Sweetwater River Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

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Pines and oaks on the Sweetwater River Trail

Pines and oaks on the Sweetwater River Trail

Sunlight through oaks on the Merigan Fire Road

Sunlight through oaks on the Merigan Fire Road

Sweetwater River Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

  • Location: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, inland San Diego County.  From San Diego, take I-8 east to Highway 79.  Head north on Highway 79 for 1.3 miles to Riverside Drive.  Bear left on Riverside Drive and follow it a total of 1.5 miles (along the way it becomes Viejas Blvd.) to the signed Merigan Day Use Area for Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, on the left side of the road.  From Julian, take Highway 79 south for 20 miles, past the main entrances to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and turn right on Viejas Blvd.  The trail head is on the right side of the road in 1.1 miles.  Parking is $8 per day (checks or exact change accepted).
  • Agency: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
  • Distance: 7.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 850 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: October – June
  • USGS topo maps: Cuyamaca Peak
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
  • More information: Everytrail report here; Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Yelp page here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Merigan Fire Road trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Merigan Fire Road trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This balloon-shaped hike explores the lower country in the southern end of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  You’re still between 3,400 and 4,100 feet above sea level and while much of the route is exposed, with an early start, it can easily be done even on warm days.  This hike doesn’t have quite the scenic variety of panoramic views that can be found in the park’s higher terrain, but it does offer a nice sense of isolation less than an hour’s drive from San Diego and about two hours from Orange County.

0:34 - Oaks on the Merigan Fire Road shortly before the junction (times are approximate)

0:34 – Oaks on the Merigan Fire Road shortly before the junction (times are approximate)

From the parking lot, follow the Merigan Fire Road north through a field and into the shallow canyon of the Sweetwater River (which may be just a trickle or completely dry depending on the time of year and amount of rainfall).  At 0.7 miles, pass a junction with the Dead Horse Trail and continue north, eventually entering a pleasant oak woodland.

0:44- On the Saddleback Trail

0:44- On the Saddleback Trail

At about two miles from the start, you reach a four-way junction in a pleasant meadow, where a tall pine stands above the oaks and chaparral shrubs.  The Merigan Fire Road bends right.  The Sweetwater Trail, straight ahead of you, is your return route.  Turn left and follow the Saddleback Trail, a single-track, down to the river.  (The loop can be done in either direction but by hiking clockwise, you have a more pleasant ascent).  The Saddleback Trail is overgrown in spots but never too difficult to follow.  It climbs steadily through the riparian habitat of the river, through some oak-dotted fields and finally gains the top of a ridge, where it meets the California Riding & Hiking Trail (3.6 miles.)  Here, you get the best views of the hike, notably imposing Cuyamaca Peak to the north and Oakzanita Peak to the east.

1:17 - Cuyamaca Peak from the top of the Saddleback Trail

1:17 – Cuyamaca Peak from the top of the Saddleback Trail

Turn right and follow the CR&H Trail.  In addition to the views of the summits, if the air is clear, you may be able to get a glimpse of the ocean in the distance.   At 4 miles from the start, you reach a junction with the South Boundary Fire Road.  Bear right and begin a steep descent back into canyon.  At 4.4 miles from the start, turn right to continue following the South Boundary Fire Road down the canyon, under the shade of oaks.  After crossing the headwaters of the Sweetwater River, turn right on the Sweetwater Trail (4.7 miles).

1:27 - Junction with the Boundary Fire Road (bear right)

1:27 – Junction with the Boundary Fire Road (bear right)

The Sweetwater Trail head south, paralleling the river bed, for just over a mile. At 5.7 miles from the start, you return to the four-way junction, completing the loop.  Retrace your steps on the Merigan Fire Road back to the parking lot.

1:38 - Heading south back into the woods on the Boundary Fire Road

1:38 – Heading south back into the woods on the Boundary Fire Road

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:46 - Start of the Sweetwater Trail, last leg of the loop

1:46 – Start of the Sweetwater Trail, last leg of the loop

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Saddle Peak (East Approach)

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Sunset from Saddle Peak, Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu, CA

Sunset from Saddle Peak

View of the Santa Monica Bay from Saddle Peak, Malibu CA

Ocean view from Saddle Peak

Saddle Peak (East Approach)

    • Location: Santa Monica Mountains between Topanga and Malibu. From Santa Monica, take Pacific Coast Highway 9.5 miles to Las Flores Canyon.  Go right and take Las Flores Canyon 3.4 miles to Rancho Pacifico.  Go right on Rancho Pacifico for 0.6 miles and go right on Schueren for 1.8 miles.  Park at the Lois Ewen Overlook (Topanga Lookout Trailhead on Google Maps) at the intersection of Schueren, Stunt and Saddle Peak Roads. From the San Fernando Valley, take Highway 101 to Valley Circle/Mulholland. Turn left and follow Mulholland 0.3 miles. Turn right and follow Mulholland another 0.3 miles to Valmar. Turn right and follow Valmar, which becomes Old Topanga Canyon Road, 1.2 miles to Mulholland Highway. Turn right and follow Mulholland Highway 3.8 miles to Stunt Road. Turn left and follow Stunt Road 4 miles to the overlook at the junction with Schueren and Saddle Peak Roads.
    • Agency: Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy
    • Distance: 1.8 miles
    • Elevation gain: 400 feet
    • Difficulty Rating: PG
    • Suggested time: 1 hour
    • Best season: All year
    • USGS topo maps: “Malibu Beach”
    • Recommended guidebook: Day Hikes In the Santa Monica Mountains
    • More information: Backbone Trail information here; trip description here
    • Rating: 5

This approach to Saddle Peak doesn’t offer the scenic variety or same level of challenge as the route from the north, but it’s still an enjoyable hike. Sunsets are particularly enjoyable: the distance from the summit back to the car is short enough that you can watch the sun dip into the ocean and still have a little bit of light when you make your descent. Like the approach from the north, this hike utilizes the Backbone Trail.

Lois Ewen Overlook, Backbone Trail, Malibu, CA

0:00 – Trail head: Lois Ewen Overlook (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The vistas from the trail head, the Lois Ewen Overlook, are almost as good as those from the summit; you get a nearly aerial view of the Santa Monica Bay and the San Fernando Valley. After enjoying the panorama, follow Stunt Road briefly downhill and pick up a signed trail on the south side, opposite mile marker 3.99. The Backbone Trail climbs quickly, following the south side of a ridge with good ocean views before meeting a service road at 0.4 miles.

Backbone Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu, CA

0:02 – Start of the trail (times are approximate)

Follow the road uphill around the back of a water tank. After a few yards of semi-pavement, the trail becomes dirt again and enters an oak woodland. Keep an eye out for some interesting sandstone geology on the left, as well as some views of the Valley through the trees on the right.

Crossing the service road on the Backbone Trail

0:10 – Service road

At three quarters of a mile, you reach a junction. The Backbone Trail continues straight ahead but to reach Saddle Peak, turn left and follow a spur to a dirt road. Turn left again and climb a short distance to the summit.

Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains near Saddle Peak

0:20 – Junction on the Backbone Trail (left turn)

Saddle Peak is actually two different summits but this is the only one with public access (the other summit houses various radio and communications towers). You get a nearly 360-degree view including the ocean to the south, Castro Peak and Boney Mountain to the west, the Simi Hills, Santa Susana Mountains and Hollywood Hills to the north and the San Gabriels to the east. On a recent day with particularly good visibility, I was able to see Old Saddleback, San Jacinto and San Gorgonio.

Dirt road on Saddle Peak, Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu, CA

0:22 – Dirt road toward the summit

After enjoying the view, descend by the same route. If you’ve arranged a shuttle at the lower trail head, you can descend north on the Backbone Trail; if you’re willing to walk 1.2 miles on Stunt Road, you can take the Backbone Trail north to the lower trailhead and then take the street back to the overlook for a loop of about 3.5 miles.

 

View from Saddle Peak, Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu CA

0:25 – Looking north from Saddle Peak

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Valley Forge Trail Camp from Eaton Saddle

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View of the San Gabriel Mountains from the Valley Forge Trail

View of the San Gabriel Mountains from the Valley Forge Trail

Black oaks on the Valley Forge Trail

Black oaks on the Valley Forge Trail

Valley Forge Trail Camp from Eaton Saddle

    • Location: Eaton Saddle, Angeles National Forest.  From I-210 in La Canada, take the Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2) northeast for 14 miles.  Take a right on the Mt. Wilson Red Box Road and go 2.3 miles to Eaton Saddle.  Park on the right side of the road in a small turnout.   A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 per day or $30 for the year) is required for parking here. Click here to purchase.
    • Agency: Angeles National Forest/Los Angeles River Ranger District
    • Distance: 5.6 miles
    • Elevation gain: 1,700 feet
    • Suggested time: 3 hours
    • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (elevation gain, distance, trail condition)
    • Best season: September – June
    • USGS topo maps: Chilao Flat, Mt. Wilson
    • Recommended gear: sun hat; hiking polesinsect repellent; long pants and long sleeved shirts
    • More information: Trail description on Angeles National Forest home page here; Everytrail report here
    • Rating: 7
0:00 - Trail head at Eaton Saddle (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head at Eaton Saddle (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

You already know how to get to the Valley Forge Trail Camp from Red Box, so in this post we’ll look at the more challenging route from Eaton Saddle.  Unfortunately the Valley Forge Trail still shows the effects of the Station Fire – notably in the presence of poodle dog bush and several stretches that suffer from severe erosion.  If you are willing to be vigilant about avoiding the poodle dog bush, which sometimes all but covers the trail (long sleeves are highly recommended), this is an enjoyable hike, providing excellent views of the eastern San Gabriel Mountains, often from beneath the pleasant shade of black oaks and pines.

0:02 - Poodle dog bush near the top of the trail (times are approximate)

0:02 – Poodle dog bush near the top of the trail (times are approximate)

Like the approach from Red Box, this is a reverse hike.  Though the ascent back up to Eaton from the trail camp can be taxing, in the late afternoon, the sun will likely be blocked out by San Gabriel Peak.  Begin by following the signed Valley Forge Trail downhill, soon making a switchback and entering the first of many patches of poodle dog bush.  After a second switchback, you enter a grove of black oaks.

0:22 - Low bridge: fallen tree on the trail

0:22 – Low bridge: fallen tree on the trail

You continue your steady descent, taking caution to avoid the poodle dog bush and along the washed-out sections of the trail.  At about 3/4 of a mile, duck under a fallen tree and at about 1.25 miles, keep an eye out for a surveillance camera mounted on a tree, one of several placed in the San Gabriel Mountains to capture wildlife footage.

0:37 - Smile, you're on camera.

0:37 – Smile, you’re on camera.

After making a few more switchbacks, you reach a junction at 1.9 miles, beneath a large pine tree.  A false trail heads left; the Valley Forge Trail heads right and continues making switchbacks as it descends the slope.  Near the bottom, keep an eye out for more poodle bush as well as some poison oak.

0:57 - Bear right beneath the large pine and continue the descent

0:57 – Bear right beneath the large pine and continue the descent

At 2.6 miles, you reach the Gabrielino Trail.  Turn left and descend a short distance where you’ll make a hard right on a spur leading to the Valley Forge Trail Camp.  Here, you can sit at a picnic table beneath tall oaks and sycamores and enjoy some peace and quiet before making your return.  If you have left a car shuttle at Red Box, you can return via the Gabrielino Trail, a more moderate ascent.

1:18 - The Gabrielino Trail (turn left)

1:18 – The Gabrielino Trail (turn left)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:24 - Welcome to Valley Forge Trail Camp

1:24 – Welcome to Valley Forge Trail Camp

West Mesa Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

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Through the meadow on the West Mesa Loop Trail

Through the meadow on the West Mesa Loop Trail

Stonewall Peak as seen from Airplane Ridge

Stonewall Peak as seen from Airplane Ridge

West Mesa Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

  • Location: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, inland San Diego County.  From San Diego, take I-8 east to Highway 79.  Head north for 2.7 miles, turn left and continue another 7.3 miles on Highway 79 to the West Mesa Parking Area, on the right side of the road.  From Julian, head south on Highway 79 for 13 miles.  The parking area will be on the left side of the road.
  • Agency: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
  • Distance: 6.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: September – June
  • USGS topo maps: Cuyamaca Peak
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Everytrail report here; Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Trail head on the west side of Highway 79 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head on the west side of Highway 79 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This loop explores some of the middle country on the western side of 25,000-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  In addition to some excellent mountain and valley views, the hike also showcases the recovery of the area following the fires of 2003 and 2007.  There’s also an airplane engine, but we’ll get to that later.

0:16 - Junction; start of the loop (times are approximate)

0:16 – Junction; start of the loop (times are approximate)

From the parking area, cross Highway 79 and begin a steady ascent on a fire road.  You climb 350 feet in 0.6 miles before reaching a junction: the start of the loop.  You can hike it in either direction, but by going counter-clockwise, as described here, you get the majority of the climbing out of the way sooner.

0:33 - Head left on the single-track

0:33 – Head left on the single-track

Turn right and head northwest, continuing your ascent through skeleton-like oaks and pines burned in the fires.  Stonewall Peak’s distinctive triangular shape is prominent to the right.  At 1.4 miles, you leave the fire road and take a left on a single-track trail, ascending to another junction at 2.1 miles.  A tall oak provides shade, making this a nice resting spot (by this point, you’ve done about 3/4 of all of the climbing in the entire route.)

1:00 - Junction beneath the tall oak

1:00 – Junction beneath the tall oak (stay straight)

Continuing straight on the West Mesa Trail, your efforts are rewarded with some excellent views to the south and east, including the lower country of the Cuyamacas and the neighboring Laguna range.  You also start getting a little bit of shade from some tall pines and oaks that have survived the fires thus far.

1:20 - Junction with the Burnt Pine Fire Road in the field (stay straight)

1:20 – Junction with the Burnt Pine Fire Road in the field (stay straight)

At 2.9 miles, in an open alpine field, you come to another junction.  Stay straight, heading south and then southeast, passing a junction with the Arroyo Seco Trail.  You get some excellent views of Viejas Mountain and El Capitan to the south.

The trail follows the so-called Airplane Ridge, cutting very close to the edge in places, providing more dramatic views, before meeting a junction at 4.2 miles.  Take a sharp left (despite what you might think, the signed Monument Trail doesn’t lead toward the airplane monument; you are still on the West Mesa Trail.)  Bear left on a signed trail leading toward the airplane monument: an engine of a plane that crashed on this hillside in 1922.

1:33 - Following Airplane Ridge

1:33 – Following Airplane Ridge

Past the monument, the trail continues its descent.  Another tall oak makes for a good resting spot.  The trail descends into a meadow, meeting the Japacha Fire Road (5.5 miles.)  A slight ascent over the next 0.6 miles brings you back to the start of the loop.  Retrace your steps back down to the car, enjoying some last views of Stonewall Peak along the way.

1:50 - Airplane monument

1:50 – Airplane monument

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

2:24 - Junction with the Japacha Fire Road (stay left for the last leg of the loop)

2:24 – Junction with the Japacha Fire Road (stay left for the last leg of the loop)

Agua Chinon to the Sinks and Box Springs

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View of the geology above the Sinks

View of the geology above the Sinks

Oaks above Box Springs

Oaks above Box Springs

Agua Chinon to the Sinks and Box Springs

  • Location: Northeast Irvine in the Santa Ana foothills.  The Portola Staging Area is located at the eastern end of the Irvine portion of the Portola Parkway.  From I-405 or I-5, take the Sand Canyon exit and head north east (2.5 miles from I-5, 4.5 miles from I-405) to Portola Parkway.  Turn right and follow Portola to its ending just beyond the 241 Toll Road.  Turn left and drive a short distance to the Portola Staging Area, where signs will direct you to parking.  If you are taking the 241 Toll Road, use the Portola Parkway exit in Irvine (not the Portola Parkway exit farther south in Foothill Ranch).  Head east into the park and follow the signs to the staging area.
  • Agency: Irvine Ranch Conservancy/Limestone Canyon Wilderness Park
  • Distance: 6.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 950 feet
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain)
  • Best season: Year round but hot during the summer; accessible only on scheduled days through the Irvine Ranch Conservancy (see link above for dates)
  • USGS topo map: El Toro
  • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; description of upcoming hike on 9/4/14 here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Start of the hike at the Portola Staging Area (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike at the Portola Staging Area (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

You already know how to reach the Sinks, the “Grand Canyon of Orange County” from the north, so in this post, we’ll look at the route from the south.  Unlike the north approach, which can be done on the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Wilderness Access Days, this route can only be done as a docent-led group hike.  The exact route described here is usually offered once per month; longer or shorter variations are also offered.  Because this area sees very little human traffic, the chance of a wildlife sighting is greater.

0:48 - Start of the steep ascent (times are approximate)

0:48 – Start of the steep ascent (times are approximate)

From the parking area, the route heads briefly southeast, passing through a gate and paralleling the 241 Toll Road.  At about 0.4 miles, you bear left and begin heading up into Agua Chinon (“Wavy Water”) Canyon.  The trail ascends at a gentle pace for the next mile and a half before becoming steep.  As you grind up the hill, your efforts are rewarded with an excellent view of the Sinks; you may also see Modjeska and Santiago Peaks poking above the ridges to the east.

1:08 - View of the Sinks

1:08 – View of the Sinks

The trail makes an S-curve and finally levels out at about 2.7 miles from the start, where you reach a junction by a watering trough.  Head straight for a short distance where you reach an observation platform, from which you can get an aerial perspective on the Sinks.  The 150-foot high formations were created by the erosion of soft sedimentary rock, creating layers of pink, brown, orange and purple.

1:17 - Oaks on the East Loma Trail

1:17 – Oaks on the East Loma Trail

After enjoying the panorama, return to the junction and follow the East Loma Trail northwest through an attractive grove of live oaks.  At a T-junction in a meadow, turn left and descend to another junction where you turn left a second time and re enter the woods.  Here is Box Springs, a seasonal spring pleasantly located beneath several towering oak trees.  Especially on hot days, this is a peaceful spot to sit and relax before heading back.  There’s a little elevation that has to be made up on the return trip, but most of it is downhill and views of the Orange County coastal plains from the hill provide a finishing touch to this hike.

1:30  - Oaks at Box Springs (turnaround point)

1:30 – Oaks at Box Springs (turnaround point)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Stair Steps Trail (Laguna Beach)

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Descending the Stair Steps Trail

Descending the Stair Steps Trail

Geology on the canyon wall as seen from the Stair Steps Trail

Geology on the canyon wall as seen from the Stair Steps Trail

Stair Steps Trail (Laguna Beach)

  • Location: Laguna Beach. As of this writing, parking is available in a vacant lot on the south side of the Canyon Animal Hospital, 20732 Laguna Canyon Road.  The hospital is 5.2 miles south of the 405 Freeway on the left side of the road (just past the main entrance to Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.)  It is 3 miles north of Pacific Coast Highway.  Note: The city plans on developing an artist residence on the site of the lot, which may influence whether parking is available.  For more information about the project, click here.  The Stair Steps Trail can also be done in reverse (down then up) starting from the West Ridge Trail of Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.  This requires a longer hike starting from the northern entrances to the park (Hollyleaf or Canyon View Park) or from the south, via Alta Laguna Park.
  • Agency: Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park; City of Laguna Beach
  • Distance: 1.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 600 feet
  • Suggested time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: PG
  • Best season: All year (Hot during the summer)
  • USGS topo map: Laguna Beach
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat
  • More information: Writeup on a mountain biking site here; video of mountain biking down the trail here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 6
0:00 - Start of the hike, Laguna Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike, Laguna Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Popular with mountain bikers – at least in the downhill direction – the Stair Steps Trail climbs the east side of Laguna Canyon, linking Highway 133 to the West Ridge Trail in Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.

0:03 - Right turn on Phillips St (times are approximate)

0:03 – Right turn on Phillips St (times are approximate)

Assuming you park in the lot next to Canyon Animal Hospital, follow Laguna Canyon Road north for a short distance (there’s no sidewalk but a reasonably wide shoulder).  After less than 0.1 miles, turn right on an unsigned street, marked as a private way.  Google Maps lists it as Phillips St.  The paved road ascends steeply, passing by some private homes before reaching a gate by a water tank, about 0.4 miles from the start.

0:12 - Sandstone cave on the Stair Steps Trail

0:12 – Sandstone cave on the Stair Steps Trail

This is the “official” beginning of the Stair Steps Trail, which branches to the left.  The steep ascent continues.  You pass a large boulder with a cave cut inside; this can be a good place to stop and rest, enjoying panoramic views of the canyon below.  After this landmark, the grade lessens slightly.  At about 0.6 miles from the start, you reach a junction.  The Stair Steps Trail continues steeply uphill; an alternate trail branches off to the right, ascending at a more moderate grade.  Though still fairly steep, this trail can be a more enjoyable route to the top.  While this trail isn’t listed on park literature, it is smooth and easy to follow and has clearly been in regular use by mountain bikers and hikers.  Follow it for about a quarter mile to the West Ridge Trail.

0:17 - "Split" (Main trail heads steeply uphill to the left; alternative trail heads right)

0:17 – “Split” (Main trail heads steeply uphill to the left; alternative trail heads right)

Here you can enjoy an excellent view of both Laguna Canyon and Wood Canyon; you can also see most of inland Orange County up to the Saddleback.  Given time and energy, you can extend your trip on the West Ridge Trail in either direction, providing access to Aliso & Wood Canyon Wilderness Park’s interior.  However, if you want to call it a day, return either via the more moderately graded route you climbed or by the signed Stair Steps Trail.  Keep in mind that while it’s only about 0.1 miles back to the junction from on the Stair Steps Trail, the grade is very steep and rocky; exercise caution, especially since your legs may be tired from the rigorous climb before.

0:24 - Old Saddleback as seen from the West Ridge Trail, top of the Stair Steps Trail

0:24 – Old Saddleback as seen from the West Ridge Trail, top of the Stair Steps Trail

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Butler Peak Lookout

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Looking west from Butler Peak

Looking west from Butler Peak

Looking south from Butler Peak

Looking south from Butler Peak

Butler Peak Lookout

        • Location: Northwest of Big Bear Lake.  From Highway 38, head north on Rim of the World Drive (3.4 miles east of the junction with Highway 18 at the west end of the lake; 2.9 miles west of the discovery center at Fawnskin).  The road becomes dirt after 0.5 miles; it should be passable for all vehicles but it is rough in spots so exercise caution.  At 1.3 miles, park at the junction with forest road 2N13, which may be blocked off by a metal gate.  There is an information board and room for a few cars to park.
        • Agency: San Bernardino National Forest/Big Bear Discovery Center
        • Distance: 9.8 miles
        • Elevation gain: 1,550 feet
        • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain, altitude)
        • Suggested time: 4.5 hours
        • Best season: May – October
        • USGS topo map: Fawnskin; Butler Peak
        • More information: Trip description here; Summitpost page here; lookout information page here; Everytrail report here
        • Rating: 8
0:00 - Start of the hike at the gate on 2N13 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike at the gate on 2N13 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Rising 8,535 feet above sea level, Butler Peak is home of one of seven fire lookouts in the San Bernardino National Forest.  Though the lookout’s hours of operation are limited, guests can still climb to the balcony and enjoy the view.  Butler Peak is the third most prominent summit in the San Bernardino Mountains, behind San Gorgonio and Sugarloaf; to the west, the nearest higher mountain is Cucamonga Peak in the San Gabriels.

0:08 - Stay left at the first junction (times are approximate)

0:08 – Stay left at the first junction (times are approximate)

If the gates along forest road 2N13 and the Butler Peak Fire Road are open, it is possible to drive almost all the way up with an off road-capable vehicle.  However, the distance and elevation gain listed here assume that you are starting from the junction of Rim of the World Drive and 2N13.  This point can be reached fairly easily by almost any car and according to a sign posted at the beginning of 2N13, parking is free.  If the gate is locked which it is as of this writing, this is as far as you can go.

0:55 - Hard left on the Butler Fire Road at the junction

0:55 – Hard left on the Butler Fire Road at the junction

Follow 2N13 southwest through a pine forest.  At about 0.3 miles, stay left as another road branches off.  The trail heads downhill briefly, reaching a junction with a single-track at about 0.9 miles.  Continue following the trail for a pleasant if not terribly memorable 1.3 miles, arriving at a T-junction.  This makes a good resting spot; almost half of the distance is behind you although most of the elevation gain is still to come.

1:20 - View of Hanna Rocks from the Butler Fire Road

1:20 – View of Hanna Rocks from the Butler Fire Road

Take a hard left on the Butler Peak Fire Road and begin climbing at a more steady pace.  The scenery becomes more interesting; as you ascend, you’ll get views of Big Bear Lake, Delamar Mountain, Bertha Peak and a jumble of boulders known as Hanna Rocks.  At about 4 miles, the fire road curves around the south side of a ridge, providing an excellent aerial view of Highway 18.  You’ll also see the distinctive cone-like shape of Butler Peak ahead of you–with the lookout precariously situated atop.

1:50 - View of the lookout from about half a mile away

1:50 – View of the lookout from about half a mile away

At 4.8 miles, you reach the end of the road.  Follow a signed single-track trail up a steep and somewhat rocky incline to the base of the tower.  Two metal staircases bring you to the lookout, which was constructed in 1936.

2:05 - The trail leading up to the lookout

2:05 – The trail leading up to the lookout

Unlike some other lookouts, this one occupies the entire summit.  This proves to be a double-edged sword: you can enjoy great aerial views without having to worry about falling, but it also makes the experience seem less wild and natural.  Nevertheless, the views are outstanding in all directions.  If the weather is clear expect to see Old Saddleback, the San Gabriels, the high desert, Big Bear Lake, Sugarloaf and more.  After enjoying the view, return by the same route, taking extra care when descending the steep steps leading down from the lookout.

2:10 - Looking southwest from the Butler Peak Lookout

2:10 – Looking southwest from the Butler Peak Lookout

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.