Companion blog: Adventures In Stoving

Saturday, February 21, 2015

PCT – Mountain Fire 2015 Bypass

In July, 2013, the Mountain Fire burned the area which the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) travels through. After the fire, torrential rains swept through the area, heavily damaging the trail, particularly the section from Antsell Rock to Red Tahquitz.  As a result, the US Forest Service closed the PCT from the Cedar Springs Trail Junction (mile 162.6) to just east of Tahquitz Creek (approximately mile 177.1).  Note that some sources say the PCT is closed all the way to Mile 178 (Junction with the S. Ridge Trail coming up from Idyllwild) which is incorrect.  The PCT is only closed to about mile 177.1.
Looking south along the Desert Divide, the route of the PCT, toward Antsell Rock (center) and Apache Peak (left).
This is unfortunate for at least two reasons from the perspective of a PCT hiker:
(1) This is one of the most beautiful sections of the PCT in Southern California and
(2) A bypass around the burn area has to be worked out.  The 2014 bypass involved a lot of road walking on State Highway 74, the western part of which is narrow where there is the possibility of being struck by a vehicle.
The Desert Divide, taken from the PCT, vicinity of Red Tahquitz.  This section of the PCT is currently closed.
As of February, 2015, the PCT is still closed. Fortunately in June 2014, the US Forest Service opened some of the surrounding area.  Now a better bypass is available,

The main drawback of the 2014 Mountain Fire bypass was that it required a section of road walking on a narrow shouldered, winding mountain highway.  This narrow section can now be bypassed using May Valley Road and the South Ridge Trail.  There are multiple options.  Here, I will discuss the most direct route  to the PCT from Hwy 74.  I will discuss other options in the Appendix, below.

Note that the bypass stays essentially the same as in 2014 except for the portion from Keen Camp Summit to the South Ridge Trailhead.

Hwy 74 to PCT – May Valley Direct Route

Highway 74 to PCT Stats:
Distance:  8 miles/13 km
Gain:  4,000 feet/1200 m
Navigation:  Road section – easy.  Trail section – a bit tricky but only at first.  See notes below.

OVERVIEW:  From Herkey Creek Campground, take the mountain bike trail that parallels Highway 74 until you get to May Valley Road.  Take May Valley Road north to the South Ridge Trail.  Follow the South Ridge Trail until it connects with the PCT.

I scouted the May Valley Direct Route bypass on February 16, 2015.  Below is my GPS track plotted on a topographic map.  It's probably easier if you open the map on a separate page so you can refer back and forth to the below description.  You'll need to zoom in (a lot!) and scroll around in order to make sense of the map.  The GPS track can be exported to your device by clicking on "Export" on the above linked separate page.

The route takes May Valley Road (dirt, closed to vehicles) to the South Ridge Trail which joins the PCT.  In general, navigation on May Valley Road is trivial.  Getting on the S Ridge Trail from May Valley Road is a bit tricky.  Let me walk you through it step by step.

The route starts a few dozen feet west of Keen Camp Summit on Highway 74.
Keen Camp Summit sign on Hwy 74 as seen from the start of May Valley Road (5S05)
The start of the road is at mile marker 61.00 on Highway 74, however, I wouldn't walk the road.  There is a mountain bike trail from Herkey Creek Campground that parallels Highway 74 which is a better (and safer) option than a road walk.
Mile post 61.00 is just a few feet west of the entrance to May Valley Road (5S05).  Waypoint 001.
The mountain bike trail comes into May Valley Road from the east just a bit beyond the junction with Highway 74.  Sorry for the crummy picture.  My good camera died two days before.
Mountain bike trail from Herkey Creek Campground as it joins May Valley Road. Waypoint 002.
May Valley Road (5S05) was in excellent condition and was easily followable on February 16, 2015.  From the road, you can see Tahquitz Peak almost directly ahead, which is where we will rejoin the PCT.  The ridge on the skyline to your right is the Desert Divide, where the now closed PCT runs.  We're basically paralleling the route of the PCT here.
May Valley Road heading approximately North.  
You can also see up into the high country of the San Jacinto Mountains (to the left, i.e. west, of Tahquitz Peak).  All of the peaks in the high country are above 10,000'/3000 m in elevation.

As we progress northward, we crest a small ridge.  From here we can see down into Johnson Meadow – and into part of the burn zone from the Mountain Fire just beyond.  There are a couple of fire breaks and side roads through here, but May Valley Road is clearly the primary road.  There's little chance you'll go astray.
Johnson Meadow and part of the burn zone from the Mountain Fire of 2013.  Vicinity waypoint 003.
As we enter the burn zone, we see signs posted by the Forest Service informing us that the area outside the road is closed.  In order to be in compliance with the Forest Closure Order, one needs to stay on the road.  The text of the current closure order is posted in Appendix II, below.  The Forest Service is threatening people with up to $5,000 fines and up to six months of jail time.  Personally, I think these fines are really out of line, and I question the Forest Service's nearly hysterical closures of areas that are in all probability reasonably safe for travel on foot, but I guess we should work through the proper channels to get the Forest Service to be more intelligent and reasonable rather than break the law.  Oh, and paying $5,000 and spending half a year in jail aren't exactly appealing either.  OK, enough of my political ranting.  On with the report.
Only May Valley Road is open through the burn zone.  Vicinity of waypoint 005.
Fortunately, the damage isn't too bad in this section of the burn zone.  May Valley Road is still very easy to follow.  Soon we come to a "Y" junction.  May Valley Road goes to the left and changes designation from 5S05 to 5S21.
At the "Y" junction in the meadowy area, bear left to stay on May Valley Road.  Waypoint 007.
There's a spring marked on the map about 1/2 of a mile (~800 m) NW of the "Y" junction.  I saw no sign of any such spring on the day I went through.  There are a number of side roads through here, but again none of them are likely to be confused with the clearly prominent May Valley Road.

About 3/4 of a mile (~1200 m) NW of the "Y" junction, you come to a gate.
There is a Forest Service road gate about 3/4 mile NW of the "Y" road junction.  Waypoint 010.
This gate is a good landmark, because about 1/4 of a mile (~400 m) past the gate, you come to the South Ridge Trail.  The South Ridge Trail is signed, but this part is a little tricky, so you may want to pay close attention here.

There are a lot of unmarked side roads and trails around here.  To the right of the trail sign is a prominent track that looks like it might be the route.  It is not.
At the South Ridge Trail sign, a prominent track turns right off of May Valley Road.
Just left of the sign is a trail that doesn't look like it's seen a whole lot of use.  It might be easy to confuse it with a drainage.  But it's not a drainage, this is our route.
The lower end of the South Ridge Trail.  Stay left of the sign.  Waypoint 013.

The trail becomes considerably more clear as we progress. But we're not out of the proverbial woods just yet.  We have one more little navigational trick to deal with.

In about 250 feet/75 meters, there is a trail leading to the right.  The trail is marked with a closed sign.  Heed the sign.  This is not the trail you want.
Don't take the trail leading to the right.  Waypoint 014.
You want to bear a bit to the left here (just a bit!) and keep heading pretty close to north.  There are a number of "unofficial" tracks through here coming in from the left.  Stay heading north, and you should be OK.  Refer also to the GPS track on the map I linked to earlier.  Note that it's not a hard turn to the left, it's just a slight adjustment of your forward direction.  Bear left, but don't turn left in other words.  You should head just slightly toward the left toward this big scrap pile.
For reasons unknown, a lot of what look like construction scraps were dumped here.
Stay to the right of the scrap pile.  You should soon be on a normal, single track trail partly through scrub brush and partly through oak woodland.  You are now ascending a ridge to get to the main (upper) section of the S Ridge Trail.
The trail is relatively clear past the scrap pile.
On February 16, 2015, there was a downed tree across the trail.  See waypoint 015 on the map.  Bypass was easy to the left.
Downed tree.  Waypoint 015.
About 1.5 miles (~2400 m) past where you left May Valley Road, you come to a large boulder and a dirt road/parking area.
Large boulder where the lower South Ridge Trail enters the South Ridge Trailhead area.
This is the South Ridge Trailhead for the main part of the South Ridge Trail that leads to Tahquitz Peak and the PCT.  This is probably the logical place to head into Idyllwild for resupply.  The traditional way of resupplying while on the PCT is to leave and then re-enter the PCT from the same point so as not to miss any portion of the PCT.  You may be able to hitch directly from here.  If not, you can walk about 1 mile/1.6 km west to get to the outskirts of Idyllwild.  No, you're not in the heart of town at this point, but you're a lot closer than if you use the Devils Slide Trail which is the typical resupply exit point for PCT hikers when the PCT is fully open.

Standing in the parking area facing north, a few dozen yards/meters to your right you will see a trailhead sign.
Trailhead sign for the S. Ridge Trail.  Waypoint 017.
You are now at approximately 6300' elevation (1920 m).  Here, we begin climbing to the summit of Tahquitz Peak (8846'/2695m).  You're going to gain about 2500'/760m in the next three or so miles (about 5 km).  The trail is in generally excellent condition and is easy to follow.

You'll have good views as you climb.  From the trail, you can see much of the Mountain Fire burn area.
Garner Valley and Mountain Fire burn area as seen from the S. Ridge Trail
Really, you'll have views in almost all directions including into the high country of the San Jacintos.
The high country of the San Jacinto Mountains
Soon enough, you'll come to a trail junction near the summit of Tahquitz Peak.
Trail junction near the summit of Tahquitz Peak.  Waypoint 024.
A short distance to the right from the trail junction lies the Tahquitz Peak fire lookout, staffed in season by volunteers.
Tahquitz Fire Lookout.  Open is season.  Waypoint 026.
The views from the deck of the lookout are exceptional and are probably worth the 5 or so minutes it takes from junction to the lookout.
View generally south from the Tahquitz Peak Lookout.
From the junction, we head along the final leg of the bypass before we hit the PCT.  The trail descends gradually to meet the PCT at about 8600'/2600m elevation.  There are a few switchbacks, but nothing overly bothersome – unless there is ice and snow.   On the day I went through, I found microspikes to be helpful.
Old snow on the trail leading down from Tahquitz Peak.
2015 is shaping up to be an extraordinarily dry year.  Unless things change, it's highly unlikely that through hikers starting in April will encounter any significant snow or ice here.  If there were ice, you definitely wouldn't want to slip here.  That would be, um, bad.

Shortly after this precipitous section, we reach at last our goal, the PCT.  Note that the position of the junction as shown on the printed USGS and USFS topographic maps is wrong.  The waypoint (Waypoint 028) that I have marked is the correct position.
The junction of the South Ridge Trail and the PCT.  Waypoint 028.
From the junction, you can proceed north on the PCT just as though there had never been a Mountain Fire.  Alternatively, one could head east approximately 3/4 mile (~1200 m) east on the PCT (this section is also open) to Tahquitz Creek, which typically has water during through hike season (April/May).  Will Tahquitz Creek have water in ultra-dry 2015?  I don't know, but it was only mud on the day I went through.  It might be a good idea to check the PCT Water Report before counting on any water source in 2015.

Note that Tahquitz Creek and the Little Tahquitz Valley Trail (3E41) are open per the amended Mountain Fire Closure Order of November 2014.  The PCT Water Report still lists Tahquitz Creek as closed as of this writing – which is incorrect.  The closure starts at approximately mile 177.1 not at mile 178 as listed on the PCT Water Report.
Tahquitz Creek just above the PCT on 16 Feb 2015.  No flowing water.  Some damp spots.  Waypoint 030.
The PCT going south is very clearly closed just east of Tahquitz Creek.
Signs a few feet east of Tahquitz Creek indicate the boundary of the closure area.  Approximately Mile 177.1.
I also checked the spring in Tahquitz Valley near the four way junction.  Dry.
"Four Way" Spring in Tahquitz Valley.  Dry on 16 Feb 2015.  Waypoint 033.
Well, that's it.  That's how to get from Highway 74 to the PCT in the most direct fashion without having to do the nasty along-the-highway road walk of 2014.  Vehicles are restricted from all of this route except for the small parking area at the South Ridge Trail and perhaps the very western end of May Valley Road.

I thank you for joining me,


Appendix I – PCT Mountain Fire 2015 Bypass – Options

With respect to the various bypass options, please refer to this map:  PCT Mountain Fire 2015 Bypass – Options

You've got three main tasks for the Mountain Fire Bypass:
1.  Getting to Herkey Creek Campground (all of the various options pass through Herkey Creek Campground).
2.  Getting to Idyllwild from Herkey Creek Campground.
3.  Getting back to the PCT.

With the above three in mind, the way I discuss the various options should make more sense.

Note:  I only discuss here bypass options to the west.  A bypass to the east, while theoretically possible, loses thousands of precious feet of elevation that you've gained, goes through some extremely hot, dry desert country, follows some pretty sketchy unmaintained trails to get to Palm Springs, and involves 10,000 feet of gain (yes, you read that right, TEN THOUSAND feet of gain) to get back to the PCT via the Skyline Trail.  I think you're crazy if you try to bypass to the east, but if that's your thing, knock yourself out.  You might want to read my Trip Report for the Skyline Trail before attempting a bypass to the east.

All of the various options go by Herkey Creek Campground on Highway 74.   There are two main options to get to Herkey Creek Campground:
1)  "The Full Monty".  This route hikes as much of the PCT as is open before proceeding to Herkey Creek Campground.  You cross Highway 74 and proceed on the PCT to the junction with the Cedar Springs Trail at mile 162.6.  One then takes the Cedar Springs Trail to Morris Ranch Road and follows Morris Ranch Road down to an unpaved road.  Turn right on the unpaved road and proceed down the unpaved road back to Highway 74, cross Highway 74 and then follow the route of Highway 74 to Herkey Creek Campground, partly on dirt roads that parallel Highway 74 and partly on the shoulder of Highway 74 itself.  The "Full Monty" is shown in orange on the above linked map.

2)  "Herkey Creek Direct".  It's that "back to Highway 74" thing about the "Full Monty" route that bothers some people.  "Wait a minute.  I'm going past Highway 74, climbing about 2000' vertical, only to come back to Highway 74?!"  Yeah.  And it's even worse when you consider that most people go to Paradise Cafe (about a mile up Highway 74) to get food and water.  So, you'd hit 74, go NW along 74 to Paradise Cafe, then come back SE to the PCT, climb to the Cedar Springs Trail only to come back yet again to Hwy 74.  A lot of people would argue that it just doesn't make sense and would simply proceed along 74 directly from Paradise Cafe to Herkey Creek Campground.  I'd have to say that I'd probably go direct to Herkey Creek Campground, but whatever.  The direct route is shown in yellow on the above linked map.  Note that CAUTION should be used for the route show in yellow; this portion has not been scouted.  However, Highway 74 is wide here, so a roadwalk on the shoulders of Highway 74 would not be overly dangerous.  So, whether by parallel roads or the shoulder itself, a direct route is very workable.

Note 1:  Where both the "Full Monty" and the "Herkey Creek Direct" route join, the route is shown in dark green on the above linked map.
Note 2:  There may be other options, including Fobbs Ranch Road and Thomas Mountain Road, but I consider the above two options to be the most practical.

GETTING TO IDYLLWILD (and back to the PCT)
If you want to take the "traditional" through hike approach (entering and leaving the northbound trail at the same point), then you should use the May Valley Direct Route as described in the main portion of this post and get to town via the South Ridge Trailhead road.  However, the sharp eyed among you will notice that there are other options, options that are perfectly workable so long as you are willing to deviate from the traditional through hike approach.  The most practical alternative is:
3) "May Valley Road to Town" Route.  If you're a bit, well, flexible, in your approach to through hiking, you could just take the May Valley Road all the way to town.  This route is shown in medium sized gray dots.  I guess I'm kind of old fashioned in that I don't regard walking through town as hiking, but since there's no official bypass, you're not really deviating from anything, right?

From town, you could get back to the trail by any one of three ways:
A)  You could get back to the PCT using the South Ridge Trailhead road which would minimize the amount of the PCT that you'd miss.  You'd just miss the short section from mile 177.1 to mile 178.
B)  You could get back to the PCT using the Devils Slide Trail (DST).  The DST has a road leading all the way to 6500' elevation and is then only a couple of miles to the PCT, making it a much easier route than the South Ridge Trail.  You'd miss a bit more of the PCT, but after all the DST is the traditional resupply route of PCT through hikers, so in a way, you'd just be getting back on track after bypassing the Mountain Fire.
C)  You could get back to the PCT using the Deer Springs Trail.  I've shown this route in large gray dots through town and then in light green dashes going up the trail.  This route avoids climbing up toward Wellman's Cienega only to drop down to Strawberry Junction.  It is a bit shorter, and it avoids unnecessary elevation gain.  You would however miss a fairly sizeable portion of the PCT proper.  No judgement here, HYOH (Hike your own hike).  I think anyone who walks from Mexico to Canada is pretty amazing.  A few practical detours due to fire closures can't be held against such a person in my opinion.

Appendix II – Mountain Fire Forest Closure Order 

The following is the text of the Mountain Fire Forest Closure Order

Forest Order No.  05-12-55-15-01
Mountain Fire Closure
Pursuant to 16 USC 551 and 36 CFR 261.50(a) and (b), to provide for public safety and protect natural resources, the following acts are prohibited within the San Jacinto Ranger District of the San Bernardino National Forest.  This Order is effective from November 15, 2014 through November 14, 2015.
1.    Going into or being upon National Forest System lands within the Mountain Fire Closure Area, as shown on Exhibit A and described in Exhibit B. 36 CFR 261.52(e).
2.    Being on any National Forest System road within the Mountain Fire Closure Area, except non-motorized use of the Forest Roads listed below and shown on Exhibit A.
a.   Forest Road No. 5S05 from its intersection with the boundary of the Mountain Fire Closure Area at the northern edge of Section 32, Township 5 South, Range 3 East, and continuing north to its intersection with Forest Road No. 5S21.
b.   Forest Road No. 5S21 from its intersection with Forest Road No. 5S05, and continuing northwest to the Mountain Fire Closure Area boundary at the northern edge of Section 29, Township 5 South, Range 3 East.    36 CFR 261.54(e).
3.    Being on any National Forest System trail within the Mountain Fire Closure Area, as shown on Exhibit A.  36 CFR 261.55(a).
Pursuant to 36 CFR 261.50(e), the following persons are exempt from this Order:
1.    Any Federal, State or local officer, or member of an organized rescue or fire fighting force in the performance of an official duty.
2.    Persons with a permit from the Forest Service specifically authorizing the otherwise prohibited act or omission.
3.    Owners or lessees of private land within the Mountain Fire Closure Area, to the extent necessary to gain access to their land.
These prohibitions are in addition to the general prohibitions in 36 CFR Part 261, Subpart A.
A violation of these prohibitions is punishable by a fine of not more than $5000 for an individual or $10,000 for an organization or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both 16 USC 551 and 18 USC 3559, 3571, and 3581.
Executed in San Bernardino, California, this 14th day of November, 2014

Forest Supervisor
San Bernardino National Forest