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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill

Sawmill in Snowshoes

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

Date: February 9, 2021

Distance: 7.12 miles *

Total Elapsed Time: 8h 12m *

Total Moving Time: 5h 22m

Summit Elevation: 8,818 feet

Elevation Gain: 1,359 feet

Trailhead: Mt. Pinos Nordic Base

Previous Ascents: June 1, 2020 *


  1. My previous ascent included 3 peaks: Mt Pinos, Sawmill, and Grouse Mountains for 10.33 miles

  2. Peakbagger Summits: 3 (Mt Pinos, Sawmill, and Sawmill Mountain West)

  3. Snowshoes slowed the pace down considerably

  4. My fourth peak in the SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge 2021

Headed to the Sawmill Summit Cairn (photo credit: Sonia Pancratz)

Pick a Peak, Any Peak

This morning at 8:42 our trio set out from the Mount Pinos Nordic Base on our way to Sawmill Mountain. we donned our microspikes at the trailhead and had snowshoes strapped onto our packs for the deep snow to come.

While I'd done a lot of cross country skiing when I was in growing up in New England, and I'd lived in Fargo North Dakota for five years, this was my first real "snow hike". As for the SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, this was my second time hiking Sawmill Mountain and my fourth peak in this year's challenge.

The SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks this year includes nine mountains, three of the peaks from the Original list (Mount Wilson, San Bernardino, and San Gorgonio) are currently closed due to trail damage from last year's wildfires. The nine in descending elevation are:

  1. Mount San Jacinto

  2. Mount Baldy (San Antonio)

  3. Mt. Baden Powell

  4. Cucamonga Peak

  5. Sawmill Mountain

  6. Ontario Peak

  7. Strawberry Peak

  8. Santiago Peak

  9. Sitton Peak

I have already completed the three peaks with the lowest elevation. Picking Sawmill Mountain for my first snow hike this year was the most logical choice as I deemed it the easiest of my remaining peaks based on the distance, route, elevation gain, and trail exposure.

Geographically, this hike is the furthest one from home, so I did the 4-hour drive to Lebec yesterday in order to get a good night's sleep before today's adventure and the eventual long drive back home.

Over the past week, I kept tabs on the projected weather conditions through the Mountain Forecast website, and I regularly checked the USFS Las Padres National Forest, Mount Pinos Ranger District for updates on road conditions, tire chain requirements, and snow depths. At the summit, temps were predicted to be in the mid-'30s, winds were in the 15-20 mph range, and Cuddy Valley Road was clear and dry all the way to the parking area near the trailhead.

Mount Pinos - 8,831 ft.

The first leg of our journey was 1.7 miles, mostly along a well-traveled trail, microspikes were perfect for the hardpacked snow and ice on this section. Once we came out of the trees, there was a large field in front of us, gently sloping up towards the summit and the USAF Radio Tower that marked our first peak. The open field was easy to cross as the wind had drifted snow in some places and left other areas with little or none. Additionally, there was a thin layer of ice over the snow from thaws and re-freezes, even where I knew the snow would be deep, it was pretty easy to stay on top of it. I headed to a point where I expected the Mt Pinos Azimuth Mark to be, spent about 10 minutes looking around for it, but with the snow cover, I wasn't able to locate it. (Click here to read the full post about the survey markers I recovered today).

We reached the summit at 10:00 a.m. and I immediately set out looking for the various survey marks that were supposed to be there. Last year I'd found two, plus evidence of a missing one. This morning I added one more recovery by locating Reference Mark 2, one that I hadn't found last year. Of course, whenever I find something new, George has to make his appearance 😂🙊🙉🙈. Altogether we spent about 40 minutes here, having a snack break, taking the obligatory summit pictures, and searching for survey marks,

The Fun Begins!

It's just a short walk over the Condor Observation site and the Tumamait Trailhead (USFS Trail 21W03), there are a couple of benches here, a commemorative plaque in honor of Vincent Tumamait, the trail's namesake, and a large informational sign that explains the history of Mt Pinos. We shucked our packs to make the switch from microspikes to snowshoes.

As we were getting ready, the second person we'd see today arrived at the observation point with his little pup (we passed a trail runner earlier). We chatted with Patrick as we finished getting our gear put together and Luke seemed pretty happy to see other people. 😊 Lucky for us we didn't need to do the whole "set the phone in the snow on timer" routine, Patrick took some group pictures for us in front of the trail sign, naturally Luke had to get in the picture!🤣 All-in-all we spent about 25 minutes gearing up and chatting before heading onward.

About 150 yards east of the benches is a lone table on the barren summit that marks the start of the switchbacks that descend down the east side of Mount Pinos, under normal 'No Snow' conditions, you'd follow the switchbacks down to respect the terrain and avoid creating unnecessary social trails, with a blanket of deep snow in front of us, the more direct route down seemed like the way to go, too the customary trail of switchbacks was virtually impossible to detect without following the GPS track of my prior route.

As we descended, there were a variety of tracks crisscrossing the area, cross-country ski tracks, snowshoers, and yes, regular old boot tracks.

The boot tracks amazed me, I stuck my trekking pole down into the hole created when the hiker sank in, in places the snow was two feet deep! THAT'S a lot of work! I was loving my snowshoes.

I learned quickly to stay off the well-established footpaths in favor of undisturbed snow or the cross country ski trails. As you can see in this video, the areas with a worn path tended to be icier and a little trickier to manage with the snowshoes.

It took us about 50 minutes to descend the 4/10ths of a mile to the bottom and back into the pine trees, this was a really cool section. From here we started climbing back up towards the Sawmills, yep, Sawmills - plural. Our primary goal for the challenge was Sawmill Mountain but in my trip planning, I noticed Peakbagger listed Sawmill Mountain West as a nearby peak, since I was so close, I added it to my agenda for the day.

Sawmill Mountain West - 8,749 ft.

As we hiked along, following a fairly obvious set of tracks, I had inadvertently passed by the turnoff that would take us to Sawmill proper. 🙄 We paused at a decision point and I consulted our location and my route on GAIA, we were about 130 yards due south of the Sawmill summit, and from this point, the clear ridgeline that led over to Sawmill Mountain West was obvious, with only about 2/10ths of a mile to the summit. Given our location, it made the best sense to bag the West peak then head back to the primary summit.

The short hike over to the West peak was pretty easy, and as we encountered at the top of Pinos, the treeless areas were more windswept and there were actually lots of places of exposed ground so we had to work to stay in the snow! The small cairn that protected the register jar was easy to spot, I recorded our summit and we took some quick pictures it was very cool to look to the north and see the large cairn that marked Sawmill Mountain proper.

A "3-2-1" Challenge Reprise?

When I completed Sawmill Mountain last June, I did it while also completing a hiking challenge sponsored by the Mountain Communities Chamber of Commerce. Three peaks, two counties, in one day. The other two peaks were Mount Pinos (on the way to Sawmill) and Grouse Mountain (about 1.5-miles past Sawmill). It was a great hike and I finished the 10.3 miles in under 5 hours (including 45-minutes of stopped time).

Our initial plan was to complete the 3-2-1 challenge today. While that sounded great at the start, we really had no idea just how much time and energy we would expend snowshoeing.

We had a QUICK strategy session at the West peak (it was very windy and cold!) We could see Grouse Mountain from where we were and it was about a mile to get there, so it would be two miles to bag Grouse and get back to Sawmill to complete the 3-2-1 challenge. It was already 1:00 p.m. and we knew that the trip to Grouse would easily add 2-3 hours onto our day since this was not a heavily traveled trail and we'd likely be breaking our own path. Considering the amount of additional work and time it would take, we decided that we'd backtrack to the initial decision point, then make a straight-line shot up to Sawmill. We would still have three peaks on the day, just not the ones for the official '3-2-1' Challenge.

Sawmill Mountain - 8,818 ft.

From peak-to-peak, it only took us about 15 minutes to get over Sawmill Mountain, while there are none of the usual brass discs marking the summit, the huge cairn is VERY impressive and one of the highlights of this hike for me. Sonia captured what I feel is THE. BEST. PICTURE. of me approaching the summit 😊The added benefit of hiking with friends is that they can snap the candid photos that capture the essence of the hike.

Naturally, we needed to get our summit pictures to show that we made it to the peak. I always feel a sense of relief and accomplishment when I hit my goal peak, even if the trail back is not all downhill, it just seems easier because I attained the goal I set out to. We still had to descend back down to the base of Mount Pinos and climb up to the Observation point, but now every step brought us closer to wrapping up this adventure. It was windy and cold at this summit just as it was on the West peak, we spent about 6 minutes taking pictures then started down to find a sheltered place in the trees to have another snack break.

After a short break, we continued working our way back to the base of Mount Pinos, as we approached we could follow the track that we descended, knowing that it was snow all the way to the top, or we could simply go straight up the side of the mountain, about half of which was clear of snow...we opted for the latter. Traversing through the snow on the steep slope was a challenge in the snowshoes, but with careful foot placement, we made it to the bare ground. We removed and stowed our snowshoes then continued on to the summit.

Once back at the Observation point and benches, we put the microspikes back on to finish the trip. It was a day of changing footwear! Microspikes to snowshoes to boots and back to microspikes, a little bit of everything! Our shorter, direct route up the side of the mountain took us almost exactly the same amount of time to climb as our longer, snowshoe descent did! From the Observation point, we knew it was an easy hour back to the parking lot.

I'm not sure how I missed these snow sculptures on our way out, but it was fun to see them on our way back.

What a great day! Sonia and Mira have a tradition of stopping at Mike's Pizza Co. in Frazier Park for a post-hike meal. They did offer a gluten-free pizza, but I still had a 4-hour drive ahead of me. I did join them for a bit to unwind while they waited for their food. We swapped photos and recounted the events of the day including a few "firsts".

  • I was able to locate a couple of survey markers I hadn't found before (be sure to check out my companion post about ALL the marks I found).

  • We had a successful snowshoeing experience, learning that it's a LOT slower and more physically demanding than first expected. Trust me, if you want to build strong glutes 🍑, strap on some snowshoes and hit the powder! 😂

  • We bagged three peaks (including a new one for all of us, Sawmill West!)

  • Sonia and Mira probably learned more about survey marks than they wanted to! 😂

  • I completed my first true "snow hike" ❄️👍🏻

  • We were the only party on Sawmill Mountain all-day

As always, I like to wrap up with the Relive 3D video of our hike today, enjoy!

Happy Trails!

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