Soon, the peaks over Los Angeles will be topped with snow. That seems hard to imagine right now, since weather is solidly in the 80s nearly every single day and shows no signs of letting up.
Although I have the Santa Monica National Recreation Area as my playground for winter, I was really eager to nab one more peak in the Socal Six Pack: Cucamonga Peak (the first one I did was Mt. Baldy). You can certainly do it when there’s snow, but it gets a little more difficult and I’d just rather not mess around with that.
And good thing, too, because the Cucamonga Peak hike is filled with very, very narrow trails with very, very steep drops. I thought Mt. Baldy had narrow trails, but they’re no match for Cucamonga! Holy crap!
Fortunately, I had my poles and they really steadied me. I’d be dead without those things, klutz that I am.
To the Saddle
I really love starting hikes as early as possible. Early starts will mean you beat the heat, most of the crowds and you’ll have a huge sense of satisfaction in accomplishing something big by noon.
I arrived at the trail head around 5:30 a.m. It was still pitch black. Oh, and my headlamp was busted.
Thinking I could get by using the flashlight on my iPhone (nope), I started the hike before quickly realizing that this would end badly if I kept going. There just wasn’t enough light to see the trail clearly. I stopped and waited for someone to come along.
Soon enough, a group of four did just that and I asked if I could follow along with them. And good thing – they had hiked the trail the day before and were very familiar with it. I was really grateful to have them at the point where you lose the trail for about 100 feet, too. On top of all that, they were really kind and didn’t seem to resent my presence at all. Aw, I love other hikers.
The trail from Ice House Canyon to the saddle is an incredible mix of historic relics, water features and granite canyon walls. Despite the drought, California has been experiencing and the lateness of the season, the creek was actually going! The relics are the old ice houses from the 1930s, many of which have burned in fires over the years. There are also a number of cabins in the canyon that are still occupied.
The hiking terrain is varied and interesting, too: You’ll hike up switchbacks, climb over granite, make your way over water. It never gets boring or old. Eventually, I pulled ahead of the group and continued on to the Saddle, which is about 3.5 miles in. At the Saddle, a number of trails converge and you can go lots of different directions.
From there, Cucamonga Peak is another 2.6 miles or so.
Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep sighting!
Not long after taking the trail that goes to the peak, I saw some movement up ahead. It was a Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep, smack in the middle of the trail, kicking up dirt. Behind him were several more, which you can’t see in the photo.
I usually try to get educated on wildlife so I know how to deal with it when it happens, but I really wasn’t expecting to see them. They’re not often out and about when there are humans, and many people live here for years and years without ever seeing a single one. So, I had no idea what to do. Would they charge me if I approached? Fortunately, a woman came along behind me and said they wouldn’t bother us if we didn’t bother them.
There were four of them standing just 20 feet uphill from the trail, two of them staring at me hard. I took out my camera, shot some photos and a brief video as I walked slowly by, then continued on.
That, right there, was worth getting up at 4 a.m. And it was far preferable to a bear or mountain lion sighting!
If you didn’t know, the difference between Bighorn Sheep and Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep is their ability to go without water for long periods of time. They are very adapted to a desert climate.
Onto Cucamonga Peak
The hike to the peak begins by heading downhill for a bit. I started to wonder if I was heading the wrong direction. Eventually, the trail begins heading back up and you’ll come to a series of switchbacks and some gorgeous views.
After the switchbacks is a wooden post with a handwritten “Cucamonga Peak” and an arrow pointing up. When I came up to this thing, it looked like a prank. No other sign on the trail is handwritten! But it’s for real. The sign can be trusted. But perhaps they should consider adding an official sign below it that says, “Not a prank.”
From there, it’s just a few more minutes of straight uphill hiking and then you’re there!
Although Cucamonga is at 8,800 feet, the views are better than those of Mt. Baldy. Look, I’m not saying Baldy is any slouch, but Cucamonga’s position in the San Gabriel Mountains gives you the ability to see even more of Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.
Pros and cons
The Ice House Canyon/Cucamonga Peak hike is not without its cons. The biggest one by far is the crowds. The hike to the Saddle is supposedly one of the most wildly popular hikes in all of SoCal, and everyone and their brother comes here. It can make getting down difficult when you have to yield to hordes of people going up.
Two ways I suggest you can beat the crowds:
- Get there early. And I don’t mean 6:30 a.m. I mean, 5 or 5:30 a.m. if you can. I’ve heard the lot is often full by 6:30, 7 a.m.
- Go on a Sunday. That’s when I went, and while it was busy, it wasn’t unbearable. Weekdays are probably a lot quieter, as well.
The other con is the part where the trail drops off. I was very grateful to have that group with me, as I mentioned above. If you’re directionally challenged, try to go with someone who knows this trail or find someone on the trail who knows which way to go. In general, stay to the right and look for the stacked rocks. They will guide you in the correct direction.
The pros are many:
- This hike has roughly the same elevation gain as Mt. Baldy (4,300 feet), but it’s an additional mile longer so it’s a little less strenuous.
- It’s a really shady hike until the saddle, then it thins out a bit depending on which way you’re headed.
- The old ice houses and cabins are amazingly cool.
- The canyon is huge and beautiful, almost reminiscent of Yosemite.
- The creek is a nice bonus, too.
Final stats and other stuff
If you have a FitBit or another device with an altimeter, Cucamonga equates to roughly 470 flights of stairs. Baldy is about 450.
To hike the trail, you will need a California Adventure Pass for parking ($5 for a day pass; $30 for an annual pass) as well as a permit for the trail, which is free. You can get the permit either at the trail head or at the visitor’s center in Baldy Village.
You will need plenty of water and fuel. I had three liters of fluid with me (two thirds water, one-third Vitamin Zero) and several KIND bars. Always bring more than you think you’re going to need!
So that’s two peaks down and four to go! I’m thinking next season I’ll tackle Mt. Wilson, the easiest of the Six Pack. The next three after that are all tougher than anything I’ve done, so I’ll need to think about it, but I’m leaning toward Mt. San Jacinto.
And I don’t want to get greedy, but Mt. San Gorgonio scares me so much that I think that means I need to go for it.