Sunday, August 14, 2011

North Backbone Trail to Pine, Dawson, and Baldy 8/7/11

After having climbed Mt. Baldy seven times between the two of us, we thought it was time to try something new. The North Backbone Trail is one of the routes less traveled (for good reason) and it was nice to have a relatively solitary climb to one of the most popular peaks in the area. Even non-peakbaggers want to bag the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains.

    Mt. San Antonio from the trail

This is yet another hike that starts with a nauseating ride along the Angeles Crest Highway, except in this case, that's not even the worst part of the drive. If you want to save three miles of hiking and 2000' of elevation (believe me, on this hike, you do), you'll have to take Blue Ridge Road from the highway, which is a completely fucked up rocky dirt road that our very 2WD car did not appreciate. You're only on that road for about 8 miles, but it takes almost an hour if you don't want to drive off a cliff or completely mess up your car. Alternatively, if you have massive low-hangers or you're worried about your car, you could start from the Acorn Trailhead in Wrightwood.

We gave up after about 6.5 miles of driving on Blue Ridge Road and parked at a turnout. It added 3 miles to the hike, but the extra mileage was all flat and actually a nice way to start and end a very unflat climb. The trail to Mt. Baldy is only 4 miles each way, but this rollercoaster hike gains (and loses) about 6000' over those 8 miles. Still a good idea to start as early as possible because there are parts where you really don't want to rush yourself. Including our extra 3 miles, the hike took us around 9 hours.

Each peak starts with a descent down to a saddle before gaining some crazy elevation, so there's a total of 8 ascents on this hike: up to Point 8555 (not a peak but still requires a short climb), Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak, Mt. Baldy, then back to the trail just below Dawson, then Pine, 8555 and back up to the trailhead. If you're planning on going all the way to Baldy, the only one you can skip is Dawson, but there's really no reason to since it's an easy scramble up from the trail and only adds about 100 feet of gain.

Ascent #1 of 8

There are some other trip reports out there for this trail, but no one seems to emphasize how dangerous it is. I'm not ashamed to acknowledge my ball-lessness, however; this trail is fucking scary. The entire route goes along the ridge, much of it with (probably deadly) drops on at least one side. The most strenuous spots going north are the climbs up to Pine and Baldy. They both gain over 1000' in under a mile and there are some tricky class 2 spots on the Pine climb, but those are the biggest challenges on the way to Baldy.

  North Backbone Ridge

Climbing Pine Mountain

Baldy Summit Push

There are some spots where I slowed down but at no point did I feel like I was likely to slip and fall off the ridge.

The trip back however...

Gaining over 1000' in under a mile means, of course, that it's gonna be a slippery ride coming down. There aren't any crazy drop offs coming down Baldy until right before the saddle, and even there it's only on one side. The north side of Pine is where is gets bad. It sure seemed like the steepest spots just happened to be where there were drop offs on both sides, and it's slippy as hell.

Crazy drop off just north of the Baldy summit

Taking it slow

Quickest way off the ridge (not recommended)

There was no one around for miles so no reason not to get on my ass and just scoot along the scariest parts of the trail. In some places, a hiking pole was helpful, in others, I preferred my hands. Not sure exactly where, but there was at least one spot where I just sat for a second looking at the section of the trail in front of me thinking that it was just too scary and I'd rather stay there and let the mountain lions have at me. But, of course, we continued and got back safely and well before dark.

  San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains from Pine Mountain

Matti's pics.


  1. My husband and I did this yesterday which was pretty stupid given the clouds. Thankfully, there was just a little bit of rain but he wanted to get off the summit in ten minutes. So, we did it in seven hours. This was our third time on this trail and made a pact to never do it again. It's physically so punishing although you do get some insanely great views of the mountain range at Dawson's Peak.

    A nine-year-old did that trail yesterday which I think is pretty damn amazing. Thanks for such a great post!

  2. Wow, three times! Once was definitely enough for us.

    Thanks for reading! Do you have a hiking blog?

  3. I took my blog down. It wasn't about hiking at all, I don't remember writing about it. That's probably strange since hiking is our main sport. I'm hooked into yours now! Love reading your stuff.

  4. Awesome! I will try not to be boring.

  5. Enjoyed your writeup! I did this hike last Sunday for the second time. The first time was back in 1983. It was much harder than I remembered or maybe I'm just getting old. I'm trying to convince two friends to do it with me next Monday (Veterans Day) if the predicted snow this weekend doesn't close the access road.

    1. One of my favorite hikes ever. Good luck if you try it again tomorrow!