass the junction (9200’) of Dawson Peak Trail heading west to Fish Fork. Soon the trail mellows out as it begins to climb the arm extending northwest from the summit. The scenery is stunning. Trees are gnarled from the harsh winters. Dark gray flagstone covers the ground.

Don Approaching Dawson Peak
The ridge descending from Dawson to the Dawson/Baldy saddle is in full view now. The climb to Baldy looks intimidating. Our trail passes along the west flank 80 vertical feet below Dawson’s summit. We almost miss the faint path that veers left toward the summit approaching from the south.

View south toward Mt. Baldy from Dawson Peak1:17 - Dawson Peak (9575’)—third highest peak in the San Gabriels. I think about my friend Keith Dawson—his grandfather, Ernest Dawson (1882-1947), was the one who this peak was named after. Mr. Dawson founded Dawson's Bookstore (1905) and was an influential early member of the Sierra Club. The broad, rounded summit is mostly bald with views in all directions except east. A remnant of the group from OC Hiking Club linger about but soon leave. As we have a bite to eat we evaluate our options. Our goal for the day was to climb Mt. Baldy, but we decide that it’s too late in the day now to continue. We don’t want to risk of running out of daylight and particularly navigating the precipitous rocky section in the dark. And the night-time temps will drop toward the 30s. Good judgment wins out. I console myself that in spite of not reaching Baldy, we conquered the second and third highest peaks in the San Gabriels today. That’s a respectable accomplishment. A gentleman from Australia arrives and we visit. I explore around the summit.

Leave the summit at 2:20 continuing south. We figured we would at least head down toward the Dawson/Baldy saddle before turning back. I’m loving the breathtaking scenery of this grand high country. At 2:47 we decide we have descended far enough, maybe 250 vertical feet above the saddle. We pause for a few minutes and then begin our climb back. At 3:17 we pass the junction to Dawson summit and begin the mild descent traversing Dawson's southwest flank. At 3:37 we reach the Dawson/Pine saddle and take a refreshment break before the last steep climb of the day. We pass through the nasty brush getting our legs scratched up again. The climb is steep and the cool breeze feels good. The Mt. Wilson country to the distant west stands as hazy blue silhouettes. We keep pressing on. We still don’t see any trail skirting the peak’s west flank as shown on the maps. Our route leads straight to the summit.

Don and Dan on Pine Mt.4:18 - Pine Mt., again. The vast Mojave Desert spans the north horizon. We linger for a few minutes soaking in our final moments on this splendid peak then begin our descent. It’s quite cool now. The lighting is very different than this morning.

View south on North Backbone Trail
The steep, rocky section is more difficult to climb down than up. Reach the saddle and begin our final ascent of 130 vertical feet to the trailhead.

5:43 - Finish Hike. We’re done, 20 minutes before sunset. It was a good decision to not continue to Baldy.

Epilog - What a thoroughly enjoyable day of hiking—Sunshine, blue skies, fall temperatures, amazing scenery, two commanding peaks, a splendid route, about 6 miles round trip, 3,000 feet in total elevation gain, and great company! icon

Visit my photo album for this hike on Google+ - featuring 82 photos with captions

Visit Dan’s Hiking Pages


  1. Ever since I was in Boy Scouts (back in the 70's) I've eyed this route. One of these days...

    Thanks for the tour!

  2. With the final days of winter upon us, there's no better time to take a look at some videos of the cutest animals tumbling in various winter wonderlands.