My last backpacking trip was about 5 years ago in the Golden Trout Wilderness. I’ve been dreaming about that hike to Frog Meadow ever since and trying to coordinate my next backcountry adventure. This past Labor Day Weekend I finally found the time to make it happen. I’m also happy to report that the San Bernardino Mountains didn’t kill me. Quite the contrary, they invigorated me.
I didn’t have any plans for the Labor Day Weekend. I’ve been going over my gear list for my upcoming Oct backpacking trip with friends and I just watched A Walk In The Woods with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. I guess my mind was primed for it. I decided at the last-minute to take an overnight, but didn’t know where to go. I had some trails in mind that I’ve day-hiked before, but I wanted to see some different country. So, I visited the Modern Hiker website. He has done a great job with pictures and descriptions of California hikes.
Based on those descriptions, I narrowed down my choices and after making a phone call to one of the ranger stations I decided to hike Ontario Peak (rated difficult) and camp at Kelly Camp; just below it in a grove of Sequoia trees. The trail starts at 4,960 elevation and rises to 8,859 at the summit of Ontario Peak. I probably could have found a more moderate hike for my rusty legs, but I needed to test my mettle.
Loaded REI Flash 62
I filled my REI Flash 62 with my REI two person tent, new JetBoil Minimo stove, food [a couple of Mountain House freeze-dried meals (Mountain House Beef Stroganoff and scrambled eggs/bacon), beef jerky, nuts and dried fruit and two nectarines], North Face +20 bag, Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Trekker Air Mattress, Icebreaker Men’s Oasis Merino Wool T-Shirt, my Crazy Creek Camp Chair, first aid kit, Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System, headlamp, gloves, beanie, Patagonia Fleece and REI down alternative coat. I had a few other items, too, but those were the basics.
I arrived around 7:45 at the trailhead and there were only a couple of spots left to park in the lot. I hung up my Adventure Pass and walked past a few street spots that were still left
By 8am I filled out my wilderness permit paperwork and dropped it in the box at the trailhead (no need to go to the ranger station). Went back to car and strapped on my pack for the climb up through Ice House Canyon Trail. There is a large portion that is exclusively walking on a bed of rocks and a lot of the trail is just rocky through the first mile or so. The trail is beside a lovely creek that provides the sound of water gurgling as you hike past several cabins on the creek that look like they are privately owned.
Trickle At Columbine Spring Filling My Scout Canteen
Within 45 minutes I had reached Columbine Spring and I was very thankful to see fresh water trickling out of the rocks. I was one of the only ones stopping to fill up and I was sure thankful that it was there allowing me to make the first 2 miles without the extra weight. Now, completely loaded down with approximately 3.5 liters of water (1.5L in my platypus bladder, 500ml water bottle, 1 qt scout canteen and my Sawyer Mini water filter provided another 16oz) – I would have liked another liter to feel better prepared, but didn’t want the extra weight. Rested and hydrated I was off and made the Ice House Saddle by 9:50.
Ice House Saddle At Kelly Camp Trail Marker
After a short respite, I was heading up toward Kelly Camp. What a beautiful little spot under a grove of Sequoias. By 11:09 I had explored the little primitive camp, found the ideal spot for me, pitched my tent, blew up my mattress, spread out my bag and laid down to enjoy the fruits of my labor in the cool shade.
Fortunately, I was the first one there that morning and got to purview the various excellent flat spots that used to be the foundations of buildings that long since burned down. Dan’s Hiking Page has a great old postcard photo of what it once was looked like. After a quick rest I was ready to tackle Ontario Peak.
Trail Intersection for Big Horn and Ontario Peaks
I’m not exactly sure what time I left Kelly Camp, but I was back in camp by 2:27 after summiting Ontario Peak, taking some photos, signing the log and laying out on a rock soaking in the warm sun while listening to the sounds of the forest. From the summit, I could make out the plethora of antennas on top of Mt Wilson to the south-west of Ontario along with views of Claremont below and the San Jacinto Mountains on the other side of the valley floor.
Jetboil MiniMo and REI Passage 2 Tent in Background
I rested for an hour or two in my tent reading The Alchemist before I got up, put my boots back on and started to make some dinner. I also began chatting with my “neighbors” that had moved in while I was on my hike. My lonely camp ground now had two more tents and before the night was over 4 more tents would make camp for the night.
The Mountain House beef stroganoff was pretty tasty. I boiled up two cups of water in my Jetboil MiniMo and waited as the hot water worked its magic in the package for about 9 minutes. Not exactly a gourmet meal, but after hiking around all day I had no problem gulping down the 2.5 servings that the package claimed was in there. After a fruit cup for dessert I settled in with more reading and watching the activity of the fellow campers making their dinners.
I actually didn’t get a lot of reading done because of the ongoing conversations with my fellow campers. We talked about politics, foreign travel, more politics, backpacking, camping gear, history, kids, economics, marriage and divorce. Another camper had pictures to show of the timber rattler he encountered on his hike up to Big Horn; nothing like the sound of rattles on a snake to get your pulse to beat faster.
I never fully sleep when I’m in a new place whether a hotel or campground. But, I’m especially alert when camping in a wilderness area. That being said, my Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Trekker Air Mattress was very comfy and my The North Face Cat’s Meow 20 Degree Sleeping Bag was almost too hot for most of the night. I didn’t bring the rainfly for my tent and that allowed me to look up and see the moon and stars in the middle of the night.
The next morning, I poured a little Horizon milk over my granola, made some Starbucks Via Colombian coffee (which was so good I had a second cup) and I leisurely enjoyed the morning while all of my fellow campers were breaking camp. I waited for most of them to pack, bid them all farewell and I headed up to summit Big Horn at around 8:45. I actually got there so quickly that I didn’t think I had arrived and went down the other side looking for the taller peak. What I found was a view of hikers heading up to Cucamonga Peak across the canyon and I found full LTE Verizon service at the following coordinates 34.232851,-117.595206 https://goo.gl/maps/oeCGG.
So, I took a couple more photos, sent text messages, updated my Facebook status and dropped a Google Map pin to save and share the coordinates for later. I walked over to the other side of the hill and could even catch a glimpse of Victorville and Hesperia on the other side of the mountains. I took a few minutes to just stop and commune with nature, talked to God, talked to my recently departed dad and watched the clouds flow past me so close it felt like I could touch them.
Looking at Big Horn Peak from the trail
I headed back down took a photo of Big Horn Peak and a few last lingering looks at the finely planned roads and houses below in Rancho Cucamonga then finally bid farewell. I headed back down the short trail to the grove of Sequoia sentinels watching over my tent. Within a landscape devoid of thick forests the Sequoia grove really stood out as a unique feature.
I was back to my tent by 10:56, began breaking down and re-packing while new campers were arriving and looking for their ideal overnight spot at Kelly Camp. I got everything packed, ate my last nectarine along with some trail mix, dried apricots and cashews while washing it all down with a little bit of water before heading out. Strapped on the pack and bid farewell to Kelly Camp along with its new transient residents by 12:06.
I reached my car by about 2:11 with tired feet and fatigued legs. I’m not sure which was harder on my body; climbing the 3,733 feet with a loaded pack or coming down. Both are tough on my 46-year-old legs. Before I reached the trail head I filled my belly at Columbine Spring using my Sawyer Mini again. I also filled up my Platypus again. I didn’t really need the extra water, but it was cold and tasted great. Why not?!