Companion blog: Adventures In Stoving

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bighorn Mtn (10,997'); Dragon's Head (10,866')

There are but twenty five peaks over 10,000' (3048m) in elevation in Southern California.  Seventeen of those peaks are in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.  As a hiker, naturally, I'm drawn to that wilderness.

UPDATE 16 July 2015:  Many (but not all!) areas in and around the San Gorgonio Wilderness are currently closed due to the Lake Fire.  See Lake Fire Closure Map for details.  As of this writing, Bighorn Mountain is closed, but Dragons Head Peak is open.

UPDATE 29 Nov 2012:
People have asked me about my route; please see this map link. You'll want to zoom in to make sense of the map and the referenced points.  Point "A" is the South Fork trailhead. Point "K" is Lodgepole Saddle. Point "P" is Bighorn Mountain. Point "R" is Dragon's Head Peak.

Over the last several years, I've been climbing each of the peaks over 10,000'/3048m in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.  As of the start of 2012, only two peaks in the San Gorgonio Wilderness on my list remained unclimbed:  Bighorn Mtn (10,997'/3352m)...
Bighorn Mountain (10,997'/3352m)
...and The Dragon's Head (10,866'/3312m). 
The Dragon's Head (10,866'/3312m)
These two peaks lie off trail and are a bit more remote due to their position relative to the regular pathways of the Wilderness.  I set out to climb them.

For a hiker, I have a slight "handicap."  I'm slow.  Age, a desk job, and injuries have conspired together to make me one slow hiker.  Bighorn Mountain and The Dragon's Head are miles from the nearest trailhead.  Reaching them requires a climb of about one vertical mile (1600m). Travel in steep, high elevation, off trail terrain takes time.  How does a slow hiker like myself approach such a trip?  I certainly couldn't do it as a day hike.  I would have to stay over night in the wilderness, something which I am only too happy to do, but even then it would require some fairly careful planning.

Instead of taking the time to make the two hour drive to the trailhead from my home on the first day of my hike, I took off of work early on a Tuesday and drove straight to the wilderness.  At about 0300 the next morning, I arose.  While 0300 may sound early, I knew that I would need all the hours I could gather in order to get to the peaks and then return to a location where camping is authorized.  I arose and packed without eating.  By about 0330, I was on the trail. 

Hiking by headlamp is "interesting." 
Charlton Peak, pre-dawn
One does miss out on some of the scenery on the way in, obviously, but the lower reaches of the wilderness are fairly accessible, even to the slow.  It was the higher reaches I was after, so onward I trudged.  It was quite cold that morning.  My little thermometer read 38F/3C at 8200'/2500m.  My hands were quite cold.

As I ascended, the sun began to illumine the high peaks above.
Jepson Peak, pre-dawn
Although a glorious, sunny day is of course a good thing, I find that no time in the wilderness is a wasted time.  Though light was scarce, I still found the wilderness views enjoyable.
Ascending the Dry Lake Trail, pre-dawn
Ah.  What's that?  A sign post up ahead.  Lodgepole Camp?  Excellent.
The sign for Dry Lake and Lodgepole Camps
Lodgepole Camp is crucial to my plan.  Near Lodgepole Camp is Lodgepole Spring.  Lodgepole Spring is the last source of water before the peaks.  Whatever water I get at Lodgepole Spring will be all the water I will have for the remainder of the day.  Also, Lodgepole Camp is the location for which I have received a wilderness permit to camp.  I need to get to Lodgepole Camp fairly early in the day in order to climb the peaks and be back before dark.

Behind the sign, one can see Dry Lake. 
Dry Lake
True to it's name, Dry Lake is often no longer really a lake by late summer.  When I passed on September 19th, it was really more of a marsh.  Some local residents didn't seem to mind this at all.
A family of ducks along the shores of Dry Lake
But what's this along the shore?  Why is the grass along the shore white?
Frost coats the grass along the shore of Dry Lake
Detail of frost on grass
Whereas it had been about 38F/3C down at 8200'/2500m, now at 9065'/2763m, the temperature had obviously gone below freezing the night before.

A bit beyond the "lake," I reach Lodgepole Spring at about 0710 hours.
Hikin' Jim at Lodgepole Spring
Time to fill up on water and time for a little breakfast.
Hot oatmeal + raisins on a cold morning = delicious!
This trip, I'm using a Bobcat system from Flat Cat Gear.  Look for a review on Adventures in Stoving soon.
The Bobcat stove system from Flat Cat Gear
Having filled my belly, I fill my water bladders.  I'm now carrying about eight liters of water -- about 17½ pounds worth of water.  I figure I'll cache four liters somewhere up ahead and carry four liters for the day.  A short while later, though, the weight of the water convinced me that I needed to lighten up.  I decided to drink one liter, dump one liter, cache three liters, and carry three liters.  Three liters for a full day of hiking in the summer in Southern California is a little on the low side, but it was relatively cool that day, so I decided to chance it.
Fully packed with 8 liters of water.
 Moving on, I come to "Shark Rock"
Shark Rock
Shark Rock is a small, otherwise unremarkable rock except for one thing.  It points to the drainage one needs to follow to reach Lodgepole Saddle.
Looking up the drainage towards which Shark Rock points.  The low spot on the horizon is Lodgepole Saddle
Lodgepole Saddle is the logical route to take when one is traveling from Lodgepole Springs to the central peaks of the San Gorgonio Wilderness.  There is a long abandoned mining trail that runs toward Lodgepole Saddle, a piece of which you can see here,
The old mining trail that goes to Lodgepole Saddle
but it's tough to follow the entire way due to rockslides, deadfalls, etc.  But no matter, the terrain is easy enough to do as a cross country route.
Looking back down towards the Lodgepole Spring area
The terrain does steepen as one approaches the saddle, but, still, it's very doable.  I've found that the right hand side as one ascends is the better route.
Approaching Lodgepole Saddle.
Finally, I arrive at Lodgepole Saddle about 1005 hours and intersect the trail coming in from Fish Creek.
The Fish Creek Trail in Lodgepole Saddle
There's an ostensibly three way trail junction in Lodgepole Saddle,
Trail sign in Lodgepole Saddle
but if you count the now abandoned mining trail, there are really four ways in which you could go.
The blocked off start of the old mining trail
Our route today takes us to the SW, toward San Gorgonio Mountain and the Sky High Trail.

From the region of Lodgepole Saddle, we get our first looks into the high country of the San Gorgonio.  Yes, we have to climb that.  Fortunately, there is a trail.
Looking towards Big Cirque on San Gorgonio Mountain from Lodgepole Saddle
A short while later, about 1025 hours, we reach Mine Shaft Saddle and another trail junction, this time with the trail coming up from Trail Flats.
Trail junction in Mine Shaft Saddle
Again, we turn toward San Gorgonio Mountain.

Looking east, I note that the day is clouding up.  Afternoon thunderstorms and in particular lightning could be a problem today.
Clouds building to the east
As I continue to ascend, I turn for a look back.  I think you can see why I chose Lodgepole Saddle as my method of ingress to the central high country of the San Gorgonio.  It's the low spot and the obvious entry point to the high country from the Lodgepole Springs area.
Lodgepole Saddle and surrounds
Moving on, I come to this sad sight, a plane wreck high on the mountain.  Thirteen men lost their lives here. 
Wreck of a C47 cargo plane from 1952
In memoriam
The Sky High Trail is truly a wonder.  Even though it traverses rocky, difficult terrain, it is well built and gently graded (perhaps too gently, but that is another matter).  I can only imagine how much work it took to construct such a high altitude trail.  The trail goes through groves of beautiful, weathered trees.

The Sky High Trail ascends the eastern flanks of San Gorgonio Mountain
As one ascends, the mountain becomes increasingly rugged and the scenery increasingly more alpine.

Clouds above the Sky High Trail
The terrain is steep indeed in spots.
Steep drop off on the eastern side of San Gorgonio Mountain
Coming around a bend, we get our first look at one of our objectives for the day, Bighorn Mountain (10,997'/3352m). 
Bighorn Mountain (10,997'/3352m)
To the west of Bighorn Mountain lies lonely and remote point 10,595, a spot I'd like to visit some day.  But for today, Bighorn and the Dragon's Head will suffice.

Point 10,595
Ascending higher, the trees begin to look more like shrubs, most less than shoulder height.  Wind, ice, and snow conspire to restrict these trees to their diminutive stature.
Dwarf, high altitude pine trees
Here, tree trunks are more likely to grow horizontally than vertically.

A horizontal tree trunk
At last, about 1235 hours, we round the SE ridge at the top of the switchbacks on the Sky High Trail
Traversing the SE ridge of San Gorgonio Mountain
Now on the south face of San Gorgonio Mountain, we get our first look at Tosh's Tarn, simply labeled "The Tarn" on most maps.  We must descend approximately 400 vertical feet (120m) from the Sky High Trail to the tarn in order ascend approximately 600 vertical feet (180m) to the summit of Bighorn Mountain.
First look at Tosh's Tarn
The cross country route down from the ridge fortunately seems fairly straightforward.
The route down to the tarn from the Sky High Trail
As I descend to the tarn, I get my first good look at the Dragon's Head, my second objective for the day.

The Dragon's Head

Tosh's Tarn.  Note the Dragon's Head rising above the western end of the tarn.
Soon, at about 1325, we find ourselves standing on the relatively barren surface of the tarn.
Looking east, the weather appears to be holding.  I press on.
Looking east from the tarn.
Crossing the tarn, I note that the majority of the rocks are varying shades of gray...
Crossing the tarn
...except for a few stand out odd balls that are brown.  Note the pourous nature of the rock.  It almost appears volcanic.
A seemingly out of place brown rock on the otherwise gray tarn
Having crossed the tarn, I begin my angling ascent to the small saddle west of Bighorn Mountain.  I plan to ascend to the summit from the saddle via the west ridge.
Ascending to the small saddle west of Bighorn Mtn
From a distance, the ascent looked like it would be on loose, slidey crap.  Unfortunately, my eye sight is pretty good:  It was loose slidey crap.  It was a bit of an unpleasant slog, albeit short.

Reaching the saddle about 1345 hours, I then faced east preparing for the final ascent.  I beheld an elfin forest of dwarf pines.  These were limber pines, a particularly hardy, high-altitude pine.
Looking east from the small saddle west of the summit of Bighorn Mountain
Twisted and gnarled pines high on the flanks of Bighorn Mountain
Some of the pines remind me of bonsai trees.  There's actually a name for trees such as these:  krummholz, which is German for "twisted wood."  I took dozens of photos just like these.
A bonsai like pine on Bighorn Mountain
Looking back to the west, I catch a great view of the peak I hope to climb after Bighorn Mtn, the Dragon's Head.

The Dragon's Head from Bighorn Mountain
As I approach the summit of Bighorn mountain, I come across the fascinating weathered remains of old trees.
The weathered remains of a pine of long ago
Finally, I reach a point where there seems little above me but sky.  Could this be the top?
Final approach to the summit of Bighorn Peak
On top, at about 1430 hours, I find a summit register box.
The summit register on Bighorn Mountain
Examining the register, I see that only sixteen parties have visited the summit in the last year.  Considering that this peak is near the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, home to some 12 million people, this is a seldom visited peak.  Among the notables listed in the register is well known local climber Kathy Wing.
Signatures in the Bighorn Mountain summit register
A website address for a Southern Californa hiker's/climber's/canyoneer's forum
The clouds break for a minute, and I catch a quick glimpse of the view to the south.
The view from the summit of Bighorn Mountain
Looking north, I see the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain (11,502'/3506m), the highest peak in Southern California.
San Gorgonio Mountain (11,502'/3506m)
I can also see to the east, including bare Ten Thousand Foot Ridge
The view to the east from Bighorn Mountain
Looking down, I see the tarn some 600'/180m below me.
The tarn as seen from Bighorn Mountain
Having summited, I descend to the tarn and proceed west toward the Dragon's Head.  Between Bighorn Mountain and the Dragon's Head lies the yawning chasm that I call the Dragon's Maw.  The area just east of the Dragon's Head is some of the steepest, loosest terrain I have ever seen.
The Dragon's Maw
Having passed the maw, I reach a small saddle to the north of the Dragon's Head at about 1530 hours.  From here, the peak is in striking distance.
The summit of the Dragon's Head
Really, it's not a bad final push, but the route skirts along the edge of this:
Sheer drop to the SE of the route to the Dragon's Head
I'm not particularly afraid of heights, but the drop made even me quite anxious, particularly when I would take my eyes off the terrain in order to take a photograph.

Ascending the summit ridge, I turn back for a quick glance at Bighorn Mountain.
Bighorn Mountain from the flanks of the Dragon's Head
The summit of the Dragon's Head draws ever closer.
The summit of Dragon's Head
The terrain is a bit of a challenge particularly with the sheer drop just a short mis-step away.
View from near the summit of the Dragon's Head
The summit of the peak itself is just as sheer on its east face as was the approach.
The east face of the summit of the Dragon's Head.  Yes, those are full grown pine trees that you see in the upper left hand corner of the frame.  It's a wee tad steep here.
Actually, the summit isn't all that hard to attain.  I reached the summit at 1555 hours, about 25 minutes after leaving the north saddle, but I was taking photos, etc.  It's perhaps 15 to 20 minutes from the north saddle for a strong hiker. Were it not for the vertical drops to the east, the summit would be much less remarkable.  On the summit of course there is a register box.
Summit register on the Dragon's Head
OK, time to descend the way I came.  From the top, you can see the knife edged nature of the ascent route a little better.
Descent route from the Dragon's Head
Can you see my shadow?
Shadows cast on the drop east of the descent route
Reaching the safety of comparatively level ground at about 1620 hours, I turn back for one last look at the Dragon's Head
A last look back at the summit of the Dragon's Head
Having acheived my two peak objectives for the day, I now need to climb back up to the Sky High Trail and then hike back to Lodgepole Camp.  I need to get back there before dark so that I can find my gear cache hidden in the bushes, a cache I'd have difficulty finding in the dark.  And as for water, my gamble of going light on water worked out fine:  I sucked the last dregs out of my hydration bladder about 20 minutes before reaching camp (where three more liters of water were waiting).  In dry Southern California, water often dictates much of what one can or cannot do in the backcountry. Water will play an important role on day two of my trip as you will see.  Stay tuned.
My trip report is already long, so rather than writing a great deal more, suffice it to say that my strategy of getting to the trailhead the night before and starting before dawn paid off.  I got to my camp site just as darkness fell.  And, as they say, be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.
My home for the evening
This was only day one of a three day backpacking trip, but days two and three will be covered in subsequent posts.

I thank you for joining me on this high country ramble in the San Gorgonio Wilderness,


Appendix A:  Wildlife Sightings
Note:  I won't include this in the main stream of the post since the position relative to other photos would provide information as to where these particular animals were sighted.  The sad fact is that there are poachers who might try to do these magnificent animals harm.  I will say that these are Bighorn Sheep and that I sighted them in the San Gorgonio Wilderness some time during my three day trip.  I apologize for the low resolution.  The animals were some distance away, and I was shooting at maximum zoom.
Bighorn sheep.  Probably female.
Another Bighorn sheep.  Female.
Bighorn sheep.  Two females and a lamb.
Bighorn sheep.  Two females and a lamb.  The lamb is behind the lower female.
From another trip, a photo of  several males of the species.  Truly magnificent.

Appendix B:  Timeline
0300 Up
0330 On trail
0435 Wilderness Boundary
0530 Dry Lake Trail
0635 Dry Lake
0710 Lodgepole Springs (breakfast stop)
0840 On route
0915 Base of climb to Lodgepole Saddle
1005 Lodgepole Saddle
1025 Mineshaft Saddle
1235 SE ridge of San Gorgonio (lunch stop)
1300 On route
1325 Tosh's Tarn
1345 Small saddle east of Bighorn Mtn
1430 Bighorn Mtn
1530 Small saddle north of the Dragon's Head
1555 Dragon's Head (snack stop)
1605 On route
1620 Small saddle north of the Dragon's Head
1715 Sky High Trail
1925 Base of climb to Lodgepole Saddle (dinner and overnight stop)


  1. I really enjoyed this and loved all your pics . I would love to do this hike also thank you so much for the share Jim

  2. You're very welcome. I'm glad I could share with you such a great hiking location.


  3. It's just like Everest, a long, long day if you want to summit and make it back to camp. I'm glad that you had the opportunity to make this hike and then share it with us.

    1. Thanks, Bill. Being "married with children" doesn't afford me the opportunity to do this type of trip much anymore, so this was a special treat for me, special enough that I wanted to share it.


  4. Jim, your write-ups are always a pleasure to read, be them on stoves, trips or otherwise. I have to wonder though... Is there perhaps an outdoor related term/definition that Hikin' Jim is not familiar with? The wind blown trees you encountered are known as 'krummholz'. A drop that I certainly would have expected from a man of such eco-literary prose as yourself =)

    1. Eco-literary. I like it. :)

      Well, Andy, you caught me. I was being lazy. I couldn't remember how to spell krummholz (I want to put a "T" in it), so I just talked around it.


  5. Love the new blog...looking forward to more TR's in the future.

    1. Thanks, bro. Hoping to put up posts from days 2 and 3 from this trip soon.


  6. Interesting to read about your hike. We spend a lot of our hiking time in the Canadian Rockies. Interesting to see how the terrain and the trees compare to what I am used to seeing here. Just curious what types of wildlife you would encounter on this trip, bears, cougars, etc. or are those concerns in your part of the world?


    1. Dave,

      Regarding wildlife, see newly added Appendix "A" above, and:

      We regularly see black bears here, but there are no brown/grizzly bears. The bears will try to steal your food, so bear precautions are typical advisable.

      Cougars/mountain lions are very reclusive and are seldom seen.

      Deer are a common sight in lower elevations.

      Bighorn sheep are a special treat if you're lucky enough to see them. The last time I saw them before this year was 2007. I feel very fortunate to have sighted these shy, timid animals.


  7. thanks Mr. Jim for your detailed sharing of your hikes. It open up big information about hiking in US, btw i'm from Philippines.
    I like your style and your gears too!damn if I would be given a chance to travel to USA and stay there for a year, I will go hike, hike, hike. AT then PCT from downtown Philippines fella.
    Then go home skinny just skins and bones.

    1. Thanks -- and the US does have an awful lot of good hiking.


  8. Thanks for the splendid photography. I agree it's wise to keep the location of the sheep between you and the sheep. There's lots more people with rifles and hunting licences than Ethical Hunters.

    1. It's not the ones with licenses I worry about; it's the poachers who are hunting completely illegally. Either way, I won't say too much about where I see these beautiful yet threatened creatures.