17 September 2017

Cucamonga Wild: Middle Fork

San Bernardino National Forest


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DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3

It is beginning to look a little cooler out there and I decided I would brave the weather down south, at least up high in the San Gabriel Mountains. There are plenty of peaks up around Icehouse Saddle that I have not bagged yet and it is an extra nice hike, so I decided I would do that. I also have a memory of one early May many years ago when I came out to backpack up Icehouse Saddle and out to one of the two campsites within two miles of it, however when we got to the ranger station, we were told that the trail was mostly clear up to the saddle, but everything else was under two feet of snow. It is funny how a lurking memory of unrealized planning can motivate one. Still, in the name of going for something new, I decided to come up to Icehouse Saddle from the east instead of the west. In researching that route, I found that someone has put two night caches along the trail between Third Crossing and Commanche. That is quite a curiosity, so I planned to be getting to Third Crossing around dark to try to find those.

It is a little harder to get up to Icehouse from the east than the west. For either way, a permit is required to enter the Cucamonga Wilderness even for day hiking. On the west, day hikers can use a self issue system, but I believe backpackers must get something from the ranger station which is only open on weekends until 3:30 PM. On the east side, permits must come from the ranger station, but it is open Thursday through Monday until 4:30 PM, so it is easier to find the ranger station open. Once the permit is obtained, the road is difficult to find. I saw South Fork as I entered Scotland, but not Middle Fork. Coming back, I did find it. It looks like an ally serving about four homes and the sign is up against some bushes so that it cannot be seen going the other way, but it was the next one after South Fork. This road is generally a very nice road at the moment, but it has a couple spots that are so bad the ranger coming out felt the need to stop me to tell me it would be a very bad idea to drive up in my car up and I would have to park in a lot off to the side just past a gate which is only about a half mile up. She also noted that they had had to tow out a Mercedes "with like four inches of clearance like you've got" that hit the oil pan and bled out until the engine seized. Oh, and once I do get up the road, it is still two miles further on this trail than the one from the west to get to the saddle.

I got up to the little lot, only about a half mile in and more than 1.5 miles short of the trailhead, and continued on. After all, the road was still looking quite good. Well, there are quite a few sharp rocks that do not look healthy for my tires, but one can generally avoid them. A bit more than a quarter mile later, it did not look so good at all. It looked downright nasty with plenty of parking at the side in a big turnout, so I parked and started walking. Three brown lines on the road told the tale of the exact route the Mercedes had taken.

Middle Fork
Looking downstream along the Middle Fork.

wide wash and misty mountain layers
Looking upstream and into the sun and the mountains. There is a thin stream of water coming down that wide wash below.



big, hairy spider
Some wildlife on the road. Tarantulas should be starting to make a lot of appearances in the coming months.

Then after 1.35 miles walking, I turned around and read a sign. It said, "No overnight parking next 3 miles." Great. So I walked right back the way I came and I plotted. There were two particularly bad spots, one that would require a short wheel base and tight turning radius to get through with my clearance, but there was a line that I should be able to take and not suffer the fate of the Mercedes. Besides, I actually have six inches of clearance which is half again as much as four. When trying to make someone worry about whether they can really get up a road, never lowball their clearance. Every inch counts. So I drove it up. I missed the line where it counted most, wished I had power to offer to the rear tires in a couple spots, but I got it to the top and was not leaking any oil. The mighty Scion wins again. For now. There is still getting down to look forward to.

blasted sign, better sign, trash can, and getting late
Middle Fork Trailhead.

This being San Bernardino, they have decided to require an Adventure Pass to park. They have got together signs to say so, trash service, bathrooms, interpretive signs, and a picnic table at the trailhead. They do seem to be missing the legal free parking within a quarter of a mile, at least for overnight users, but there is a nice big turnout back there for day users. Anyway, I have that covered for this trip. I had a nice chat with a somewhat local who came up on his motorcycle and indicated that he felt my car was much safer up here than down in the other lot due to some local meth addicted tent city denizens in and around Scotland. I have no idea of the accuracy of his information, but already being up here, I was definitely going to stay. After all that, it is getting quite late and I still have almost four miles to hike to get to the camp on my permit.

miles to everything
Trail sign. The elevations are nice, but more useful if there is one for here, too. It is also about 2000 feet climb.

Starting out, the trail climbs. After a bit, it splits, one side going down to Stone House and the other staying high. A line of rocks goes across the lower trail as if discouraging travel that way. I plan to come back that way when I will have more light to look over the namesake and stay high for now, so I take the suggestion. There are some thinning spots, but mostly the trail is good. It drops again as the lower trail rejoins just before the wilderness boundary. It is already getting dark, so I still will not be seeing much of this route that is new to me.

blurry, bad photo
A jumble of big rocks in a wide wash and steep hill sides, but not looking all that interesting.

My light lights the trail, but not much else. Eventually, there is a spot that looks like trail might continue up along the creek, but now it goes down and crosses. A little investigation and I find that it really does although the crossing is awkward. On the other side are a few fire rings and flat spots. It may be the first crossing for me, but this is Third Crossing. Finding the way through a camp that is basically on trail can be hard enough in the daylight, but it really takes some doing in the dark. Mostly out of a sense that the trail is taking a corner here, I manage to find something that goes a little further and follow it. It gradually turns back into something that looks like a traveling trail.

The trail begins to climb in a serious way with switchbacks. Sometimes I hear water below and sometimes not. I am suspicious that the times I hear it are when I am above the fork I just crossed and not the fork I am no following. That certainly had water in it. Somewhere near the top of the switchbacks is the first night cache. This is a geocache where a start point is provided and reflective markers direct the walker to the hidden box. The terrain is similar to stuff I have traveled at night on before, so not too bad, but I wonder how many would find it comfortable enough to finish.

After I do finish with that, I continue on. The trail is now traveling along while it climbs. Below me, there is water briefly, but then distinctly no sound of water. If there is no water at the camp, I will have to travel right back down to Third Crossing to get it. The only thing the rangers in the station knew about water was what they could google in the moment. They were not very helpful. It is doubtful I can travel down these slopes to get it where I can hear it. Actually, as I travel across some of these spots on the trail, I am deeply suspicious that what I cannot see is actually quite scary. There are a couple of scree fields in particular that seem worrisome. Other spots, the trail is barely as wide as my feet, but still high up on a slope.

Things are getting a little more tame as I get to the spot for the second night cache. Unfortunately, nothing shines anywhere. The GPS signal is bad and jumping all over the place, so I look around in all directions from a lot of different spots both on and off trail. The only thing that shines back is a bit of sap. I make sure. Yes, a bit of sap. The second one is a bust.

Not too much further, the trail gets hard to follow too. I start to question one bit and work back and look into another bit, but it does not seem to work out either. Then as I turn to look more closely, there is a sound I have been hoping for. It is not the roar of down below, but an almost magical musical and definitely beautiful tinkle. There is water flowing here. I check. Yes, water. It comes up for about 30 feet before vanishing again. I will not have to travel 1.5 miles and 800 feet across trail I probably should not have traveled at night, particularly when it is unfamiliar, to get it. A glance around shows there is even a perfect camp site. My hungry tummy can finally be satisfied. I get water for camping, cook, set up, eat, and settle down for a much desired rest.

Continue to day 2 ⇒




©2017 Valerie Norton
Posted 24 September 2017

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