Mt. Baldy Loop
Updated: May 9
Date: April 17, 2021
Distance: 11.48 miles
Total Elapsed Time: 9h 515m
Total Moving Time: 7h 39m
Summit Elevation: 10,064 feet
Elevation Gain: 4,091 feet
Trailhead: Manker Flats to Mount Baldy Notch and Devil's Backbone
June 8, 2020
Notes: Peakbagger Peaks - 7, Survey Marks - 1
Biting the Bullet
Last-minute plans have consequences and those consequences usually mean less than optimal sleep. Yesterday while out on a stroller walk with my granddaughter I decided I'd do Baldy today. Fridays are full babysitting days for me, so any/all of my pre-hike preparations would have to wait until my little wee-bot went home and I finished with my normal Friday domestic chores. I knew that as I headed to bed late, my 0330 wake-up call was going to come much too quickly. My plan was to make the drive and hit the parking area at Manker Flats around 0630 and be on the trail as soon as I could.
The Road to Mount Baldy Notch
Thankfully, I was running right on schedule and despite a large number of cars already at the trailhead, I was able to find a good parking spot.
As I was headed to the trailhead I spied the unmistakable backpacks of "The Super Hiking Twins" Matthew and Arabella. For those reading this that are not in the hiking community, the Twins are legendary, hiking tons of miles with four 14er's (Mountains over 14,000 feet) to their credit, including Mount Whitney which they tackled at the tender age of 4 years 5 months. At 6 years old, today's ascent of Mt. Baldy will be their 26th Summit...this was my 2nd!
Following them on Instagram, I've learned that Mt. Baldy is their favorite hike, and their primary objective is to have fun. I arranged with their dad to get a photo with them before I headed out, we chatted briefly then I set out. We were both doing a loop, they were starting clockwise by going up the Baldy Bowl Trail past the Ski Hut and then coming down over the Devil's Backbone to the Notch, I was taking the counter-clockwise route and adding a few extra stops in along the way. I knew we'd pass later on the trail so I wished them well and headed out. The first 3.7 miles to the Mt. Baldy Ski Lodge and the Top of The Notch restaurant is pretty easy going, the first little bit is paved, then it turns to a well-maintained dirt road that goes all the way to the resort. The elevation gain is steady but mellow, I did see hikers who chose to hike up beneath the ski lift, a more direct and steeper route. I figured I had enough work ahead of me for the day that I didn't need to expend a lot of energy walking up through the loose scree, so I stuck to the road.
The Devil's Backbone Trail
The first time I climbed Mount Baldy I had planned to go up to the Notch and take the Devil's Backbone Trail to the summit, I mean seriously, how could you NOT want to do a trail called "The Devil's Backbone"? Unfortunately, when I did the hike last June, I had to change my route plans when I arrived at the decision point for the Ski Hut Trail or continuing to the Notch. Winds were very strong, even at the start of the hike, and were predicted to be 60 mph at the summit, traversing the Devil's Backbone in high wind conditions (with no prior experience on that trail) was not the smart play. So last year I went up and down the Ski Hut/Baldy Bowl Trails, my summit time was only long enough to make it to the sign, take a picture or two and get back to a protected spot out of the wind - I could barely stay on my feet the winds were so strong. (It was this trip that prompted me to purchase my Kestrel 3500 Weather Station. Knowing the EXACT weather conditions of my ACTUAL location was an essential safety factor I wasn't willing to pass on)
The Devil's Backbone Trail starts just above the Mount Baldy Ski Lodge, at the terminus of the Three T's Trail, coincidentally, there is a U.S. Geological Survey Bench Mark at the junction of these two trails. Note: The Three T's (Timber, Thunder Mountain, and Telegraph Peak) Trail starts at the Ice House Canyon Saddle and is on my hiking "to do" list). The trail continues west towards the summit of Mount Baldy. The views on either side are spectacular and the exposure and steep drop-offs on the northern side might give those with a fear of heights cause for concern. I can't imagine doing this route in the snow or with winds in excess of 25-30 mph.
The following video is about three and a half minutes long, but it gives some great perspective on the nature of the trail. The smaller Peak directly ahead of me on the trail is The Devil's Backbone High Point, the Peak to the right is Mount Harwood.
Weather conditions today were great, it was windy and a little on the cool side, but it was a bright sunny day and the Backbone didn't seem as daunting as I had anticipated. It is exposed, so high winds and/or snow will change the nature of the trail in a heartbeat, but I found it to be an enjoyable route. There were a few spots along the way that were challenging to find a place to step off the trail to let others pass, but I managed.
Devil's Backbone High Point ~ 9,009 Feet
My first Peak of the day was the Devil's Backbone High Point, there really wasn't a trail that led up to the top, it was more or less just scrambling up and trying to pick a path that had the least amount of loose rock. I'm sure there were hikers that passed me wondering if I'd lost my mind, leaving the well-worn trail to work my way north to the small summit area. This was a good photo opportunity for George and the views looking back over the Backbone were pretty spectacular.
There was a narrow Use Trail heading westward from the High Point to take me back down to the main trail. It was close to 1100 and activity on the Backbone trail was picking up, mostly from hikers and trail runners that had reached the summit earlier in the day and were now on their way down.
Mount Harwood ~ 9,552 Feet
I stayed on the Devil's Backbone trail for just a little over a quarter-mile before making a slight right turn to head up to Mount Harwood. Unlike the scrambling up to my last Peak, there was a clear path that meandered towards the Harwood summit.
This was actually a very cool Peak in that it just looked like a barren moonscape! There were a few larger rocks along the way, but for the most part, it was all very small broken rock. It was just desolate. I didn't expect to find a survey marker on the summit, so up and over the little bump I went and headed down to a GPS station and Solar Panel power unit that sat in a low flat area below the summit. I took advantage of the exposure on this summit to break out my weather station and take some readings. It was much windier here than on the protected side of the Backbone trail and the ambient temperature was dropping into the mid-30s. Maximum wind gusts were 20 mph and the lowest windchill I recorded was 22.7ºF. I was prepared for the weather and was comfy and warm, but I marveled at the people coming down from the summit in shorts, light wind shells, and no hat or gloves!
The Earthscope Plate Boundary Observatory located on Mount Harwood is one of more than 1,200 stations that provides continuous GPS readings to gain a better understanding of the tectonics of North America. Prior to these units, researchers would set up their GPS unit on top of a Survey Mark and take readings over the course of several days, year after year. Basically, this unit is constantly monitoring seismic activity.
(Update 5/7/2022: The link above now points to the archived website for Earthscope which still has good information, but is no longer updated. To view the new merged entity, The Earthscope Consortium, click here)
The benefit of the sheer volume of data these units collect (typically a reading every 15 seconds, but can be up to 5 readings per second) is they provide new insight into slow-moving earthquakes.
These “slow earthquakes” are called episodic tremor and slip (ETS) events, that relieve stress on faults over weeks instead of minutes and simply could not be seen before. Pretty cool stuff.
Following the Use trail down from Harwood, I rejoined the Devil's Backbone Trail for the final push up to the Mount Baldy Summit. I was almost to the top when I ran into The Super Hiking Twins again, dad was getting them bundled up for the windy cold stretch coming up. We chatted for a minute or two, the kids were looking forward to snacks at the Notch Restaurant and I mused out loud about potentially coming back down the same route so I could grab a burger and fries at the restaurant and maybe take the ski lift back down (I've never ridden on a ski lift before!) Dad told me the kids call the ski lift "cheating" and always hike down. Well, there you go...schooled by a couple of 6-year olds! 🤣 I absolutely love their spirit. I would end up sticking to my loop route, as an out-and-back would have added a few more miles and more time to my day.
Mount Baldy ~ 10,064 Feet
Wow. Talk about "Grand Central Station"! There had to be over 50 people on the summit and folks were constantly coming and going. All of the rock wind shelters were occupied with groups cooking over their camp stoves, hunkering down out of the wind, and just sharing the summit experience. This was a far cry from my trip last year where I was the only person on the summit and I only saw a handful of hikers all day. My plan was to go over to the summit sign, grab my pictures and move on to West Baldy to have lunch.
As I neared the sign...and the line of people waiting to get their pictures (yep, a line! reminded me of Mt Woodson Potato Chip Rock 🙄) I heard someone call out "Hey Coach".
It was Scott who I met on Ontario Peak back in February. He introduced me to his hiking partner Jessica and we chatted while they waited their turn for photos, since I was there, I took their pics, then joined them for a group shot. They had come up the Bear Canyon Trail and were ready to head back down, so they walked with me towards West Baldy until they reached their turnoff.
West Baldy ~ 9,988 Feet
After saying goodbye to Scott and Jennifer, I continued up to West Baldy. Throughout the day I had not had to cross a single snowfield but as I looked up toward the summit it was mostly covered.
Scott had given me a heads up that there was a survey marker on the summit, so my plan was to recover the mark before taking my lunch break. Initially, I skirted the primary snowfield by traveling along the Northwest side of the summit area. There were plenty of rock outcrops along the ridge where the mark could have been mounted, but I came up empty as I searched each one.
Using my GAIA GPS app with the USGS Topo Map overlay active, I worked my way towards the area marked on the map by the symbol for a Horizontal Control Mark (a triangle with a dot in the center) Experience has shown that these symbols on mountain summits are usually very accurate IF the mark still exists. Navigating to the center of that location put me smack-dab in the middle of the snowfield! The snow was pretty hard-packed and I was able to walk around on it without traction devices or breaking through, but when I tested the depth with my trekking pole, it was at least a foot deep in the spot where I expected the mark to be. Note to self: Come back to West Baldy later in the season after the snow melts.
I headed back to the Northeast corner of the summit to get out of the snow and set up for lunch on some larger rocks. As I enjoyed my lunch in solitude, I looked across to Old Baldy and the constant stream of hikers coming and going along the trails leading to the top. There was another large group (15+ people) headed down toward the Bear Canyon Trail, as I later learned I had just missed seeing one of my hiking friends who was in that group, she had summited as I was working my way up to West Baldy. With the number of people on the mountain today, I suspect that I probably had a few more friends that were somewhere on the trail the same time I was.
Ski Hut and Baldy Bowl Trail
I finished lunch right before 1400 and for one last time, kicked around the options for my descent:
Plan A was to continue on with my loop so I could bag Peak #5 for the day. Even though Ski Hut is labeled as a 'provisional' Peak on Peakbagger, you can still record it as a Peak and it counts, so there you go. The descent via the Baldy Bowl Trail was the shorter route, albeit steeper, and it was more protected from the wind.
Plan B was to retrace my track, stop by the Top of The Notch to try out their Burger and Fries combo, then ride the ski lift down for a "new" experience and to mitigate the extra time and mileage this route would require. I had talked with a couple of women on Mount Harwood that had highly recommended taking the lift, as they pointed out, I'd already done the miles to reach the summit. Still, the Twin's perspective about the ski lift option floated around in my head and made me smile.
In the end, without a compelling reason to deviate from Plan A, I opted to stick with my loop route (despite the prospect of yummy foodstuffs and an inaugural ski lift ride). I checked my map and plotted an intersecting course with the Baldy Bowl Trail.
The views heading down the Baldy Bowl Trail (BBT) were spectacular but the trail was not without its challenges. This route is steeper and much of the upper sections are comprised of loose sandy and rocky soil that tests your footing. Trekking poles are a huge advantage on this route. I watched a family ahead of me, slip-sliding their way down, the young daughter had a short stick she was using as a pole, she was wearing regular sneakers and had no cold-weather clothing. She fell repeatedly, often coming close to knocking her mom over, who seemed to be having her own difficulties finding solid footing. I covered the mile from West Baldy to the Ski Hut in about 45 minutes, being mindful to go carefully on the loose trail and occasional icy patches. Once at the hut, I took a few minutes to grab some photos of George, he missed out on photo opportunities on Harwood, Old Baldy, and West Baldy, so he was overdue. He did end up with pics on the first and last Peak, so that's something 😂
The remaining 3.7 miles back to the trailhead were uneventful and I arrived back at the truck right at 1800. The weather was pleasant and much warmer on the last leg of my loop and I passed quite a few people heading up the trail for a late afternoon hike.
My next trip (sometime later this Spring when the snow has melted) will have four primary objectives:
Recover the survey mark on West Baldy
Do so by ascending via Register Ridge to Devil's Backbone (a more challenging route than walking up the road to the Top of the Notch)
Dine at the Top of The Notch Restaurant
Take the Ski Lift ride to the bottom (Not being a downhill skier, I've never been on a chair lift! This will be a fun "first" to do)
I'm already excited to make the return trip! 👊🏻
Relive® 3D Video of my Mount Baldy Loop Excursion Today
Happy Trails! 🥾🏔