Searching for Snow near LA

LA doesn’t get much snow in any given year. Even people who have never stepped foot in the city know that it’s the kind of place where snow-tires are seen in movies, and that salt on the road is likely from an accident. Instead, we use snow as a meter of how much pollution or moisture we’ve been getting. If the snow doesn’t reach very far down the mountain – it’s been a dry, hot year. If the snow is especially reflective, there’s been little pollution.

And that whole system has been going on just fine for years. That is, until a few weeks back. 

Recently, LA County experienced a few sudden and extreme weather events. Extreme to the area, anyway. Manhattan Beach saw snow and ice on the sand. People threw snowballs at each other using frozen stuff that fell from the sky! Huntington Beach had ice on the roads. A few desert spots north on the 14 Freeway saw a foot or more of snow. And, my favorite, the mountain range (sometimes) visible to the north of LA started filling up with snow. 

This could mean only two things; 1. the air pollution was low enough that I could see the mountains, and 2. This was possibly the last chance I’d have to touch real snow this close to LA County. The Icehouse Canyon Trailhead, where I’d later end up, sits just one mile east of the LA county line, in San Bernardino County. The trailhead is also just 6 miles north of Rancho Cucamonga, so it’s a quick drive.

With all the snow showing up in the news and on the peaks, I wanted to get a big heaping handful. I wanted to throw a snowball, even if it was into the air and onto my own head. Maybe because I’ve been deprived of snow while living in LA, I just need physical proof that it’s there when I can see it in the distance.

I’m not terribly familiar with the territory up north of the city. Normally, I’d head out east toward Joshua Tree. There’s been blizzards and long-lasting snow there in the past, even at the West Entrance that I normally take. There’ve been snow storms in the past few years strong enough to convince me to get a four-wheel drive.

Still, I could see the snow up on the peaks. I wanted to stand there, like standing on the moon, at a place I had seen only in the distance.

Surprisingly close to LA sits a stretch of mountains, bordering it on the north of Pasadena and Rancho Cucamonga – the San Gabriel Mountains. The city is built right up to the point where the face of the mountain gets a little too steep… even though we have a history of landslides to put up with. Homes are built up onto the sides of some of the mountains, some practically with their own individual road.

And all that was fine, but none of that told me where exactly snow would be.

Icehouse Canyon Road. At the end of it is the trailhead and (sometimes) parking.
34°15’00.7″N 117°38’10.0″W

The trail gets its name from the start of an ice-quarrying business in 1858.
The ice was sold down the hill in Los Angeles, where life was much warmer.

So I turned to Google in a roundabout way. I stood outside with my phone’s map set to point in the magnetically correct direction. I then roughly looked across the screen to see which set of mountains would line up with the snowy ones in my vision. They were the stretch of mountains mentioned before, the San Gabriels north of Rancho Cucamonga. During December and January the snow had been heavier, but poor scheduling prevented me from making a dedicated trip up there on a weekend. I would have had a wider margin of error if I’d gone earlier – a larger range of potential snowy spots. Right now it seemed to be only one or two peaks. 

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in that sort of “Here there be dragons” map use. Lay a map out, point at a blank spot, and say “I want to know what’s there.” The whole trip from then on felt like a bit of an adventure; except for the paved roads, purchased lunch, and large number of other hikers. Speaking of – you may need a pass or ticket to go where you want to go. They’re $5. It’s also a good idea to check in ahead of time to find out what’s open and what’s on fire.

The spot I picked on the map was a place known as Icehouse Canyon Trailhead. It sits on the backside of Timber Mountain (the one that faces the city, I think), between it and Thunder Mountain. These are all starting to sound like rides. I didn’t know much about it, but I was willing to place my faith in an auspicious name. Looking at the map, it seemed like roughly the right spot, maybe a little further into the mountains than the foremost southern peak. Surprisingly close, and traffic would probably be light that time of the weekend. Super Bowl Sunday was keeping everyone inside.

The drive was pretty straightforward. Up the 605N, across on the 210 East. A little more than 15 miles brings you to exit 52 towards Base Line Road. Then take Mt Baldy Rd on up for another 11 miles, almost a straight shot up the mountain. Most of the mountain path was exactly what you’d expect; two lane road, one side a sudden drop or sharply angled slope, the other a sheer wall stretching up. All of it bone dry.

Not a road, but a pretty good representation.

The temperature hovered around 65 degrees. It was maddening. Where was the snow I saw from so far away? Did I need to be higher up? I had heard in the news about snow having fallen at 6000 feet and higher, but I wasn’t sure what elevation I was at. And whether I was remembering that right, or if it still held true. Then, a sign for 4000 feet. Probably still too low. The temperature can’t change that much in that little elevation, right? Another two thousand feet is going to drop 40 degrees? 

Closer to 5000 feet, I could see snow on the northern face of mountains. It seemed like where the sunlight touched was becoming dry, and where shadow covered would be snow. The sun was coming in from the south, at its height nearly exactly at noon. It was about 40 degrees up from the horizon, so sharper north faces would be in shadow the whole day.

I kept driving up Mt Baldy road and crossing my fingers. The mountainsides had the sort of plants that grew in the deserts out east – especially the Chaparral Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei). Incense Cedar that dwarfed everything else (Calocedrus decurrens). Every plant had its own little space eked out, like they all know the amount of root room and water they’d need… and nobody better intrude on that territory. 

Finally, dirty snow started piling up at the edges of the road. The kind of piling that would imply a snow plow. If there was a snow plow, there was probably enough snow that it had to be ploughed, and cars weren’t just crushing it out of the way. I had started to fear that the snow I’d seen from a distance was just an inch-thin layer of frost, hanging on. Now I had hope that there was a real, substantial layer of un-melted snow.

Parking was the next difficulty. As it turns out, this particular stretch of mountain is pretty darn popular right about now. The parking lot just at the trailhead was packed, and cars idled while waiting for a spot. By driving a couple blocks down the road, then around the corner, space opens up. It’s already a day for walking, right? 

Most of the roads, especially this far up, are two-lane stretches with a dash of a parking lane against the mountain face. You can, depending on the exact stretch of road, park up against the face of whatever cliff or slope the road bends around. I’m not sure if you’re allowed to park on the cliff’s edge, but I think most people would agree that’s a terrible idea. Right off the bat, you can only park on half of the road, and then only when there’s enough space in front of the slope. It’s nature’s way of keeping park attendance down to a manageable amount. 

The car finally found a home next to a steep hillside under many yucca, a few blocks from the trail head. Standing on the road, there was no snow and many, many visitors. It was almost like all the visitors were warming the place up… or maybe sunlight on blacktop always feels like 80 degrees around LA. The air smelled strange. Some sort of drying, heated asphalt. Or maybe a forest fire, burning chaparral plants. I hadn’t seen any fire on the way up, but it’s always a possibility in SoCal. Still not sure what that was.

Down at the start of the trail, snow was piled up along the roadside. Further down in the gulley just next to the road, the little valley where the stream ran, held my prized fresh snow. I could see it on the face of the mountain across the way. Kids, adults, and the puppies that’d claimed them were running in the snow and sand near the stream and going wild. Almost everyone threw at least one snowball at some point. I’m guilty of that one as well. 

I had grabbed some easy-to-eat lunch and snacks from a Sprouts market down the hill, and ate them just to the side of the trail. There was a lovely little broken tree that must’ve somehow caught all the snow falling on a little patch of dirt. The ground was dry, the rocks were cool, and nobody was throwing snow in this direction. I hiked back up to the car after eating to pack my trash away in the trunk. The trashcan at the park was getting full, and I didn’t mind driving it back home. Pack in, pack out.

Back on the trail afterward, I started to realize I may have overdressed. The weather said it would be around 60, though some areas felt much warmer (and were around 70 on the drive up). But also, there’s snow here. What the heck? 

I ended up carrying a denim jacket with me that I didn’t wear much. It became a purse with pockets where I could stick an empty bottle, or to hold keys when I wanted to hop across the stream and not risk losing them. A long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and good boots was enough to stay warm. I won’t say it was enough to stay dry, because I absolutely took time to sled down the first big hillside on my butt.

That, and the snowballs.

Oh my god, the ladybugs. There were probably millions of them. At the very least, thousands. They were tucked under matted-down small branches, or around the lips of rocks. Tons of them. Silent, though there were so many you’d figure they’d at least make a scuttling sound of some sort. They didn’t care about people at all. Must have been breeding season or something? They were mostly visible just a short way up from the trailhead, though smaller patches of them existed throughout. My current theory is that they don’t like high altitude, or don’t like snow (which was thicker at higher altitude).

The entrance to the trail sits around 5000 feet of altitude, and the rest of the trail is all uphill at a gentle grade. It runs along the north side of the canyon, on the side where snow is already melting. Across the narrow canyon, snow stretched up the slope in the shadow of the mountain. At the bottom of the valley, winding through the middle of it, ran a stream maybe 4-6 feet wide in places, anywhere from a few inches to a foot or so deep. Tiny waterfalls a foot or two high, made up oftentimes of a single rock, broke up the stream every hundred feet or so. The water was crystal clear, with no foam at all. It was also quite very cold.

There was so much snow here. Snow much snow. 

Plants were thriving on every surface, even up the sides of the mountains. Quite a few of the trees through the middle of the valley were hibernating for the winter, all their leaves already turned to mulch under the snow. Some evergreens grew to astounding heights, which I later found out were Incense Cedar (I think). They were much lower in frequency than the other trees. Considering their size, that made a lot of sense to me. 

Also present were dozens and hundreds of Chaparral Yucca. They aren’t supposed to grow at remarkably high altitudes (2500m?), so I was taking them as a sign that I hadn’t ascended too much. Still, if they were built for lower elevation and yet seemed to thrive so much here, I had to wonder how much more of a grand display they’d put on down at sea level. These yucca were inspiring me to look at even more nature after I left the park – enough that I finally answered the age-old question of ‘what’s the spiky ball of plant named?’. It’s named Chaparral Yucca, and it has a lovely history of being edible and useful. These plants have so many stories that I’ve yet to learn. 

Cabins dotted a few corners of flat land, nearly hidden every time by trees. I think you may be allowed to rent these cabins out or stay in them in some way. They must be so amazingly peaceful at night. The park is supposed to be open 24 hours, though I’m not sure what the policy is on night hiking. Something to look into – I loved the night hike at Joshua Tree, and I have a much better flashlight than back then. Adding a note here to plan a night hike on the Icehouse trailhead.

This was supposed to be a post-lunch, pre-dinner hike just to touch some snow… and by the end of it I’d thrown, fallen in, and probably accidentally ate plenty. It was time to turn around and start heading back to the car.

By the one-mile marker, the trail had risen about 1000 feet in elevation. It wasn’t too strenuous with the smooth grade and plenty of stops to look at plants and play with snow. Dozens of other people were walking the trail as well, taking their dogs or remote control cars out for a walk, or having a day with the kids. Almost everyone came with a household of some sort. With all the walking, ice, and mud-prone dirt, some stretches of the trail were quite slippery. People that didn’t have good traction on their shoes slipped and fell. Most often, the most treacherous portions of the path were circumvented entirely, and people walked around them on patches of dry dirt or broad rocks. 

The walk back took much less time than the way up. That’s probably because I wasn’t stopping as often to gawk over this plant or the other. Instead, I went by a few spots that looked a little different on the way down, or that I hadn’t noticed as well in slightly different light. About twice as many cabins popped out on the way down, most of them on the far (south) side of the valley and cloaked in shadow and leaves. 

And the walk was great for building an appetite, which I wanted to hurry up and eat away.

The first straight stretch of hiking is Falling Rock Canyon. The bend into the first split, where Icehouse Canyon Trail continues east (right) and Chapman Trail goes north (left), is known as Cedar Canyon. Just past that, continuing on Icehouse Canyon Trail, is Sheep Canyon.

I really must commend nature for the wonderful job it’s been doing at being itself. It’s not trying to be something else, and yet astounding things happen here that wouldn’t happen even 10 miles away. This little patch of nature is lovely, and I’m glad it’s close to the city. Or rather, I’m glad the city isn’t intruding on it too much. There are better ways to say this. Thank you nature for having spots I can visit, beautiful sights I can think back to, interesting plants that encourage me to focus and learn, and snow on a warm day.

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you had a pleasant time checking out the plants. If you’re in the mood for more nature, please stay in touch!

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A view of the San Gabriel mountains with snow on the peaks
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One thought on “Searching for Snow near LA

  1. That was a beautiful hike. Yes, now is when the Ladybugs emerge or something like that. I’ve seen them at this time of year in Silicon Valley in Uvas Canyon like this. I haven’t found the spot they come out here yet.


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