Three men and two dogs backpacked from Angeles Oaks to the San Bernardino Peak summit, and spent a breezy night at the Limber Pine Bench Campground.
This was my second backpacking hike of the 2018 season, and, once again, it was a “shakedown” trek. But this time I was shaking down my other gear, my solo gear (the couple’s gear was last trip). Why? Because I was hiking with my son, his friend, and their two dogs. In two weeks’ time we’d be hiking uphill for several thousand feet at high elevation in the Sierra Nevada, and we didn’t want any surprises. And that’s why we chose San Bernardino Peak as our test hike. The campsite, Limber Pine Bench, is 3500 feet above the trailhead, and the summit is 1500 feet higher than that, thus tasking us with a solid mile of uphill hiking over an eight mile distance. Now that’s a shakedown hike!
We left San Diego at 3am or so and arrived at the trailhead parking lot in Angeles Oaks just before dawn. We’d stopped off for some breakfast on the way, so we were fully-fueled and ready to hike. The weather was cold that morning, down in the forties, and it felt good to start powering our way up the first couple thousand feet of switchbacks. It was perfect hiking weather, in other words. All three of us were hiking strong, but the puppies were stronger. They seemed to have unlimited energy.
In the beginning we followed the rules and kept the dogs on their leashes, but eventually the boys cut them some slack and let them hike along with us like the free dogs they are. Freedom! That’s what hiking in the wilderness is all about.
Eventually, the switchbacks led us to the top of a long ridge extending north and west from the peak. The views opened up and we hiked along for a mile or so over easier terrain. This is the area that I’ve heard called “Manzanita Flat” because there are plenty of manzanita and buckthorn bushes alongside the trail. The buckthorns were in full flower, and the smell was sweet and strong. The sun was out and there was a gentle breeze from the west, and near-perfect hiking conditions continued to prevail.
We stopped for an extended break at the trail junction with the unmaintained Johns Meadow Trail, and refueled with high-energy snacks. The dogs drank water from their bowls and ate some food. They were still youngsters, and spent the time wrestling with each other while the boys and I rested our tired legs.
There were plenty of day-hikers out on the trail, and most of them stopped here in the shade for a rest. We spoke to some of them. Many were doing the “Six Peaks Challenge” and San Bernardino Peak was one of the six summits. It was one of the tougher ones, I might add, at 16 miles round-trip and 5000 feet of elevation gain. But everyone was still relatively fresh at this spot, the half-way point, and of course none were carrying heavy loads like we were. Yes, we admit that we were elite backpackers, but at least we weren’t snobbish about it.
But enough resting. We still had a thousand feet to climb before we could set up camp, and so we shouldered our burdens and continued up the trail.
As always, the views got better as we climbed higher. The pines were less dense, and the mountainside was covered with low plants like manzanita, buckthorn, and chinquapin, which made the viewing easy.
We saw a long ridge sticking out up above us, and I informed the lads that our campsite, Limber Pine Bench, was right on top. Unfortunately, this news had a negative effect on all of us. Suddenly, our muscles barely contained enough energy to reach the ridge. It was purely psychological, and I knew it, but it didn’t matter. Our legs became weaker with each step as we trudged up that final slope. Luckily, it was flat (and even a bit downhill) once we got there, and we were happy to turn right on the path that led down to the campsites.
I’d been here twice before, and I knew where to go. But we still had to choose the best spot. We were quite early, the first of the backpackers, and no one else was there, so we got first dibs. We walked down to the far end and checked it out. There were some big boulders there, and this was where I had camped last time. But we needed to set up two tents, and the breeze was blowing strong. The farthest spot really only had a sheltered place for one tent, so we continued looking for a better place. We found two sites not far away that had some convenient stone walls that previous campers had built against the western winds, and they looked to be good enough for us.
The boys took off their backpacks and pulled out their sleeping pads. They immediately lay down and slept, just lying there in the sun. The dogs lay down with them. They hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, I surmised. I hadn’t either, but I’d had enough. I decided to set up my tent right away, before the wind got any stronger. I liked the idea of being ready first, then resting. Initially, I tried to nap inside the tent, but it was too hot under the thin nylon in the baking sun, so I grabbed my foam pad and lay down for a snooze in the shade.
We slept, hung out, read our books, and ate our lunches over the next three hours. The guys eventually set up their tent. We sat around on the big boulders down at the end of the bench.
Four lady backpackers arrived. We welcomed them to the campground, and they ended up choosing the far end for their spot. They set up three tents down there, and at least one of them was going to be directly in the wind. I warned them that the wind was likely to get stronger as the day went by, but they were determined, so that was that.
This was also the signal for us to get ourselves ready to climb up to the summit of San Bernardino Peak. And that’s what we did. We grabbed some snacks and our water filters and headed on up the trail.
First stop: Limber Pine Spring. The dogs were happy to see the water (even though we’d been giving them water regularly all day). Dogs seem to love dirty water with mud in it. I’m not sure why. It probably has “character” or something. My son filled his own depleted water bag but I was still OK. My plan was to filter a whole bunch on the way back to camp later on.
Video of Limber Pine Spring
We continued uphill on the trail toward the tip of the western ridge, where we came upon the giant cairn that marked the location of the Southern California Initial Point, also called Washington’s Monument. This is the spot in 1852 where a crew would light fires at night so that surveyors down below to the west could take sightings. Baseline Road can be seen heading off in the distance from this spot. Or it could have been seen in the distance if it weren’t for the extra-thick marine layer clouds coming in that day. It’s really quite impressive when you see it on a clear day, or at night, but today the boys had to take my word for it.
We didn’t stay there long, as we had a peak to bag! The trail headed east along the ridge, and the summit rose before us. It wasn’t much higher, but we weren’t looking forward to climbing any more. This had been a long day. Nonetheless, we made it up the final extra-steep slope and stood upon the top. The boys had never been here before, so they were happy to check out yet another 10k peak in Southern California. We looked across at San Jacinto Peak, and counted all the other 10k summits we’d bagged one weekend back in August 2014.
Further to the east we could see many of the official San Gorgonio Nine Peaks, and the guys began thinking about how to get those done one of these days. Vicki and I had done the “Nine Peaks Challenge” back in July 2012, and it had taken us five days to do it. I figured that these two could easily do it in three. Oh well, maybe someday.
After taking the obligatory summit-conquering photos, we began our descent. It was getting late, and we still had to filter a lot of water, plus eat our dinner. But it wasn’t much of a problem, as all of the hiking was downhill. We stopped a few times along the way to take in the views and watch the marine layer coming in heavy and thick.
We blazed a trail and arrived at the spring with plenty of daylight left. I tried out my new Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter and also the two liter CNOC water bladder, which made squeezing two gallons of water through the filter a lot faster and easier than ever. I was rather pleased with my new ultralight filtration system, in fact.
When we arrived in camp it was still windy, but the temperature was already dropping. We went inside our tents and got dressed in our night layers. My stomach wasn’t feeling so great (possibly elevation-related) so I told the guys to use my stove for their dinner. They took it and left. I nibbled on some snacks and chips and read my book with my legs inside my sleeping bag. I began feeling better. So I put on my windproof layer and ventured out. I saw my stove sitting there all alone. The boys and dogs were hiding inside their tent. I spoke up louder over the noise of the gusty wind and asked how supper went. They informed me that they couldn’t get the stove lit. Really? They never even mentioned it to me! Pathetic. So I went over and lit it without difficulty. I boiled up their water and, after walking around taking photos to keep warm, I added it to their dehydrated meal in its zip-lock bag. I handed it to them under the tent flap and said “bon appetit.” It turned out that my son’s stomach was also not doing so hot. I wished him well and headed back to my own tent.
I read my book while the wind gusted and shook the tent. It wasn’t too bad, really. But I kept waiting for the wind to die down in the evening like the weather forecast had predicted. And I waited in vain. As darkness fell, I grew tired and fell asleep, but the wind never let up. It blew and gusted while the tent shuddered under the strongest blasts. The noise was incessant as the air blew through the trees, rising up and over the ridge in its mad rush to the east. It woke me several times during the night, but I didn’t care as my sleeping bag was plenty warm. I just snuggled down deeper, tucked it in around my neck, and went back to sleep.
The next morning I awoke to the wind, which hadn’t let up much at all. It was before dawn, just getting light, but that didn’t matter. Our plan was to get home early. It was Father’s Day, after all, and I had other children who wanted to see me. It wouldn’t do to let one child monopolize me completely, now would it?
I cooked up some water and made myself a nice hot cup of coffee/hot chocolate. I lit the stove right in the vestibule. No going outside for me! I sat in the tent, my legs inside my warm sleeping bag, and sipped the sweet drink as I listened to the wind. I decided not to bother cooking any breakfast, and simply munched on some snacks.
Eventually, I got up and took a few photos. I went to see the boys and they handed out their freeze-dried breakfast pack. I took it back to my tent and boiled up some more water. I read my book for awhile. It was rather peaceful, except for the wind. Like a good dad, I made their meal for them and brought it over to their tent.
Video of the gusty wind at dawn
After that, I decided that it was time to start packing. I stuffed my sleeping bag and changed my clothes. I deflated the sleeping pad. I put away the stove and got my hiking snacks together. Then I emerged from the tent and piled it all up next to a boulder. The only thing left was the tent.
I could tell that my light little tent was going to prove difficult to put away. The tarp was so wispy that I’d never get it to lay flat on top of the other two sections. I decided that since we were leaving anyway, that I’d do a bit of the old “Ram and Cram” packing style for this item. I rolled it up, very fast and loose, and huffed it into my backpack before it could escape. Then I was able to put away the rest of the tent.
I loaded everything into the backpack and turned on my GPS and satellite tracker. I was completely ready to hike while the boys were still hauling stuff out of their tent. It was still cold and breezy, so I told them that I’d meet them down the trail, at that nice wooden bench we’d seen on the way up. They would find me sitting in the sun, reading my book. Good-bye Limber Pine Bench!
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to read my book for very long. It appeared that the two of them were also sick of the incessant wind, and had packed up rather quickly. I suspected that some Ramming and Cramming had occurred, but I was too polite to mention it. I reluctantly put away my book and we continued onward, down and down and down.
It was a beautiful morning, perfect for hiking, and we let our legs stretch out. Before we knew it, we were striding past the trail intersection and cruising happily across Manzanita Flat.
Video of a puppy playing fetch with a large pine cone
We took one last look at the summit, then headed down the final set of switchbacks down to Angeles Oaks. We passed the Wilderness Boundary Sign at 7000 feet, and noticed that the oak trees were making a comeback. Up higher it had been all pines.
On the way down we talked about our level of readiness. I declared that we’d passed this shakedown hike with flying colors. Nothing broke, we had all the right gear, and both dogs and men were more than able to climb 5000 feet in a day. We were definitely ready for the next trip to the Eastern Sierra. And it was less than three weeks away! We were all quite stoked about it.
We arrived back in the parking lot in excellent time. We’d ended up making excellent time downhill. Six miles in three hours (including rests) isn’t too shabby! We got to the car before 10am, which was impressive.
Now all I had left to do was drive back home and spend some quality Father’s Day Time with my other children.
And check out all of my latest photos, of course.
To see the rest of this trip’s photos visit my Flickr Page.
You can view our gps tracks on a fully interactive topographic map on my CalTopo Page.