7 October 2012
Out and back: Bear Canyon Trail
10,064 feet above sea level with 6,000 feet of elevation gain
About eight hours
Corrina Peipon and Ellen Donnelly
When I was walking on Mount San Gorgonio in September, I decided that I want to do all of the summit trails on four local mountians: Wilson, Baldy, San Jacinto, and San Gorgonio. I had already been to the Mount Baldy summit twice, but I had used the same route both times. This time, we took the Bear Canyon Trail. Starting out right in Baldy Village, the trail snakes through a lovely residential area before making a quick rise over several switchbacks. The scenery changes dramatically after Bear Flat: exposure increases as the thick woods give way to low desert shrubs. The walk gets significantly more difficult from there on out, as well. There were a number of times when I looked up and thought that relief might be just around the bend, and each time, I allowed myself to be deceived. I should know by now that it's never possible to see what really lies ahead. After what felt like hours of inching ever upward over rocky, dusty ground, fighting sharp branches with nothing to look at but a dry, featureless canyon, we were finally rewarded with a view back down over the valley. Boulders and pine trees added welcome dimension and scale to the scenery on the trail, and I felt my energy renewed. Though the trail leveled out slightly for a few hundred yards, it wasn't long before we were walking straight up again, often sliding back on loose rubble. But now and then, a bend in the trail would open out to some gorgeous vista, and we pressed on.
The summit was lousy with people, but there is something nice about seeing everyone up there. The mountain is so big that everyone spreads out over the trails. We only saw about five other people on our way up. I think that's why it's jarring at first to see so many people at the summit. I always wonder where they all came from. But there are three or four routes, and the one we took is probably the least popular. We sat in one of the rock shelters and ate our lunch. As we set out back down the mountain, low clouds started drifting up through the canyon, making the whole landscape even more wonderful.
As we'd worried on the way up, there were a handful of areas that were difficult to navigate on the way back down; there are a few stretches here that could use some maintenance. Back down around 6,000 feet, we crept down the never-ending stretch of switchbacks, covered with talus and lined with sharp branches. My knees were screaming. At one point, I heard Ellen gasp behind me, and her footfalls ceased. I stopped and asked if she was alright. "I'm OK", she said and told me to come take a look at the spider that made her stop in her tracks.
The spider was about four inches long and fuzzy. Maybe a tarantula? It reminded me that we'd seen a baby rattlesnake in the same area on our way up.
When we finally got back to Bear Flats, I was relieved. It was hot on the exposed part of the trail, and I was tired from having to take care with every step. The way up had been hard, but coming down, I realized that there were sheer drop-offs on many parts of the trail. Negotiating the rocky, single-track, poorly graded trail was exhausting. It took just as long for us to descend as it did to ascend, which meant that the overall walk took much longer than I'd anticipated, about eight hours in all. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.