SoCal Hiker blog is the Hiking Guide for Southern California. The blog is Jeff's personal resource of favorite local hikes and backpack trips, complete with advice, tips, trip reports, checklists and "how-to."
Looking for a short, after-work hike in Griffith Park with fewer crowds and great city views? This 3.8 mile loop hike with a stop at the easternmost peak in the Santa Monica Mountains might be exactly what you’re looking for. The trail follows broad double-track dirt trails that are perfect for trail running, dog walking and social hikes. The short loop can be hiked in about an hour and a half from either direction. We’ll take you “clockwise” in our guide.
[stextbox id=”custom” caption=”Trail Details” float=”true” align=”right” width=”270″]Summit: 1,001′ Distance: 3.8 miles Time: 1.5-2 hours Difficulty: Easy Elevation gain: 590 ft Dogs: Yes, on leash When to go: Year-round[/stextbox]Beacon Hill is so-named because it used to be home to a beacon tower that helped guide aircraft in and out of nearby Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale. The airport closed in 1959, and the tower itself has long since been removed. But the hill remains a great spot to catch views, and if Griffith Park is convenient, it’s a perfect after-work attitude adjustment.
Getting to the Trailhead
Park at Merry Go Round Lot One. The Lower Beacon Trail begins just beyond and the the left of the gate you pass on the way into the parking lot. Get turn-by-turn directions here on Google Maps. Griffith Park is open from 5am to 10:30pm, and there is no cost for entry or parking.
Hiking the Beacon Hill Loop Trail
Start the clockwise loop on the Lower Beacon Trail. But don’t look for a trail sign; Griffith Park trails are notoriously poorly marked. Bring GaiaGPS and a copy of the Griffith Park Map (PDF) for reference.
The Lower Beacon Trail will climb and drop a few times as it skirts the eastern boundary of Griffith Park near Interstate 5. Soon, downtown Los Angeles comes into view in the distance.
At 1.25 miles, you reach a fork with a trail that heads downhill. Bear to the right, skirting the fence for the nearby driving range.
A short distance further, you reach a three-way junction as the Lower Beacon, Cadman and Coolidge Trails meet. Bear right once more, taking the Coolidge Trail. From here, the trail begins to climb more steeply, eventually reaching the junction known as 5-Points. Turn right once again to head up the short spur trail to the summit of Beacon Hill.
The top of the hill was flattened for the long-gone beacon, but you can linger here and watch the city lights begin to twinkle before heading back to the 5-Points junction. The Verdugo Mountains, Burbank, Glendale, and Downtown Los Angeles are all part of this panoramic vista.
At 5-Points, once again, take the first trail to the right. This is the Fern Canyon Trail, and will take you back to the parking area, closing your loop.
What hiking adventures are on your “life list?” What the heck is a life list? Many people have a bucket list, filled with things they’d like to do before they “kick the bucket.” I prefer a list that helps me plan a full and satisfying life. I call it my life list.
With each year of experience I gain (I’m now up to Level 56!) my life list grows, even as I plan, go and complete previous list goals. The new book, Epic Hikes of the World just made my list even longer. I got a pre-release copy of the book to review, and took it with me on our recent week-long trip in Washington state. We were up there scouting peaks for the Pacific Northwest Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, and this made the perfect campsite reading material.
Epic Hikes of the World is a collection of two hundred hikes in locations all over the world, written by authors with first-hand experience. Fifty of these big adventures are given special treatment, with beautiful photos, diagrams and details that let you explore the trail from your arm chair (or camp chair, in my case). Each of these adventures is followed by a shorter section with three “more like this” trips.
Of course, the first thing I did was scan through the book to see which of these I’d already hiked. There were Angel’s Landingin Zion National Park, the Lost Coast Trailin Northern California and one of my favorite adventures, the John Muir Trail. My mom hiked the Camino de Santiago last year. My daughter and her fiancé got engaged while backpacking the W in Patagonia. And three of our SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Ambassadors recently summited Mount Kilimanjaro (congrats to Tony, Carissa and Jason!).
While most of the hikes in North America I had some familiarity with (and hiking the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail was already on my list), what really piqued my interest were the adventures in far-flung places that I’ve yet to visit. Some, like Scotland, New Zealand, Norway, the Alps were already on my radar. Others took me by surprise, such as the crowd-free alternative to Machu Picchu or bagging three peaks in a day in Capetown.
And I had never even thought of hiking Mt Kinabalu in Borneo before now.
The book is beautifully illustrated and makes a perfect coffee table book for yourself or the aspiring adventurer in your life. It will give you just enough detail to whet your appetite and help you kickstart your next adventure. Once you’ve narrowed down your adventure list, you’ll still need detailed guides, maps and advice for many of these trips, but this book makes a great launch pad.
Now if you’ll please excuse me, I have to start training for my next big adventure.
The High Sierra Trail is the thru-hike for people who can only spare a week of vacation. Unlike the longer John Muir Trail (JMT), which follows the Sierra Nevada north-to-south from Yosemite to Mount Whitney (or vice versa), The High Sierra Trail (HST) traverses the range from west-to-east. And unlike the JMT, the HST only takes about a week to hike from end-to-end.
The 72-mile trail begins at Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park, joins the JMT at Crabtree Meadow, continuing to the summit of Mount Whitney, then out to Whitney Portal. Avid backpacker Chris Smead and his friend John hiked the trail last September, creating what became the 39-minute backpacking film called The High Sierra Trail: A Documentary.
I first saw the film at its premiere at the Switchback Showcase back in May. The documentary has three key components: history, adventure, and the typical antics that occur when “trail delirium” kicks in.
The history of the HST sets the stage, told through the voice of retired ranger William Tweed. Tweed is a 30-year veteran of the national parks, and weaves in colorful background on how the HST came to be.
The adventures Chris and his friend John encountered on their HST thru-hike include a near-miss lightning strike, unpredictable weather, and culminates with their summit of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous 48 states.
My initial takeaway from the film? The High Sierra Trail really captured the essence of the HST, and how much adventure you can squeeze into just one week. If you’ve ever thought about hiking the HST, you should see this film.
The High Sierra Trail: Official Trailer
The High Sierra Trail - Trailer 2 - YouTube
Where to See The High Sierra Trail
The documentary is not yet available to stream online, as it’s still being shown in a variety of film festivals around North America. Outmersive Films has held a number of their own screenings, including a multi-film event called the Switchback Showcase.
The 1,350-acre Valley Fire near Forest Falls and Highway 38 continues to burn, but containment has increased to 82%, prompting the San Bernardino National Forest to issue a new order that reopens access to San Gorgonio mountain via several popular trails as of August 15, 2018.
You can now hike San Gorgonio via the Vivian Creek Trail, the South Fork Trail and the Falls Creek Trail (on the boundary of the closure area). Even the Fish Creek Trail, closed by the 2015 Lake Fire is now reopened. In addition, backcountry campsites in the newly opened area are once again available for overnight stays.
Zach Behrens with the Forest Service notes that FS Road 1N05 back to the the Aspen Grove and Fish Creek trailheads remains closed due to hazards from the 2015 Lake Fire, though you can walk the road, so consider that additional mileage before heading to those trailheads.
San Bernardino Peak and the San Bernardino Trail from Angelus Oaks, as well as the Momyer, John’s Meadow and Foresee Creek Trails remain closed.
Mount Ellinor stands nearly 6,000′ above sea level, a prominent sentinel at the south-eastern corner of the Olympic Peninsula. The trail up Mt. Ellinor has a reputation for being steep, but rewarding with terrific views. It’s also considered one of the best places in Washington to spy mountain goats. Ellinor delivered on all points.
[stextbox id=”custom” caption=”Trail Details” float=”true” align=”right” width=”270″]Summit: 5,952′ Distance: 6.6 miles Time: 4-5 hours Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation gain: 3,286 ft Dogs: Yes When to go: July-October[/stextbox]Ellinor was our third peak in as many days. We were scouting peaks for a Pacific Northwest edition of the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, and our Seattle-area friend Moosefish sent us up this mountain.
There are two main trailheads that lead to the summit during summer months: the Lower and Upper trailhead. The Upper Trailhead starts higher at 3,500 feet, shaving 900 feet of vertical climb and three miles off the hike. But it also requires a Northwest Forest Pass for parking. We chose the Lower Trailhead. No special pass is required for parking, it’s a little more of a climb (let’s make it MORE challenging), and it starts out more gently, giving you a chance to warm up your legs before tackling the really steep stuff.
Getting to the Trailhead
Take North Lake Cushman Road west from Hoodsport for 9.2 miles. When you reach the “T” intersection, you’ll see a sign to the right for Mount Ellinor. Here the road becomes a washboard gravel road. In dry conditions, a 2WD sedan will have no issues, you’ll just need to take your time, as it’s 6.2 miles of dusty gravel to the trailhead, including a hard left turn that was unsigned when we drove up (thankfully we had programmed the directions into our iPhone beforehand). Your best bet? Get turn-by-turn driving directions via Google Maps.
There was plenty of parking when we arrived on a July midweek morning, but this is a popular trail, so expect bigger crowds on the weekends.
Hiking up Mount Ellinor
The Mount Ellinor Trail starts out with a relatively gentle climb through old growth forest. There is plenty of shade, ferns and even the occasional bench conveniently located when you need to rest.
After about 1.5 miles and roughly 1,000 feet of vertical, you’ll reach a junction with the Upper Trail.
From here to the top, both trails follow the same route. And it begins to get steeper.
The trail continues up forested switchbacks, reaching an overlook at about 4,500 feet. If you look closely, you can see Mount Ranier in the hazy distance.
From here, there’s only about a mile to the summit, but you’ll gain nearly 1,500 feet. And most of that is above the timberline.
Looking back toward Lake Cushman, you can see hikers ascending what looks like a scramble, but there are actually carefully crafted steps. Sometimes you have to pause to find them, but they are there, thanks to the excellent work of the Mount Rose Trail Crew.
The trail reaches a traverse with carefully built steps. It’s hot and exposed, but there are wildflowers and the notch ahead makes a great spot to rest for the final push to the summit.
And looking back down from the notch, at the hikers slogging their way uphill. You are almost to the top from this point.
From the notch, there are a few more steep switchbacks, then the trail winds around and up to the summit. On a clear day, the views are incredible.
Mount Olympus, as seen from the summit of Mount Ellinor
When I reached the top, I didn’t see any mountain goats right away, but other hikers confirmed that there were several in the area. Sure enough, this goat strolled right past the summit, and struck a pose nearby.
Oddly enough, these mountain goats are not indigenous to the area. They were introduced to the Olympic Peninsula for hunting, and there is talk about relocating them to the Cascades. Time will tell.
[spacer height=”20px”]The return hike required slow and steady footwork on the way down. Sections of the trail have loose gravel, and trekking poles would be a real plus. Once you reach the forested section, it’s smooth sailing back to the trailhead. Just be sure to take time to enjoy the views and appreciate the wildflowers.
Will Mount Ellinor make the cut for the Pacific Northwest Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge? Most definitely. It’s a popular, but challenge-worthy peak.
Last year at the SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge Finishers Party, we wrote down our adventure goals for 2018. One of my big goals for 2018? Climbing 14,179′ Mount Shasta for the first time. There are many routes to the top of Mt Shasta, but by far the most popular and one of the least technical is via Avalanche Gulch.
[stextbox id=”custom” caption=”Trail Details” float=”true” align=”right” width=”270″]Summit: 14,179′ Distance: 12.3 miles Time: 2 days Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation gain: 7,411 ft Dogs: No When to go: May – mid-July[/stextbox]Make no mistake. This is not a hike. Climbing Mount Shasta requires winter mountaineering skills, avalanche awareness and sound judgement to know when it’s time to call it a day and live to climb the mountain another time. There is no “trail” to the top. There are no signposts to guide you along the way. You need to know how to navigate ever-changing conditions on snow and ice, on a mountain where the weather can be highly unpredictable. At a minimum, you should have experience traveling up and downhill with crampons and ice axe, self-arrest and glissade skills, and the ability to work together with your team.
Originally there were six of us, but as typically happens, as the date got closer, the team shrank. Ultimately, there were four of us: myself, John, Josh and Amie. We all had some winter mountaineering experience, but none of us had summited Mount Shasta before.
The Avalanche Gulch route begins at the Bunny Flat Trailhead (6,920′). There are pit toilets, wag bags (required beyond Horse Camp), and self-issue summit passes ($25 per person at the time of writing). We met at 7:00 am, put on our mountaineering boots, checked our gear one last time and shouldered our backpacks for the climb.
Our destination for the day was Helen Lake, and our goal was to get there before the sun became too strong.
There is a clear view of our route to Helen Lake from the trailhead, as well as the climb from there up to Red Banks. Mount Shasta looks incredibly steep and ominous, but also beautiful and awe-inspiring from this south-facing trailhead.
Left-to-right: Jeff, Josh, Amie and John, one mile in.
We were following the “summer trail” to Horse Camp (7,800′), so-called because it’s used when the snow has melted. Earlier in the season, climbers can follow a more direct route up the snow toward Helen Lake.
The first 1.8 miles is forested and mostly shady in the morning, but we stopped for a break at the historic Horse Camp just the same. This stone lodge is in remarkable condition and kept by crew of caretakers who rotate every five days. It’s also the last reliable source of water without melting snow. Mike, the caretaker on duty called it “The Fountain of Youth” and claimed he was 140 years old. Whether the water really possessed miraculous age-defying powers or not, it sure tasted good.
After topping off our water and checking out the lodge, we picked up the summit trail. The route is called Olberman’s Causeway, and portions of it are built of huge stones that pave the trail up into the mountain.
The trees grow sparse and soon you are climbing in a lunar landscape of volcanic scree. This section of trail is usually snow-covered earlier in the season, which in some ways would be much more pleasant.
The trail climbs steeply from Horse Camp. With the snow melted, we had to pick our way along the rocky switchbacks up the mountain to 50/50 Camp. It pays to turn around once in a while to see how far you’ve come.
We took another break and regrouped at 50/50 Camp (9,280′). This is another popular spot for folks to setup base camp, but we wanted to get further up the mountain. The snow fields began here.
The weather was warm and we were able to hike up in boots and poles — no traction devices required. Along the route there are patches of pink watermelon snow. Be sure not to eat or melt the pink snow; it’s not good for you.
We reached Helen Lake (10,400′) around lunchtime on Friday. It’s called a lake, but it’s a large flat area covered with snow and commonly used as a base camp. There were many tent sites already dug out and leveled in the snow, so we picked a trio of sites near each other and setup our tents.
Our plan was to stay in the shade through the intense afternoon sun, resting and melting snow with our stoves — our only source of water until we returned to Horse Camp.
As the sun dipped below the mountains, the temperatures quickly dropped. We were in our tents by 9pm for a 2am alarm. Saturday morning at 3am, we strapped on our crampons, helmets and headlamps and began the ascent of Avalanche Gulch.
The ascent was steep and slow going, carefully climbing and definitely feeling the effects of the thin air. As the sun began to rise, the pyramid-shaped shadow of Mount Shasta swept over the landscape, creating an awesome reminder of how prominent this volcano is.
The route up Avalanche Gulch itself was fairly easy to follow, thanks to the headlamps of the many other climbers already headed up. In general, you head to the right of The Heart and (when there is sufficient snow cover) to the right side of Red Banks, just left of The Thumb.
Pretty much everyone took a break when they reached the top of Red Banks (12,800′), rehydrating and fueling up for the next part of the climb: Misery Hill.
Here we skirted the top of the Kenwakiton Glacier. The bergschrund (the crevasse seen below opening up near the left side of the glacier closest to The Thumb) often opens wider across later in the season, forcing climbers to instead climb up one of the chutes in the Red Bank. We were fortunate to have enough snow coverage to take this easier route.
The climb up Misery Hill felt less dangerous than Avalanche Gulch, although the wind really picked up. We had gusts up to 40 mph that nearly knocked you off your feet.
When we reached the top of Misery Hill, there is a broad saddle between you and the final climb to the summit. We regrouped, checked with some of the climbers coming back down from the summits, and decided it was safe enough to continue.
The final climb to the summit was not bad, with well-worn tread through the snow and rock to the craggy summit of Mount Shasta. We took the obligatory summit selfies, signed the summit register, and headed back down.
The summit in some ways feels like the “goal” of this adventure, but it’s worth reiterating that this is the halfway point. We had over 7,000 feet to descend. Working our way back to Red Bank was pretty easy (much easier to catch your breath than when you’re climbing). A short distance down from Red Banks, we were able to glissade nearly 2,000 vertical feet down the mountain to Helen Lake.
We spent roughly an hour breaking camp, then began the slog down to Bunny Flat. And a slog it was. At this point, our legs and feet were tired, AND we were..
We peered up at the ridge above the cirque, straining to find Lamarck Col. Checking our maps and double-checking the GPS, we found what looked like a playground of car-sized boulders. The silhouette of a lone backpacker sitting at the top confirmed our suspicions — our route was going to involve some scrambling. Little did we know that the other side of the ridge would be even tougher. And it was only our second day on the second annual Muir Taco Adventure.
On the first Muir Taco Adventure, we packed in beer, grilled carne asada, tortillas, cheese, avocados and salsa over Bishop Pass. Our goal was to serve thru-hikers on the 211-mile John Muir Trail from Muir Hut on Muir Pass, but with one of our team members was hobbled by a nagging foot injury, so we opted instead to setup our pop-up taco stand at the Muir Monster.
This year, we had the same objective, but via a shorter but more challenging route to Muir Pass, heading over Lamarck Col. This route from the North Lake trailhead outside of Bishop begins as an established trail, but dissolves into a boulder-hopping, route finding trip over the col and down to the amazing views of Darwin Bench before finally joining the John Muir Trail near Evolution Lake. From there we planned to head south to Muir Pass, down into Le Conte Canyon, and finally up to Dusy Basin, over Bishop Pass and out to South Lake. It was a solid plan, until the wildfires came along.
There were four of us for this year’s mission. I was joined by three Muir Taco newbies: Paul, Mark and Byron. We drove up the 395 from LA to Bishop, picked up our permit, then parked one car at South Lake (our exit trailhead) and my Xterra at North Lake. With a mid-afternoon start, our plan for day one was an easy hike up to Lamarck Lake.
The next morning, we arose at sunrise. After the requisite coffee and oatmeal, we broke camp and headed toward Lamarck Col. The trail to the col is less-traveled and sometimes picking the route takes some detective work. The views to the east opened up as we climbed above the tree-line, and soon we approached the cirque.
We had some discussion about where exactly the col was. There wasn’t a clear “trail” that led up. It was going to be a boulder scramble to the crest of the col. Finally, we spied a single person standing at the divide next to the trail sign marking the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. We began carefully climbing from boulder to boulder up to the top of the col.
Smoke from the Rough Fire made this even more difficult.
When we reached the crest, we quickly realized two things. First, the smoke from the Rough Fire was far worse than we anticipated. It was certain to be a factor in this trip. Second, getting down the west side of the col would be even more arduous than climbing the east side.
There is no “trail” down from Lamarck Col. It’s another boulder scramble. Every now and then you run across a short social trail, but it soon gives way to another boulder field and you’re stuck picking your way down to the bottom of the basin. Carrying extra heavy loads with taco ingredients (and beer) doesn’t help.
Our goal had been to setup camp near the outlet of Evolution Lake on the JMT. Unfortunately, we got some bad news. As we neared Darwin Bench, we ran across a former ranger traveling in the opposite direction. He had just met up with rangers earlier in the day and was told that they were considering closing Muir Pass and even evacuating the ranger station in Le Conte Canyon due to wildfire danger. The Rough Fire was wreaking havoc.
Exhausted from the long, slow slog over and down the col, we decided to camp at Darwin Bench and reassess our plans.
Darwin Bench is a beautiful place to camp. Being off and above the JMT/PCT corridor, we had the place to ourselves.
After a decent night’s sleep, we considered our options around breakfast. We quickly ruled out our original plan to head over Muir Pass. The smoke had partially dissipated overnight, but we had recognized that as part of the pattern, and knew it would grow worse over the day. We could turn around and go back over Lamarck Col. With the memory of that fresh, we quickly ruled that option out as well. Our third option was to hike through Evolution Valley down to Goddard Canyon, then up Piute Creek, over Piute Pass and back to North Lake. We could still setup our “taco stand” in McClure Meadow. It was settled.
On our way down to McClure Meadow, we ran into a couple of JMT hikers who were continuing southbound in spite of the fire. We wished them well and handed them a beer for later. If nothing else, it would help clear the smoke out of their throats.
McClure Meadow had a great campsite for us to setup our taco production. We were right near the trail, so we could easily see and call out to any passing thru-hikers. Plus, we had a banner.
We setup production, heating the carne asada, making guacamole, and cooling the beer in the nearby creek. And soon we had hikers.
I’ll never get tired of the expressions of pure joy they share when they realize it’s not a joke – we really are offering them a free, freshly made taco and beer. And of course, one of the beautiful things about long distance backpacking is that you can always eat. Your body typically runs a caloric deficit, so more food just staves off the hunger.
My favorite story came when a group of college-age thru-hikers from east coast came by. One of them asked me “Are you the guy from SoCalHiker?! You’re the reason I’m hiking the JMT!” He shared how he’d spend time in class reading and re-reading my posts on the John Muir Trail. I’m hoping it didn’t stop him from graduating, but thrilled that he was inspired. “I bring fresh tacos and beer to all my readers,” I joked. It was a happy accident to run into him.
We shared a couple tacos with the ranger from McClure Meadow Station, and then packed up our gear and hit the trail again. This time, our plan was to camp along the San Joaquin River, near the northern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park.
Waking after our third night, we broke camp and soon left Kings Canyon NP. Here we parted from the JMT and PCT and headed up toward Piute Pass. I had never been up this route, and wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turns out, it’s quite beautiful!