Via Indian Truck Trail
It was Presidents day Feb 19, 2001. This was my first try at climbing to the top of Santiago Peak from the Indian Truck Trail off the I-15 Fwy in Riverside County. I have seen this peak looming up from the freeway on my way to work and noticed that sometimes it has snow on it just after the colder storms in winter. It looked inviting and I thought it would be a great chance to get in a good workout and test some of my gear. I've read trail descriptions from an older version of Jerry Schad's book, "Afoot and Afield in Orange County", and it didn't look all that hard. I knew it would be a long day since the roundtrip hike from the trailhead to the peak & back would be close to 23 miles with an elevation gain of about 5000ft. I opted for an alpine start of 5:15AM and arrived at the Indian Truck Trail offramp from the I-15 ready to go. I followed the road until it turned into a washboard dirt surface and turned left. Driving a little while longer I passed a big oak tree which people must have used for a dump site as it was littered with old washing machines and broken lazy boys. At about 1 1/4 miles I came to the sign for the Korean church retreat and the trailhead sign. I parked my truck and hung up my National Forest Adventure Pass. It was 5:15 am and still really dark except for a sliver of a moon filling the dark sky.
I was eager to try out my new Alpina trekking poles and Petzel headlamp so I started up the fire road passing a sign warning that passenger cars where not recommended. The first forty-five minutes were spent getting into a groove and eating up the gradual but steady incline. As I climbed higher the sun began to lighten up the sky and I could see vague shapes around me without using the headlamp so I switched it off. When I made the turn from the south side of the ridgeline toward the north the view opened up and I could see a gorgeous sunrise over Mt. San Jacinto mountain rising up above the clouds.
As the sun rose higher in the sky I could see a great expanse of Riverside County as the trail continued along the edge of the ridge with views out to Mt. San Antonio (Baldy) and toward San Gorgonio Mountain. All of the street lights were twinkling out and the miniature cars began to rush around . While still climbing, the trail switches back to the north side and goes through a forested section with moss and ferns growing oddly out of the side of the road. The pine trees appear and the terrain off to the right drops off steeply into Mayhew Canyon where Jerry Schad says there is a deeply protected and pristine stream. It'd be on hell of a climb back out of the canyon though.
After passing around a hill you can see the Radio Towers of Santiago Peak looming up ahead. They seem so close but how was I to know the trail would bend around to the left and veer away from the peak. The trail loses altitude and I cursed for having to do it. I was getting tired of the continual grade but the thought of having to regain the height didn't set well. This part of the trail is probably the most scenic and gives you the sense of hiking in the Sierras . As you get nearer to the Divide road you pass around the hill and can now see back toward the southeast and look over the clouds at Corona Lake. At about 6.6 miles I finally reached the top of the Divide Road.
I was planning on taking a much needed rest. I expected to see a flat area with a sign or something but it was basically just a fork in the trial with the road to the left heading up toward Trabuco Peak and to the right toward Santiago Peak. I was able to finally able to see over the other side of the Santa Ana mountains and I could see toward the ocean. That morning a fairly large storm was rapidly approaching with it expecting to reach Orange and Riverside counties by early afternoon. I knew I would have to hurry to reach the peak before the rain or snow was to hit so I opted to continue on.
Off toward the west I could see the storm rapidly approaching and could feel the colder air blowing in on me. The clouds were beginning to separate into layers and I hoped I didn't make a mistake today. I picked up my pace and continued climbing toward the northwest along the Divide Road. The road was in fairly good condition and I had thoughts of driving my truck up instead of hiking. The trail winds along for what seemed like forever but it has a great view of the trail toward Holy Jim Canyon and the Rancho Santa Margarita/Dove Canyon housing developments. Along the trail I passed along the south side of a hill and saw a concrete block building nestled in the side of the hill. There was a spring seeping down and I could hear the trickling of the water and saw lush ferns and vegetation around the trail. There was also alot of broken bottles and trash strewn about which reminds me to bring up the Leave No Trace words. There was also a large tree covered with names carved into it over the years.
I continued up along the trail which regains the view overlooking Holy Jim Canyon to the southwest and becomes somewhat steeper. I think this is where I finally noticed the grade changing. After passing round the top of the ridge you switch back to the northside of the ridge and you're back into the woods again. This is where I began seeing pockets of snow in low lying places and melted slush on the trail. As I continued toward the top the snow became increasing deeper until it completely covered the road. It was old snow probably at least a week old as it was firm and easy to walk on. There were also ruts in the road from trucks but the bottoms of the ruts were iced up and too slippery to walk on. I decided to stay on the tops as it was easier going. My gore-tex Zamberlan boots were watertight and plunged through the snow crust without effort and my trekking poles helped steady my balance through the icy spots. With the peak just around the bend the trail turns even steeper and I really had to plant my poles to get the rest of the way up.
When I finally reached the top it was 9:15 AM or four hours from the time I left my car. Not bad I thought for hiking uphill for almost 12 miles. Supposedly it is about 6.6 to the divide and another 4.8 to the peak. The snow at the top was about ankle high but I postholed a few times up to mid shin trying to find the true high spot. The wind was blowing about 20-25 MPH and the wind was picking up snow and ice off the ground and blowing it up at me. Every now and then I could feel either rain or sleet beginning to drop but then it would subside again. I walked around checking out the antennas and buildings and noticed an emergency phone with a USFS logo on it dedicated for Emergency Use Only. There was a small 18ft travel trailer and a backhoe but not much else. I looked for the register but could not find it. I read somewhere that it is in an ammo can next to a concrete covered rock but I couldn't find it, maybe it was covered with snow. Being somewhat disappointed I decided to pick out a spot on the northeast edge of the peak and laid out my old ensolite sit-pad on the snow. Because I had worked up quite a sweat breaking trail in the snow the last mile I dug out my fleece jacket, gloves and windshell. I changed my smartwool socks into a drier pair and ate a quick lunch of hard cheese and a leftover croissant and ate a couple sticks of beef jerky. I couldn't believe how much colder it was on top. My zipper thermometer I had put on my windshell read 38 degrees, dropping from 40 when I had arrived. The wind was now blowing stinging ice crystals up from the slope below me and I guzzled the last of one of my water bottles and decided it was time to start back.
Before I gathered up my gear I took one more look around and could see from Mt. San Jacinto north toward Mt. San Antonio and around toward the ocean. It was a great view but foreboding as I was getting darker by the minute. I snapped what few pictures I had left in my wife's camera I had brought along and started back down. I walked briskly down from the antennas along the road with the ruts in it and bended around to the left losing view of the top of the peak Going downhill was much easier than going uphill and I plunge-stepped through the snow heading north. I picked up the pace and continued in the snow thinking about what I would do if it really cut loose with rain and snow. After about a mile I remembered that while coming up I had rounded a big bend in the snow with the trail making a switch from northward to a loop now heading south. I was thinking that I should have reached it by now and was having second thoughts about my direction finding skills. I have always prided myself on being able to read a map and use a compass but I had been in such a hurry I had not pulled out my map once. I slowed my pace and came to the northern edge of the trail overlooking a broad expanse of the head of a canyon and I could see far off towards Corona. At that point I knew I had made a mistake somewhere and felt like an idiot. How could someone get lost on a fire road 15 feet wide. I stopped and pulled out my map and confirmed my worst fear. I had somehow gone the wrong way on the Main Divide road and was now looking at Modeska Peak. I had that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I knew I would have to regain the altitude in the snow and retreat back up to Santiago Peak wasting about 45 minutes. I sucked it up and plodded uphill through the snow and ice and came back to the Peak.
As I reached the top of the road at the peak it looked the same and for a minute I was dumbfounded. I briefly thought "was I really heading the right direction in the first place", "wouldn't that have been great"! I took a deep breath (both because I needed it and to calm myself) and began looking for clues. Off to my left I noted a set of footprint coming up from below. The area was covered in snow and there were no ruts in the road, just a flat spot where a road could have been. I walked over to take a better look and noticed small well defined little holes in the snow evenly spaced about 3 feet apart and instantly recognized them and marks left by my trekking poles on the way up. Whew!, what a relief. I noticed the path went back down the hill on the southern edge and skirted the peak under the road with the ruts. I plunged down the trail and got back on track.
After about a mile I heard motorized sounds and coming around a bend I saw a guy stopped in the trail on a quad runner spinning tires on the snow. He was dressed in full riding gear and looked upset. I talked to him briefly and he told me he was having trouble getting traction and his quad was stalling out. I told him the trail just got worse up the road and wished him luck. About 100 yards further down I ran into a friend of his on a motorcycle. He was also having trouble and was just fishtailing in the snow not going anywhere. I always thought those knobby tires would get you just about anywhere. I'll stick with my Zamberlans. I continued the relentless pounding down the trail and was really glad to see the turnoff to the Indian Truck Trail up ahead. Suddenly, the motorcycle and quad came roaring by and jokingly asked me if I needed a lift and sped off down the trail.
The trail down seemed like it would go on forever. I wasn't so interested in the scenery anymore and could feel my toes pounding into the ends of my boots. I could feel it warm up and the cold wind was blocked by the hillside so I stopped briefly and shed my windshell and fleece. I kept my gloves on as my right hand was starting to get a blister from the trekking pole grip. I ate a chocolate chip Peak Bar, chugged some ice cold water and had another piece or two of jerky. After coming back upon the lower ridgelines I could see the I-15 fwy and Corona and they both looked so tantilizingly close it didn't look that far now. The last few miles seemed to go for forever. I passed away the time by counting my paces and matching them to the mile markers along side the trail I've heard that the average person uses 140 steps per 100 meters on level ground and about 160 on uneven terrain. I counted mine and went from 1-140 and counted that as 1/10 km (downhill pacing) I arrived at the next mileage marker with a total count of 9/10 km plus 60 paces. I guess I need work on finding my pacing. It was easier to figure that I walked about a mile uphill at 3mph or a mile every 20 minutes. About 2/3 faster rate downhill.
Anyway, I could finally see the orchards of the Korean Church Retreat and knew I was almost done. Suddenly three dogs began barking and I thought ,Oh great! now I've got to fend off the dogs to get back to my truck. Much to my delight they were just puppies and after a little coaxing they let me pet them. At last I could see my truck and my feet were really starting to hurt. I propped my pack up against the trail sign and snapped the last photo. It was 1:45 PM and I had done the entire trip in 7 1/2 hours even with the extra waisted time retracing my steps. All in all the trip was worth it. I learned how far I could push myself and not to take my map compass for granted. I also need to remind myself to look back often along the trail as is looks very different coming back.
More Great Links
G.O.R.P Great Outdoor Receation Page Great site for just about everything
Desert U.S.A. Trail guides to Anza Borrego, Desert Regions
TopoZone Free on-line topographic maps
Maptech Free on-line topographic maps