Cucamonga Peak

Distance: 13.8 Miles
Elevation gained: 4,400′
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time: 6:45
Critters: Manic chipmunks

Pros:
– Beautiful mountain riparian environment at Icehouse Canyon
– Unique views of the San Gabriels
– Views of the Inland Empire (sort of)
– Challenging and rewarding hike

Cons:
– Air pollution spoils the view of the Inland Empire and neighboring mountain ranges
– Chapman Trail could have been left out
– Having to wait an hour for the Mt. Baldy Visitor Center to open so that I could get my permit.

Details:

Icehouse Canyon Trail – Cucamonga Peak Trail – Chapman Trail

Coming in at number two on the SoCal Six Pack of Peaks: Cucamonga Peak is the eastern-most rampart of the San Gabriel Mountains. This is my third “bottle” out of the six pack – the previous two being Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. Wilson. This makes me want beer just thinking about it. I devised a Twelve Pack of Peaks that includes some smaller peaks in San Diego, Orange County, and one peak in the Santa Monica Mountains. You can’t do the Six Pack in winter without gear, Mt. Wilson excepted, and I needed a way to warm up to these big guys while it was still cool. I have completed 8 out of 12 on that list.

The slope of Cucamonga drops precipitously into Rancho Cucamonga on the south and into the valley through which I-15 crosses the hills and drops into Victorville on the way to Vegas on the east. Cucamonga is part of a cluster of 8,000′ peaks dominated by the 10,064 foot massif of Mt. Baldy. Much of this area resides within the Cucamonga Wilderness, and you’ll need a wilderness permit to hike here. Advice: Call-ahead. They’ll pin your permit up so you can grab it on your way.

You can find the trailhead for Cucamonga Peak at Icehouse Canyon. Many accounts describing Icehouse Canyon suggest that there was once an ice-producing plant here during the early part of the 20th century. Because the canyon gets so cold during the winter and spring, ice and snow tend to linger, and, apparently, a small ice packing operation tried to take advantage of this by selling the ice to locals in the surrounding area. I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes a fun story. Another way to explain the name is that this canyon gets pretty damn cold sometimes, although today it was fairly warm.

Like Santa Anita and Holy Jim Canyons, Icehouse also contains a small number of cabins, built in the early 20th century. However, Icehouse has fewer cabins, as well as a number of forlorn ruins of cabins that fell victim to a fire.

While the cabins add a touch of historical color to this leg of the hike, the main attraction is the gorgeous scenery, which I’ve decided should be called “Mountain Riparian,” even though it may already be called that (it’s not). To refresh, riparian vegetation is vegetations that grows along watercourses. At lower elevations, this vegetation consists of willows, oaks, cottonwoods, sycamores, the occasional bay, and a number of water-loving grasses, shrubs, and plants. At higher elevations, alders, maples, cedars, Douglas firs, canyon oaks, and the odd fern replace the lower-level vegetation, creating an environment that is uniquely, and surprisingly, Southern California.

The trail climbs out of this mountain riparian zone, and suddenly you find yourself in mixed-confier forest, featuring white fir, ponderosa pine, sugar pine, and incense cedar. The trees represent the same variety you’d find in the Sierras. However, the San Gabriels are very dry and rocky, with the underlying vegetation is much more sparse, consisting of ceanothus (in full honey-scented bloom), manzanita, and shrub oak. Aside from that difference, though, you’re in classic California mountain scenery from this initial transition until Icehouse Saddle.

The trail up to the saddle is difficult, as your body is attempting to acclimate to the altitude gain of 2,500′. However, taking it slow has its own rewards as this section of the trail is beautiful. Views down the canyon open up as you climb, and, eventually, you round a corner as Mt. Baldy comes into view (Note: that’s not Baldy in the picture).

At the saddle, there are a number of choices for other hikes, including Ontario Peak, the Three T’s Trail, and a few other trails heading down a steep canyon which I’m too lazy to look up right now. The main option is a 2.5 mile trail to the top of Cucamonga Peak. Initially, this trail winds around the flank of Bighorn Mountain until it reaches another saddle, from which you can get your first glimpse of the smog-obcscured San Gabriel Valley stretching out to infinity.

After this saddle, the trail switchbacks vigorously up to the top as a few limber pines begin to make their appearance. Limber pines are called thus because you can twist and bend their younger branches without breaking them. This flexibility is an evolutionary tactic adopted by the pine to shed heavy snow accumulations. If you find a branch young enough and long enough, you can actually tie it in a knot.

Finally, after a punishing, but brief, stretch, you reach the peak. Even though the smog is totally expected (this is the Inland Empire, after all), the obscurity in the details of the views is a little frustrating. That said, you can still see all the major peaks, including a great “family portrait” of the Three T’s, Ontario, Bighorn, and their patriarch, Mt. Baldy, to the west. Gorgonio and Jacinto poke their lofty crowns out from the haze, and Santiago Peak shimmers due south in the slightly cleaner air above Orange County. I imagine this is a fine view on a clear winter day, but I would not recommend climbing this mountain in snow and ice since there are numerous steep drop-offs, and snow holds tenaciously on the north facing slopes.

After a victory apple, a long break at the top, and a chat with some other hikers, I headed back down and opted to take the Chapman Trail the rest of the way. The Chapman Trail parallels the Icehouse Canyon Trail about 500-1,500 feet above. The perspective change is welcome, and the descent is more gradual. However, I can’t really recommend this trail, especially on a hot day. There is very little tree coverage, and the trail leads you through dense chaparral growths that seem eager to rip and tear at your skin. The trail is rocky and, at times, treacherous, with a steep, endless slope dropping on your left for the bulk of the trail. Probably best to go back through Icehouse, although I did have the pleasure of finding a few bright-red snow plants along the trail.

All in all, this is a great trail/peak. It delivers exactly what it promises – a tough climb – and throws in the cool, rushing water and shady alders in Icehouse Canyon as a bonus.

On top of that, Baldy looms large over this trail. Doing this hike before Baldy not only prepares you (Cucamonga is actually longer and steeper), but it whets your appetite for the massive bald giant just a few miles away. It’s incredible that this topography is so close to Los Angeles, and I really can’t believe I haven’t taken advantage of it sooner. 

May: 74.5 Miles
Year-to-Date: 585.3 Miles

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