Spring Snowshoe Up Sugarloaf
The plan was simple: head straight up from the top of Sand Canyon Road to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, elevation 9952′. A bit over 3 miles as the crow flies, and 3000′ of climbing. While it was April and there was some snow remaining in the Big Bear Valley, we didn’t know the exact conditions we would encounter as we ascended. The summit certainly looked snowy, but whether we would encounter hard ice, soft snow, or significant bare patches was unknown. So we came prepared for all three.
Matt and I parked at the very top of Sand Canyon next to the gate that closed off 2N27 for the winter and began up the dirt Forest Service road. At the first sharp bend about a mile up we continued straight through the wire fence entry and followed a path through a small canyon that quickly widened. The increasing patches of snow hid any visible trail, but that didn’t matter because navigation was simple: pick the easiest route straight up to the ridge line above. As long as we went up, we were headed in the right direction. The increasing snow and steepness forced us into our snowshoes. A rocky patch forced us briefly out. But eventually the terrain became consistently snowy and steep, yet soft enough for our snowshoes to get a good bite.
As our huffing and puffing continued, Moonridge and the Big Bear Valley quickly dropped below us revealing a better and better view. We reached the main ridge line mid way between Bear Peak and Sugarloaf after about 2 hours. The sharpness of the ridge was unexpected and reminded us to step carefully and avoid falling. A few spots were steep enough where if you didn’t stop your fall quickly, things could get ugly fast. Exposed patches revealed some semblance of a ridge line trail and I recalled seeing such a trail on some older maps. Old Grayback (aka San Gorgonio or San G) sat to the South, all snowy white, across the Santa Ana River Valley. This trip up Sugarloaf was in part in preparation for a similar trip up San G in a couple weeks.
A relatively level ridge line was a pleasant break from climbing and a real treat for the eyes with its sweeping panoramic views. The half-mile of ridge line brought us to the final 1000′ of climbing that would put us on top of the blunt Sugarloaf. A few especially steep spots pushed the limits of the snowshoes but weren’t enough to warrant the crampons and ice axes we carried. Finally after 3 and a half hours, the climbing gave way to the Sugarloaf summit which was marked by a weathered sign and gnarled trees. Ski tracks from the East told us someone had recently skied up the formal and typical Sugarloaf National Recreation Trail. After a quick energy bar, some water, and some photos, we followed our tracks back down.
Usually going down is easier than going up. Not this time. The softening snow, combined with the angle of descent and an icy deeper layer, made for some tough descending. Our techniques varied – sometimes it was quick little steps to keep from slipping, other times it was long strides that fully slid as though we were telemarking. Occasionally it was a complete fall. And a couple times it was an intentional glissade, rump-sliding with ski poles dug deep. The snow became patchy and the slope got rocky and muddy for a bit, reminding of the same clay and pebble surface found in Big Bear’s unique Pebble Plain habitat. Eventually things leveled off enough to remove the snowshoes and relax the clench around my poles. Two and a half hours of total descending put us back at our vehicles. I was hungry from the 6 hour hike and wet from sweating and the occasional fall. The 2 liters of water I brought were nearly gone. But not surprising, a Spring snowshoe up Sugarloaf was an effective tonic.
Stats according to the My Tracks app on my Droid:
- 6.25 miles total round trip
- 6 hours total
- 3.5 hours up
- 2.5 hours down
- 3390′ of elevation gain
- 7020′ start elevation
- 9952′ max elevation.