In the middle of the Angeles Forest and the San Gabriel Mountain range, sits a 7,782 foot peak named South Mount Hawkins. The peak is most commonly accessed from its Northern Ridge via Crystal Lake's Windy Gap Trail and a small section of the Pacific Crest Trail. However, a close look at its surrounding topography reveals that this ridge continues south along the Western edge of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness to a mountain called Rattlesnake Peak (5,826 feet). Rattlesnake Peak is in itself one of the harder peaks to bag in the San Gabriel Mountains; its terrain and grade often being compared to that of Iron Mountain. The trail head can be found near Azusa Canyon's Shoemaker Canyon Road which is most famously known as the "Road to Nowhere" due to its incomplete construction.
On November 13th, TRVRS Apparel held its second ever group hike in which eighteen of Southern California's strongest outdoor enthusiasts (and one bad ass dog named Rebel) set out to climb South Mount Hawkins by way of its southern ridge starting at Shoemaker Canyon Road, a trek that climbs over 7,000 feet in under eight miles including some off trail navigation, bushwhacking and Class 2 terrain with the exception of a couple of minor Class 3 moves. Its difficulty is matched only by its awe-inspiring views of the Pine Mountain Ridge, the entire East Fork, the San Gabriel Reservoir, and the beautifully forested landscapes of Crystal Lake. This write-up should serve as a guide for anyone interested in the South Hawkins Ridge Traverse as well as our account of what turned out to be an incredible experience with some amazing individuals.
This trek is long and difficult even besides the fact that it includes off trail terrain, so it is important to plan its completion in accordance with your groups abilities. Our original plan was to finish the 17-mile out-and-back since the weather a few weeks prior to the date had been cool and cloudy. We went on a day when the heat peaked at 86 degrees and used most of our water by the time we had reached South Hawkins. We probably could have made it back to our water cache, but we all agreed to call for someone to pick us up at Crystal lake. Had we decided to head back, we wouldn't have made it to the cars until 9 or 10 pm. However, it would not be wise to depend on that kind of thing. Instead, prepare a shuttle at your finishing point OR if you are really looking for an adventure, enjoy the ridge as a backpacking trip starting at the bottom of the canyon and using the Crystal Lake Cafe as a resupply point and its campgrounds to stay the night before descending the following day.
November 13th, 2016 -- 4:00 am. The original meet time was set for 5 o' clock, but the weather indicated a hotter day than originally expected. Roberto and Tammy suggested that we move it back an hour to get a head start on the sunlight. Ironically, they were the only two hikers to show up late while the rest of us waited, sleep deprived in a parking lot for their arrival. After organizing a carpool, we caravaned up Highway 39 and made it to the trail head. We began unloading and preparing last minute provisions and at 5:20 am, we made for Rattlesnake Peak.
The Road to Nowhere is a mostly flat fire road walk, which allowed us to socialize and warm up the legs in preparation for the real climb. Eventually, I heard a yell from the back of the pack. I had missed the turnoff for our ascent. Although the fire road continues toward a massive tunnel, the route to the peak abruptly heads east 1.5 miles from the trial head after climbing 500 feet. I rushed past a bunch of wary hikers toward the offshoot while casually reminding everyone that I knew what I was doing.
The moment we left the fire road was discouraging as it is mostly made of loose dirt held together by dead roots and eroding rock. This type of terrain is quickly replaced by hard packed dirt, but continues to make appearances throughout the ascent toward the South Ridge of Rattlesnake peak. After five minutes climb, the trail continues north-west, crossing a gully before rounding the spur to the left. From here it is a consistent ridge line hike all the way up to Rattlesnake Peak, climbing 3,200 feet in under 3 miles. This portion of the trail although steep is mostly easy to navigate, but the further we climbed the more I noticed that the chaparral had grown since an ascent a year earlier and shoulder level Poodle Dog Bush now dotted the last quarter mile to the peak. The seemingly rapid growth of plant life was a consequence of the Williams fire which burned 4200 acres of this area in September 2012. Still we couldn't help but admire the panoramic views of the East Fork and they were only getting better with each step.
8:35 am -- Our arrival to the Summit was both rewarding and shocking. Although we had potentially completed half of our climbing efforts, the heat of the day had not yet set in, only reaching around 72 degrees, and a lot of us had used more water than we expected. On top of that, South Mount Hawkins and most of its Southern Ridge were now in plain sight, which allowed the days challenge to sink in. We took a long break to regroup, enjoy some snacks, and prepare for the rest of our trek. After some brief discussion on how we should approach the descent, we eventually agreed that we would drop down just North of the summit.
Initially, the steep terrain was made of mostly loose dirt and grass, which alleviated any fear of taking a plunge. A safe descent only required that we lean into the hill as we dropped down, but within minutes we were facing some class 3 exposure. It didn't feel right, and upon closer inspection of our surroundings, we all agreed that we had come the wrong way. A clear animal trail traversed the south-west side of the peak. I was able to confirm this trails usability a few days later when I came back to collect our water cache and a lost Walkie Talkie.*
After dodging another batch of Poodle Dog bush, we began to approach the first of two saddles along the ridge and it was clear that the transformation from our traditional Angeles Forest front country to its forested high country counterpart was beginning to take shape. We planted most of our water at the saddle and made for the next 300 foot hill climb. After taking another short break at the top of the hill (5 miles, 5335 feet climbed), Erin and Sara noted that our Sweeper Arnold had deviated from the trail at the bottom of the hill and had not yet arrived. They asked him why he was not following the group to which he responded something along the lines of "theres a drum in my head and I walk to the beat of it!" before disappearing into some bushes. I tried to contact him on his Walkie Talkie, but the only response I could make out was short bursts of word fragments and silence. This made me even more nervous.
The logic of going around the small hill was good in theory, but I can think of several scenarios in which I had done this in the past only for it to backfire. We had all seen the route that he took, but the clear open trail up and over the hill was just so definite that we decided to stick with it. Finally, Arnold responded, saying that he was negotiating some steep rock walls riddled with degrading tree roots in which his only option was to friction climb across. I stood at the top of the hill with a couple others while the rest of the group began to descend to the next saddle and finally Arnold responded again saying "Hey! I'm with Tammy and the others! Whats taking you so long?" I let out an awkward combination between a sigh of relief and a chuckle before making for the Devil's Saddle.
At 10:20 am, after climbing 4,205 feet in 5.3 miles, we had reached Devils Saddle, which is no official name but I am calling it that anyway because it lies just above Devils Gulch to the east and it sounds cool. The views up to this point had made our next goal very clear. We had one more long rolling ridge to climb straight to the peak and most of it was exposed to the harsh sun. On top of that, most of the group had already begun to express concern for the amount of water they were consuming and the rest of mile 5 (3/4 of a mile) featured a little under 1,200 feet of gain making for a very slow and draining start. Eventually, the steep terrain started to level, only to be replaced by a plant I had been all to familiar with. Loose, airy Buckthorn lined the trail throughout the rest of mile 6 like an obstacle in a Spartan race. We got lucky as it was mostly avoidable, but I wouldn't want to be here in another year or two when it will likely be overgrown and tricky to navigate without becoming intimate with.
After making it through most of the Buckthorn, we sat under the shade of a tree for one last regroup before our final push. Everyone was hot, tired, and ready to be finished. Phoning for a ride had now become a serious topic of conversation. Because I didn't have a phone or think that cell phone reception was an option, I got up and made for the peak. It seemed that the entire group was comfortable moving at their own rate and Jose, an experienced mountaineer and ultra runner who I had met that morning was right behind me, motivating me to continue at a strong pace. I was in autopilot when I noticed a drastic change in the environment. Sharp chaparral had been replaced by soft grass and large pine trees, and a cool breeze now cloaked the effects of the relentless California sun. I turned away from the peak to take in the view. The Pine Mountain ridge extended outward to the east, grasping for Mount Baldy who hovered over Iron mountains shoulder like an older sibling in a family photo while the San Gabriel River lay across its base. The adjacent south-west spurs of Hawkins Ridge featured massive firebreaks that pointed toward the San Gabriel Reservoir and a little further north was a sea of blue hues made up of hundreds of peaks and canyons I couldn't name. We had entered true Angeles Forest high country.
At 1:20 pm (8.5 miles, roughly 7,400 feet climbed), Jose and I had made it to the peak. South Mount Hawkins has quite the wide open area to explore including a small brick building, a broken down picnic bench, and a toilet which we thought may have held the summit register. It didn't. We parked up next to the building to keep an eye out for the others but immediately sprawled out to take a nap and about 45 minutes later, we heard the rest of the group start to arrive. They had used their time climbing the ridge to find us a ride from Crystal Lake, which turned an extremely difficult 7 mile off trail descent into a very easy 5 mile fire road walk. This gave us plenty of time to hang out around the peak and share a few laughs.
During the weeks of planning this hike, we had decided that it would be dedicated to the memory of Michael Powell. A man who was a strong member of the Southern California hiking community, a photographer, and a founding member of the group Hike Likers. He had passed away on October 18th while descending the Mount Whitney trail. Although a lot of us barely knew him, it was obvious in our short interactions that he was a great person and the circumstances from which he left us sent a ripple effect throughout our community bringing together hundreds of hikers to use the hash tag #hikeformike on their own memorial outings. We carried a summit register to the peak including an original pen & ink sketch of Michael and built a rock cairn for any visitors to find it. Michael made it clear that he wanted to join us on this hike the weeks before the date and we all felt like he made it up.
At 3:30 pm, we decided it was time to head down to Crystal Lake by way of Forest Road 3N07 which is the same one that loops around South Hawkins' Summit. Sara's father was to meet us there at 5 pm and the 5 mile trek would take us roughly an hour and a half at a steady pace. The descent offered some excellent perspectives of the Windy Gap and Mount Islip's South Ridge with Twin Peaks steep northern slope in the background. The highlight of the descent was about 2 miles in when we encountered an entire herd of Big Horn Sheep which in Southern California is a spectacle as rare and magical as a shooting star. We stood in awe until they left our view and continued on the path with smiles from ear to ear.
We had arrived at the Crystal Lake Cafe at 5 pm just as our ride got there and started to shuttle back to Shoemaker Canyon Road. It took two hours to collect everyone's vehicles and head back to Azusa where our adventure had begun. Most of the group had called it a night after picking up their cars, but a few of us went to the Congregation Ale House to have a drink and reflect on the incredible journey we had completed. A strong group was being formed and we would share many more adventures in our local wilderness.
Total Distance : 13.5 miles
Total Elevation (feet): 7565 feet