| Mt. San Antonio 10,064ft - San Antonio Ridge - Gunsight Notch - Iron Mountain |
Part of great adventure is getting to experience & see things few others seldom get to. The remote corners of the maps that are pined over late in the eve, over & over again. Upper Fish Fork Camp in the San Gabriel Mountains is one such place that has had my attention for a couple years now. It is one of, if not the, most remote "established" backcountry camps in the National Forest.
| Mt. Baden-Powell - 9,399ft |
An excerpt from Los Angeles mountain historian, John Robinson, will give you a good idea of why this place had caught my eye. "The rugged, rock-ribbed chasm of the Fish Fork is one of the most isolated &wild recesses in the San Gabriel Mountains. The canyon is wedged tightly between two high mountain ridges - the long hogback of Pine Mt Ridge on the north, the sawtooth wall of San Antonio Ridge on the south. Looming high over its head is the grey mass of Old Baldy."
Melissa wasn't having any of this, "wait two years on a bucket list" type of strategy I tend to fall into, so we planned a weekend to make this trip happen & that was it. Friday night arrived & we drove out the dirt Blue Ridge Road around 11pm thinking we would be camping at Guffy, then setting out from their early the next morning on the closed portion of the road to the actual trailhead. However, when we arrived at the normally locked gate, it was open! The next day would reveal why, but more of that later.
| Iron Mountain - 8,007ft |
Flat out, the dirt road down into Lupine Campground is not for the average car. My Toyota Camry made it, with many stops to move rocks in the middle of the road. At the bottom there is a large wash out that is impassable for the regular high clearance vehicle even. We parked around 1am at the bottom of the canyon, thankful that we didn't have to hike that section. Throughout the next few hours, while sleeping in the car, ten or more trucks would pass us in the night?! What could be going on at 4am down in the lowly canyon.
Dawn breaks & we gather our packs together. It's still one mile down the road to the trailhead passed the washout. As we saunter down the dirt road we come across more & more bigs trucks full of dudes. After inquiring, turns out this was the first day of hunting season! Well that explains a lot.
| Iron Mountain - 8,007ft |
We find the Fish Fork trailhead just before the Lupine Campground on the south side of the canyon. Taking us slowly higher & higher we gain fantastic views to Mt. Baden-Powell. With no real effort, only a bit of passing time, we pop out on top of Pine Mountain Ridge & the views are spectacular! The hulking mass of Iron Mt, connected to San Antonio Ridge leading up two thousand more feet to Mt. Baldy's tree barren summit.
Pausing for a bit of early lunch we scoped out the trail that crossed the open face of a connecting ridge. You can see large numbers of logging roads from an unknown company. Research by several other bloggers has turned up nothing on which company this was. Gathering our things we headed up Pine Mt Ridge, missing the junction for our trail b/c the sign had blown off the ridge. The area in general gets little use compared to other sections of our local mountains.
Crossing the open landscape there was no real negotiation issues expect for one section where a rock slide had crossed the trail. Nothing a bit of extra attention would warrant. The excitement was mounting, we were closing in on the descend into Fish Canyon. One last look at Iron's summit & we started the faint switchbacks into the first drainage above the canyon.
Though noticeably less traveled the trail was still navigable & resembled that which was on the map. After crossing over the river bed (dry), we looped back and crossed the same one a second time lower down (still dry), rounded a bend or two and were dropped into Little Fish Fork Camp. We knew we were on the right track if we hit this spot. No water could be found here though.
| Below Little Fish Fork Camp |
Stepping out for the final mile or two down to the canyon floor we both knew a challenge lay ahead. The trail would be present in an overgrown manor at times, with large blow downs that would also be nicely overgrown. To call this section a game trail would be a nice way to put it.
| Iron Mt summit in far distance |
Combined with Melissa's pfd map reader app & a bit of diligence we progressed down the canyon at a slow, but successful rate. I felt other trip report posts had mentioned something we fell into, we ended up a bit high on the first portion, having to carefully walk straight down to a bit of trail that is a bit closer to the drainage floor. We weren't on the Dawson Peak Trail, but still were about 30 ft too high.
If you have made it this far down it is noticeably steeper all around & the use trail hugs the mountain side. Crossing open rock slopes at times. More precarious than earlier, but nothing some extra care & a trekking pole can't manage.
After rounding a bend high up, you can hear the rushing water below & all we can think about is getting down there, we are so close. It just so happens the last ten minutes the trail manages to disappear b/c the descent is so steep past travelers just pick their best route & make due. I'll admit to falling twice in this last part just from loose dirt & the steepness of the terrain.
| Fish Canyon |
Crash landing into an absolute sanctuary of a back woods canyon floor. A crooked, lopsided old sign read in orange pant, Upper Fish Fork Campground. That whole sign was worth the trip alone. We had made it to the camp. All around us fall was setting in, colors of the whole spectrum danced about in the cool breeze. Leaves falling at times from high above, meeting the rustling creek to start a new adventure floating down stream. At the head waters of this wondrous place is 10,000+ Mt. San Antonio.
We set up the necessities of camp & headed down canyon to see all there was to see of the remote hide away. Rock walls tower above on the San Antonio Ridge side; trees, ferns & plants grew everywhere. This place was really something special. As the sun began to get lower we headed back up canyon to camp & get some food going.
All through the evening the quiet stillness of such an untouched location had us both in absolute awe. It was perfect San Gabriel Mountain isolation. Everything you'd want in a good trip. The next morning came together much like any other backpacking trip. Another hot meal & the slow move to get our backpacks all situated. After several deep breaths, taking in all the surroundings, we put one foot in front of the other to tackle the climb out of this wonder land.
For a bit it was that old move, "two steps forward, one step back" with all the loose dirt. But we gained the trail that I last noticed at a tree stump. Our GPS had died over night so our exit was purely going to be from memory. My best advice is to take careful note on your way into the canyon of the last time you see the trail (tree stump in our case), think really hard & aim for that when you leave camp.
On the way back up the canyon I guarantee you will not take the same route you did down. There is moments that will dawn on you why didn't I see that on my way in or now this makes more sense. But that is only seen in the travel back up canyon. We bushwhacked a heavy section that I realized the trail coming down avoids above, thinking this is where we got to high from earlier.
After crossing the dry river bed & coming back into Little Fish Fork Camp we knew we had down the hardest part of the trip. We had found the elusive Upper Fish Fork Camp & been rewarded with is backcountry goodness. I'm glad that Melissa was able to get me motivated to stop putting it off, plus showed me the benefit of a GPS.
After making our way back to Pine Mountain Ridge, we adjusted the sign from the junction we missed, hopefully it will stay there for at least one hiking season. We returned to the hunting mecca that is the Prairie Fork & found the place still jammed full of unlucky dudes. Relaxing back in the car we cruised across Blue Ridge Rd admiring the views into the East Fork, laughing about that time I fell into Upper Fish Fork.