20 August 2014

Mountain Row: Manzanita Trail

Angeles National Forest

Locate the trailhead.


DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3

(Day 1 of 2 3) From Islip Saddle to Vincent Gap, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs along five named peaks, two of them over 9000 feet. The section can be made into a loop using the Manzanita Trail, part of the High Desert National Scenic Trail, that drops from Vincent Gap down the north side of the mountains and the South Fork Trail that drops similarly from Islip Saddle to meet at South Fork Campground. This loop is around 24 miles. Water can be found reliably at Little Jimmy Spring. I want to do it as a leisurely backpacking trip with plenty of peak time, but the lack of a second reliable water source along the stretch of peaks does not seem to support that. The weather is predicted to be hotter the second day, so it seems a good idea to do the lower section first. There is also a 20% chance of thunderstorms in the area.

As I arrive at Vincent Gap a little later than desired and with not quite enough light to get in the miles I want, the clouds overhead do look like 20% chance of thunderstorm clouds. A ranger doing some routine maintenance for the trailhead parking feels the need to quiz me on them as I pack up, chucking out nearly all my rain gear except a half pound waterproof jacket. There was a recent severe rain in the area, but it was an anomaly and does not look like it will be repeating in the next 48 hours. I am keeping warm with synthetics with their own water protection and are overkill for an area that will not drop below 50°F, so falling water is not my worry. Drinking water is my worry, so I grab one 2.4L bag for the hike and another for the possible camping before the spring.

The trail is on the other side of the road where two roads also start. One road drops down for a similar route as mine while the other climbs. To either side of the roads, there are trails. The PCT climbs up to the east marked by a post with a crest on a post while my trail drops down to the west marked only by a break in the fence. It drops steeply initially, but is in good shape after that. There seems to be an Adopt-a-Trail program since there is a sign telling me what volunteer organization is in charge of this one right after the steep drop.

trail through Jeffery pines
Descending a well worn trail through wonderfully scented Jeffery pines.

red berries looking ripe
Berries along the trail.


There are frequent washes, some with a car or a trailer mostly buried in the gravel. High up the steep hillside, cars can be heard at infrequent intervals. Much of the trail does not seem like a good place to be caught in a flash flood, so I keep an eye on the building clouds behind me. It is not long before I come upon the first water of the route when above the marked Icy Springs. There is a rather good stream of water coming down the hillside suggesting that there is an excellent, but unmarked, spring somewhere above.

prickly poppy
A prickly poppy with its seed pods. I have been looking for one with seed pods to compare and these are very different from the Matilija's pods.

water coming down the steep slope
Somewhere above is an excellent spring to be giving this nice flow of water. A nice flow is enough to easily gather for drinking.

The pine trees get sparse as I slowly drop down. Scrub oaks and chaparral take over with some tiny cactus in thick patches. The trail crosses one huge wash in Dorr Canyon and is marked by a huge beam pounded into the ground in the middle. Today, it is easy to follow it through. The drop is not steady, and the trail keeps climbing a little to enter small side canyons that hide it from the surrounding roads. The road across the canyon only has one car along it while I am hiking the trail, but this still helps make it a more pleasant hiking location.

oaks along the trail
Wandering into a short side canyon that parallels the main canyon for a short way.

mushroom topped post
A mushroom topped post of at least 8" square helps mark the trail through a large wash.

cactus at the edge of the large wash
A small cactus enjoys a view of the wash below.

The rocks seem to change a little as I drop into the next little side canyon. There are a couple of large outcrops sticking out of the canyon wall, red and round. This is followed by an unsigned trail marked with an arch of wood climbing up from a complex of tepees down by the road at the camp at Paradise Springs. Further down, there is another trail to Paradise Springs, and an abandoned road heading upward somewhere. The trail climbing back up and out can be seen on the other side of the canyon.

getting down into the desert
Getting down into the San Andres Rift Zone and the desert by an outcrop of odd rocks.

switchbacks climbing the other side of the valley
Switchbacks mark where the trail climbs back up after South Fork Campground.

mountain side
A look up the steep slope into the wilderness at a narrow canyon.

The trail drops the last few hundred feet in a few quick switchbacks just like the ones seen on the other side of South Fork. There are two cars parked in the campground and Rock Creek's south fork looks very dry.

carved pieces on a tree
I seem to be seeing faces in the trees.

South Fork Campground
South Fork Campground.

Across the campground, there are two signs set at right angles with arrows pointing the same direction. It is rather confusing, to say the least. There should be a junction, but it is not entirely clear from the map that it is at the campground or off one of the other trails that just branched off. The trail is marked with crests for the PCT since it has been rerouted to here for a few years now. Very few actually do the reroute, since it is about 20 miles to go around 2. Most just walk along the road. I think I would take Pleasant View Ridge, which gets some Hundred Peaks Section (HPS) traffic and is reported to be very passable. This trail promptly enters into the Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness rather than continuing on the edge although there does seem to be another coming in from another spot in the campground as well. Time to start climbing.

signs at the start of the trail
Heading out of South Fork.

trail passing another cactus with fruit
Climbing again.

switchbacks climb the other side of South Fork
Looking back at the trail I just came down.

The trail climbs for a bit, then travels along. It is generally good, but there is a washed out spot that looks scary as I approach, but much less so as I cross it. Just after this spot, there is a sign for the wildlife sanctuary in Devil's Punchbowl County Park. I had thought it traveled above the park. The trail is high and narrow for a bit, but then I lose my elevation again, dropping into an area that is popular for camping. There seems to be no water here. There is a somewhat forlorn looking backpacker stopping at it, but I do not have time to stop and chat.

Holcomb Canyon
Looking up Holcomb Canyon.

a camp and rocks and sycamore trees
There is evidence of water in the canyon, but nothing accessible.

The trail up again stands out on the light rocks because it is held together by dark brown metal for long stretches. There is even some fencing to help keep the weary traveler from falling and a bar across the end of a switchback that edges up to a cliff. At the top, there is a trail down and signs indicating my trail and it. I keep on climbing. There are good views into the Devil's Punchbowl, but every bit of elevation I gain, I seem to lose again. Mile markers every half mile seem to help spur me on.

signs above the punchbowl
Nice big signs for two of three directions, anyway.

mountains to the south are quite normal
The mountains to the south.

tortured layers of rock exposed to the air
The Devil's Punchbowl is a feature that is easily recognised from any place in the surrounding land where it is visible.

mile posts for each half mile
Mile posts mark the trail and the distance.

The sign at the next junction sets off a huge alarm bell that sets off the ringing of all the others that were quieted by a sign that apparently showed the direction of the trail I want to be following. It tells me it is 6.2 miles up to Burkhart Saddle, the point at which my preferred PCT reroute joins the official reroute just a few miles from the official trail. The sign indicating the direction of the South Fork Trail was actually indicating a destination, although it contained no mileage. This sign also tells me the full magnitude of my mistake. It is 5.8 miles back to South Fork Campground. I could just keep on going and take Pleasant View Ridge back to where I should be, or I could turn back. The first is very tempting and looks to be only a few miles further, but I really will need water along the way. I feel reasonably confident about finding water in Little Rock Creek since both Cooper and Buckhorn Canyons flow with spring water. It is another 3 miles each way to get that water. With the uncertainty of water and the cross country route, plus I did not mention this as a possible route to those who have my plans, I end up turning back.

big and furry tarantula
A tarantula walking the other direction along the trail.

more punchbowl view
Another view of the Devil's Punchbowl.

It is getting just dark enough to need a lamp as I get back to the junction with what is actually a short spur to a viewpoint. It seems like a good time to pause for a meal. Then, with a great deal of tired and the thought that I am here anyway, I might as well see this Devil's Chair, besides there is a beautiful flat spot right over there, I make the attempt to get some sleep.

Continue reading: day 2




©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 28 August 2014

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