A Mount Baldy Day Hike: SoCal Summits

Apple Picking in Oak Glen, California
A Weekend in Death Valley National Park

 

Whether you’re new to Los Angeles or a seasoned SoCal hiking fiend, hiking Mount Baldy provides a great challenge and a full day hike. You should plan at least 8-10 hours for this hike, and consider yourself an intermediate level hiker.

 

Mount Baldy Basics:

Total hike: Approximately 10 miles

Elevation: 10,064 feet.

Gain: 3,900 feet

There are multiple route options, and the altitude is just enough to start messing with you (if you’re susceptible to altitude sickness, like I am). Be prepared and be ready for a long, but incredibly rewarding hike.

Preparation Note: 

In addition to the usual day hiking gear, I need to sing the praises of my trekking poles. I’m pretty sure they saved my life on more than one occasion. In all honesty, I used to think trekking poles were  silly, but now I’m a total convert. These things are amazing. If you don’t have a set, I highly recommend investing in them (I use the Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock poles for women)

*Note: That’s a referral link, and I absolutely adore this product. It’s one of the best hiking purchases I’ve made that I didn’t expect to fall in love with.

Alright, let’s dive in.

Why Mount Baldy?

I first learned of the Six Pack of Peaks just after moving to Los Angeles. The “challenge” is to summit six major peaks in the vicinity of Los Angeles within a single summer. These peaks include Mt. Wilson, Cucamonga Peak, Mt. San Antonio (aka Baldy), San Bernardino Peak, Mt. San Jacinto, and San Gorgonio Peak and range in elevation from 5,700 to 11,503 feet.

Two of the six (Cucamonga and Baldy) are visible from our apartment complex. So while we aren’t quite ready to tackle all six in one summer, we were excited to attempt our first summit.

Tara and I, along with Marie from Ardent Camper, chose Mt. San Antonio, also known as Mount Baldy. It was a short drive, and Tara and I were slightly more familiar with the route, having hiked the first quarter mile or so of it. We’d also spent some time at the ski resort that is part of the mountain, so we felt like we had at slight idea of what we were getting ourselves into.

Hiking Mount Baldy: The Route

If you want to summit Mount Baldy, you have a few different options. While there are quite a few different ways to the summit, the two most popular begin at the Manker Flats Campground, giving you the option to create a loop or do an out-and-back trip.

The right hand option has you going up the Devil’s Backbone and down the Baldy Bowl, whereas if you opt to go left you’ll be doing the reverse. Either way, the first mile or so of trail is the same: a wide, partially paved road that leads to the San Antonio Falls and takes you up a few easy switchbacks.

Hiking Mount Baldy: Near the trailhead

Tara and Scout enjoy the paved, first section of the trail on a previous hike.

It’s easy to miss the split in the trail, and it comes up fast after you’ve passed the falls. Keep an eye out for the sign directing you to the Baldy Bowl. Once you see it, you have a decision to make.

Hiking Mount Baldy: The trail split between Devil's Backbone and the Baldy Bowl

Can you see the two trails? We almost didn’t.

Looping around on the right side (the Devil’s Backbone route) will take you to Baldy Notch, where the ski lodge offers food, actual flush toilets, and a convenient ski lift you can ride down if you’ve had enough.

The barely visible left-hand route takes you up the Bowl. It does have a stopping point called the ski hut, but there’s not much there beyond a toilet and some picnic tables. If you choose the left-hand route, the only way down is to turn around.

Our path up Mount Baldy

Our initial plan to summit Baldy was thwarted by poor planning. You need an Adventure Pass ($5.00) to park at Manker Flats, and we forgot to get one ahead of time. This meant waiting until the visitor’s center in Baldy Village opened. Thanks to this, we didn’t get to the trail until 9:20am, a far cry from our original plan to set out around 7:00am.

We knew the hike would take us 10-11 hours, which meant we would be pushing dark. That thought made all three of us uneasy, so we opted to go up the Devil’s Backbone route. That way, we had the option to turn around at the Lodge (and even take the lift down if we wanted).

San Antonio Falls to the Notch

Once we decided to set our sights on the Notch, we were rewarded with a winding, flat trail full of switchbacks. It was nice and wide, with pockets of shade throughout (though the majority of the trail is in direct sunlight). Since we weren’t planning to summit, we took our time, taking frequent breaks.

Hiking Mount Baldy

It’s still early on, and we’re all smiles. So fresh. So not ready for what’s to come.

It’s pretty hard to get lost on this trail. There’s really only one path up to the notch and while there aren’t any signs, it’s obvious which way you should be going. The only time we got a little confused was when we arrived at the last switchback, which is part of the ski resort. There are several trails that branch off with no signage. We took the left-most trail and it dumped us right out at the Ski Lodge. I suspect all of the other trails would have led there eventually, based on the ski resort’s map.

The Notch itself is a great place to catch your breath. The views are fabulous, there are plenty of picnic tables.

The Notch to the Summit via Devil’s Backbone

At the Notch, we took a breather for lunch and then sat down to make a decision about our next steps. Our initial plan, after the late arrival, was to turn around and go back the way we came. But it was still early (only about noon), and we felt as though we had some hiking left in us.

Besides, we were curious about the Devil’s Backbone. With a name like that, who wouldn’t be? After some deliberating, we decided we’d go to the start of the Backbone and then turn back.

From the Notch there are three ways to get to Devil’s Backbone. Remember, you’re at a ski resort, so all three trails effectively have you hiking up a ski slope. We recommend taking the right-most trail (it’s immediately in front of you if your back is to the lodge). This is, according to a helpful employee at the lodge, the least steep of the three options. Even so, it kicked our butt.

The three trails meet up at the beginning of the Devil’s Backbone, aptly named for the sheer drop on either side. It was windy when we were there, but not quite as narrow as I thought it would be. And, of course, once we saw the Backbone we couldn’t just turn around…

So on we went! It was a bit harrowing in times, especially when there was two-way traffic, but the scariest part of it is relatively short (maybe half a mile).

After that it’s up…and up…and up. We knew we’d reached the point of no return, and so we pressed on, hiking past a false summit (Mt. Harding) and taking frequent breaks.

Hiking Mount Baldy: Along the trail

Just keep trekkin’, just keep trekkin’…

Just around the end of the tree line, the altitude hit us hard. This was also, of course, right when we turned a corner and saw the summit.

The last 700 feet or so are brutal. It’s pure scramble on skree, with any number of twisty trails to get you to the top. We had to stop at least a dozen times to catch our breath, but we didn’t give up. I’ve been on the edge of altitude sickness before, and turned back, but this time I was determined to make it.

The Summit!

Less than a hundred feet from the summit there was a serious debate about turning back. The altitude was getting to us and we were exhausted. But we could see the summit, just ahead, and pressed on.

I’d be lying if I told you there weren’t tears in my eyes when I saw the flags flapping in the wind at the top.

It was chilly, but there were various wind breaks where we could gather to rest and eat a quick snack. And, of course, take victory pictures.

Hiking Mount Baldy: The Summit

Obligatory “facing the view” pic with my life saving trekking poles.

Hiking Mount Baldy: The Summit

All three of us, considerably more tired.

Hiking Mount Baldy: The Summit

We didn’t linger for long. We had made it, but we still had a long hike ahead of us. It was 4:20pm, seven hours after we had first set out from Manker Flats campground. We would have to hurry if we wanted to get down before dark.

Hiking down Baldy Bowl

Originally we planned to go back the way we came (down the Devil’s Backbone), but none of us were looking forward to spending more time on that narrow pathway. It was a shorter trip down through the Baldy Bowl, and it would allow us to complete the loop we’d originally set out to hike.

I say “short” but it felt like the descent went on forever. There’s a lot of skree on the way down, and without my trekking poles I would have taken a tumble more than once. Additionally, the signage on the way down was less clear, and more than once we had to make sure we were going the right way.

As expected, we were pushing dark as the road began to peek out from beyond the trees. Our feet hit pavement right around 8:20pm, 11 hours after we began our hike and just after sundown.

Preparing for your Baldy Hike

Hiking Mount Baldy: SoCal SummitsAs always, remember that hiking is a potentially dangerous activity. Prepare accordingly. Bring plenty of water, food, first aid, etc. (We recommend using REI’s ten essential items checklist). And seriously, get a pair of trekking poles. And a headlamp, in case you end up descending as late as we did.

We definitely consider it a successful first summit, and we’ll be back to do it again…maybe after we bag the other five in the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge.

Have you done Baldy or any of the other hikes in the Six-Pack of Peaks challenge?

Apple Picking in Oak Glen, California
A Weekend in Death Valley National Park