Companion blog: Adventures In Stoving

Monday, November 24, 2014

Trip Report: Snow Creek to Pt. 4460

This is a fairly modest trip report, but it has some good information on the Snow Creek trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and it should give you a fairly good feel for the terrain and surroundings.  So read it, of course.

The Snow Creek trailhead of the PCT is the northernmost entry point for hikers into the San Jacinto Mountains.  This is a hot, desert area.  Recommended season is November through April.  Definitely not a good place to be on a hot day.
The San Jacinto Mountains from the Snow Creek trailhead of the PCT
Finding the Trailhead
From Hwy 111 which connects Interstate 10 with Palm Springs, turn SW on Snow Creek Road (some maps list this road as "Snow Creek Canyon Road") and drive about 1.6 or 1.7 miles (2.6 or 2.7 km) to the intersection with Falls Creek Road.  This is intersection is the trailhead.   Google Map to the trailhead.

Out of respect for the residents of the private community of snow creek, make sure you park before the "Snow Creek Village" sign visible in the photo above.  Across the street is another landmark, the "Snow Creek Wildlife Refuge" sign.
The "Snow Creek Wildlife Refuge" sign
Now, the PCT will be slightly hard to identify here, depending on whether you are north bound or south bound.   North bound, the PCT looks like a trail.
The PCT north bound from the Snow Creek trailhead
But south bound, the PCT and Falls Creek Road are one and the same.  Falls Creek Road is fairly small, but it is signed.  Simply follow the road south.  Note;  Some maps show a trail paralleling the road.  This is incorrect.  There is no trail paralleling the road.  The road is the trail here.
The battered but still legible sign for Falls Creek Road
Follow Falls Creek Road for about 1/10th of a mile until you come to a fork in the road.  Take the left hand fork.  You should soon come to a locked gate with the following sign.
DWA sign on Falls Creek Road
The sign is from the Desert Water Agency (DWA) that owns a parcel of land further up the canyon.  The sign isn't terribly clear as to its meaning, but the land the PCT goes on is National Forest Land, and public access is permitted.  So long as you are on the PCT, you're fine. If you want to know exactly which areas are public land, see "Appendix – Public Access in Snow Creek", below.

Proceed on the paved road approximately one mile south until you come to "PCT Rock" at which point you will need to turn right.
"PCT Rock"
Right next to PCT Rock is something important.  A drinking fountain with water provided courtesy of the DWA.  This is a real Godsend in the dry region north of the San Jacinto Mountains.
The drinking fountain immediately west of PCT Rock
This is your last reliable source of water for at least 16 miles/25 km.  Fill up appropriately.

It's a little creepy, but the DWA does have the area under camera surveillance.  I suppose they do need to protect the water works.  Anyway, just something to be aware of for the more modest among you.
Smile!  You're on candid camera.
The Trail Itself
As we leave the wonderful water fountain, this is where the real hiking begins.  Whereas previously we were following a paved road, we are now on a dirt trail.  My GPS track begins and ends at the water fountain:  GPS Track, Snow Creek to Pt. 4460.

The first thing you come to is an old pipeline, presumably once used by the DWA to transport water.  It now partially blocks the PCT.  It's not too hard to squeeze around on the downhill side, but it does force you off the trail, so watch your step.  I'm not sure why they couldn't do a better job of cutting the pipe to allow trail access.
Old pipeline partially blocking the PCT.
Of more concern are all these electrical wires coming out of the pipe and crossing the trail.  The wires appear to be active (i.e. not old and abandoned).  Apparently they used the old pipeline as a conduit to run wires up.  I wouldn't touch the wires, particularly in wet weather.  This just doesn't look safe to me.  This seems really iffy.  I mean surely there's a better way to run wires (underground?) rather than stringing them above ground across a major hiking trail.
Electrical cables strung across the PCT.
After passing the old pipeline, the PCT begins to climb, and we get our first looks into the Section 33 portion of Snow Creek.
Upper section (Section 33) of Snow Creek
The predecessors of today's DWA purchased the land in Section 33 in order to secure access to water.  As we climb the PCT, we can see various structures associated with the water works.
Water works, Snow Creek
 We can also see the DWA caretaker's cabin and some kind of garage/office/shop as well as a large water tank.
Various DWA structures in Snow Creek Canyon.
Front, left:  A garage/office/shop.  Front, right:  DWA caretaker's cabin.
Rear:  Large water tank with sun shelter in front housing what appears to be a generator.
The DWA Caretaker's cabin is just inside the boundary of the public land that is Section 28.  If you wanted to go exploring in Section 28, you should make sure you stay south of the caretaker's cabin so as to avoid trespassing in Section 33.  The water tank shown in the above photo is fully in Section 33 and is therefore off limits to the public.  See also the Appendix for more information about what is public and what is private land in Snow Creek Canyon.

Glancing upwards, we can see the majestic outline of the high country of the San Jacinto Mountains.  Indeed it is the mighty backdrop of the high country that makes the scenery here so compelling.
Sunrise, Snow Creek Canyon and San Jacinto Mountains from the PCT.
The immediate terrain is also fascinating, housing many jumbo boulders, some at least 30'/9m tall.
Jumbo boulders near the PCT
Looking down from the PCT, we see the small hamlet of Snow Creek, just outside of which is the trailhead where one would park one's car.
Snow Creek Village, from the PCT
The PCT in this area is in OK but not great shape.  This is a lesser used portion of the PCT, and there just isn't enough traffic or maintenance to keep the brush at bay.  There's nothing horrible, but brush does cover the entire tread of the trail in some areas.  See my GPS track for locations.
Brush across the PCT
Along the route, there are little spots where one could camp were one so inclined.  I have marked these on my GPS track.  Some are a little rough, but some, like the one below, look quite nice.
Potential camp site on the PCT.
Hiking along, we soon come to a post marked "Wild. Bdry." which is probably intended to mark the boundary of the San Jacinto Wilderness.
Wilderness boundary??  Hunh?  What's this doing here?
The odd thing about the post is that it's no where near the wilderness boundary.  According to the topographic maps, the trail crosses into the wilderness about a quarter mile after passing the old pipeline, long before we come to this post.  I have no idea why the post is located at it's current site.

Soon after passing the post, we enter a drainage and encounter a small washout which is easily negotiated.  We'll cross and re-cross this drainage four times on our trip today.
A wash out on the PCT
As we ascend the PCT further, we are allowed views into the rugged backcountry of Falls and Snow Creeks.
The trailless wild of Falls Creek and Snow Creek
Further on, we encounter another washout (see GPS track for location), this one a bit worse than the last but still relatively easy to negotiate.
Another washout on the PCT
Soon thereafter we come to PCT mile marker 200.  This marker is approximately 200 miles north of the Mexican border along the PCT (about 2450 miles south of the Canadian border).
Mile 200 for one traveling north on the PCT
As we head further up the trail, we can see some of the intensely rugged terrain in the drainage of the W Fork of Snow creek.  Almost unimaginably difficult terrain to negotiate.
Terrain in and around the W Fork of Snow Creek.
And of course, amazing views of the high country at every turn.
Looking into the high country off the San Jacintos from the PCT
Soon we come to the spot on the PCT which is just above point 4460 on the topographic map.  We've come about eight miles/thirteen kilometers since leaving the water fountain. This is about all we have time for today.  Interestingly, the slopes south of point 4460 are relatively moderate in terms of the terrain in the drainage of the W Fork.
A relatively benign slope south of point 4460
It appears that one could proceed south here and gain access to some of the upper reaches of the W Fork of Snow Creek  if someone for some reason wanted to do so.  The terrain is very rugged both up canyon and down canyon from where one would drop in using this route.  I doubt one could get far without technical equipment.

Cross Country Return Option
Now, what's the shortest distance between two points?  A straight line of course.  And what's the longest distance between two points?  The PCT – or at least that's what most hikers will swear to who have hiked the PCT.  Many sections of the PCT go for miles without really going anywhere.  The PCT meanders out and around every little terrain feature which makes no sense at all until you understand that the builders were apparently paid by the mile.  By the look of it, they went out of their way to make the trail as long as possible without overly arousing suspicions.  In any event, it is just sometimes maddening how long the PCT takes to get anywhere.

It was growing late, so I took a quick look at the topo map and decided to cut straight down the drainage, the drainage I mentioned earlier that the PCT criss-crosses back and forth over repeatedly.  This cross country route eliminates over two miles of the return trip.  However, it's fairly rough terrain with brush and dry falls.  I wouldn't recommend it unless you a) are willing to suffer b) like beating through brush, and c) like scrambling down loose rock and over dry water falls.  Note that I don't think it actually saves any time since the going is so rough.

The crux of the route occurs in the upper most section of the route where the route drops over about a 30' dry falls.  The falls is more of a rock jumble than a solid piece of rock.  It's not too bad (class 3), but there is about a 6 foot overhanging section at the end that cannot be downclimbed.  I tossed my pack down and jumped, a move not without risk.
This dry falls/rock jumble is the crux of the route
Further down in the canyon, I encountered this small pool
A small pool in the drainage
I don't know if the pool is always there, but I went ahead and marked it on my GPS track.  Below the pool was a small amount of flow, so it's possible that this pool is fairly persistent.  This isn't easy to get to or necessarily easy to find, but it's always good to know where water is in dry country.

The drainage isn't easy going, but it is negotiable.  Just a fun alternative for those crazy enough, err, skilled enough I mean, to try it.
Looking back up the drainage I just descended
One should note that there was a fire here some years ago.  My shirt had a lot of charcoal marks on it after the bushwhack.  The back of my hand looked like I hadn't washed in a month.
Charcoal marks on my hands and shirt.
One should also note that I tore a three inch (about 8 cm) gash in my trousers.  The brush was indeed thick at points although overall not really all that bad.

As I descended, I was taken by the rosey glow of the setting sun on the mountains to the north.
The fading light of the sun on the mountains north of San Gorgonio Pass.  Note wind farm.
The light quickly faded thereafter, but I had made sure to be done with the cross country section of my hike well before dark.  Off trail hiking isn't much fun after dark.  I finished the last hour or so of my hike by headlamp.  I use a two headlamp system for night hiking.   I have one headlamp affixed at belly button level on a strap.  This position gives me a lot more contrast than a headlamp on my forehead.  The light from a headlamp on one's forehead shines its light at almost the same angle as the eyes are focusing, which gives no contrast.  I therefore use one headlamp mounted near my mid section and a second, dimmer headlamp on my forehead.  The combination works well for me for night hiking.

Well, there you have it, a journey up the PCT and a cross country journey back.  Thanks for coming along,


Appendix – Public vs. Private Land in Snow Creek
The area which is public land (under control of the San Bernadino National Forest) is legally defined as Township 3 South, Range 3 East, Section 28 (hereinafter just "Section 28").  The area that is private property is legally defined as Township 3 South, Range 3 East, Section 33 (hereinafter just "Section 33").

Now, if that sounds like a lot of surveyor mumbo-jumbo to you, you're not alone.  To help you understand just where these sections of land are, I have drawn them in on the following map:  Sections 28 and 33, Snow Creek, CA.  You'll need to zoom in to make sense of the map, and you may want to toggle back and forth between the US Forest Service, Google map, and satellite views.

Basically, you should be able to go wherever you want in Section 28 on foot (motorized access is not permitted); it's all public land.  You should stay out of Section 33.  Falls Creek Road will take you into Section 33 if you go too far south.  The DWA caretaker's cabin is just before the Section 33 boundary.  Unless you have a GPS that you really trust to keep you out of Section 33, you shouldn't go south of the caretaker's cabin.  I don't know that the boundary is marked, and the DWA could try to prosecute you for trespassing even though the boundary isn't marked.

Note:  The DWA has a reputation for keeping people out of certain parts of Section 28, which is a violation of their lease.  Section 28 is public land, and you have a right to pass so long as you do not interfere with the operation of the water works.  If you are in any way harassed by the DWA (hopefully not; they should understand the terms of their lease), you should report the details of the harassment, preferably in writing, to the US Forest Service:
San Jacinto Ranger District, San Bernardino National Forest
Idyllwild Ranger Station
Attention:  Ranger H. Hoggan
54270 Pine Crest Road / P.O. Box 518
Idyllwild, CA  92549
909-382-2945 office  /  951-659-2107 fax
hhoggan [at]

Again, though, hopefully everyone will play by the rules (including you), and there will be no trouble.  Go where you like in Section 28, but stay out of Section 33.  Simple enough, right?