Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Good Friday to Climb Mt. McKinley

Mt. McKinley from Gold Creek Road
The first time I heard of Mt. McKinley (4,926) was back in early 2013 from a guy by the name of David R from the San Gabriel Mountains Discussion Forum. David had posted a tongue-in-cheek trip report about an ascent he made of Mt. McKinley which caused quite a stir. This was back when I was still learning my way around the San Gabriel Range and in my na├»vete, I mistook David's post as mockery. Later, when I discovered that there really was a peak in the western San Gabriels named Mt. McKinley (reportedly after our 25th President, William McKinley), I saw David's trip report in the humorous light in which it was obviously offered.

Flash forward to November, 2014 and I thought I'd follow in David R's footsteps and give McKinley a go myself. That effort resulted in failure because I got a late afternoon start which didn't give me enough time to complete the circuit in the compressed amount of daylight that late autumn afforded. It also resulted in a broken rear passenger window at the trailhead courtesy of vandals and punks that roam Big Tujunga Canyon preying on parked vehicles.

On Good Friday, I returned to the scene of the crime in Big Tujunga Canyon with my friend Keith Winston (read his excellent mountain blog Iron Hiker here: for another assassination attempt on McKinley. Cognizant of my past unpleasant experience with break-ins at the trailhead, but really without any other reasonable options, we parked Keith's sparkly 4Runner at the turn-out for Gold Creek Road and began our climb up the long and winding road before the sun crested the horizon. Our thinking, or at least our hope, was that the car would be spared damage because we were out too early for the type of fool that smashes windows in hopes of finding electronics and other valuables in the glove-box of a parked car. I don't know whether that thinking was correct or not, but Keith's 4Runner ultimately came through the day unscathed.

Early Morning View Down Big Tujunga Canyon from Gold Creek Road

Mt. Lukens from Gold Creek Saddle
Due to its obscure location, there really is no quick path to McKinley's summit. Our route took us up Gold Creek Road to Gold Creek Saddle and then onto 3N60 (the Yerba Buena trail if I'm not mistaken) to the saddle between Mt. McKinley and the Mendenhall Ridge (what I'll call the "McKinley Saddle" here). We then used a mish-mash of faint use and animal trails on McKinley's north slope to gain the summit where we gave the register a new coat of Eispiraten paint. The first 4 or so miles to Gold Creek Saddle is an easy, but steadily-climbing fire road. From Gold Creek Saddle to the saddle between McKinley and Point 4441, the Yerba Buena Trail is obvious if not a bit over-grown. From Point 4441 to the McKinley Saddle, the Yerba Buena Trail, which contours McKinley's western slope, is still obvious, but more brushy still. 

Typical Conditions Along Lower Yerba Buena Trail

Colorful Blooms on McKinley's Western Slope

Mt. McKinley's North Slope from What I Have Called McKinley Saddle
Atop McKinley, we still had plenty of day and energy left so we decided to make a dash for Iron Mountain #2 (5,635) while we were in the general neighborhood. To get there, we dropped back down the McKinley Saddle and continued up the Yerba Buena Trail (or at least what is left of it) to Iron Mountain Saddle where the trail intersects the Mendenhall Ridge Road (3N32). The "trail" here, although passable, is more over-grown and considerably more degraded than it is below McKinley Saddle. Ironically, Iron Mountain Saddle is about 3.3 miles west of Iron Mountain which sits adjacent to Indian Ben Saddle.

View South from McKinley's Summit

Fresh Coat of Paint on the Summit Register

Mt. Lukens and Beyond from McKinley's Summit
From Iron Mountain Saddle, it was a fire road walk to the base of Iron Mountain. The easiest and most logical way to attain the summit of Iron would have been to ascend Iron's gentle western ridge from just east of Point 5473. Because that made the most sense, however, we didn't go that way. Instead, we followed the Mendenhall Ridge Road until it wrapped around to Iron's north side and then scrambled up a steep, grassy slope to summit. Once there, we admired the fine scenery, read and signed the register which had damn few entries all things considered, and considered our options.

Keith Climbing Iron's North Slope

Benchmark Atop Iron Mountain

Keith Surveying His Empire from Atop Iron Mountain
Those options were to either retrace our steps and descend the way we came, or complete the loop by dropping down Trail Canyon. We didn't know what the conditions were like in Trail Canyon, and Keith had some vague notion from reading the interwebs that Trail Canyon was tough sledding due to heavy brush and poor trail conditions, but we decided upon that route anyway since it would shave 3 miles off of the return trip. Then we read an entry in the summit register from some pretty experienced folks about the hellish conditions they encountered in Trail Canyon and we instantly became big boobs and changed our minds. We thus descended Iron's rolling western ridge (the one we should have ascended) to its intersection with the Mendenhall Ridge Road and followed our ascent route back down the Yerba Buena Trail and Gold Creek Road to the trailhead in Big Tujunga Canyon.

Stats of Note: 19.9 miles, 4,330' elevation gain, 4 snakes, 2 ticks, 0 people

Descending from Iron Mountain Saddle. Gold Creek Road in the Distance

Typical Conditions Along Upper Yerba Buena Trail

Pretty Stuff Along the Yerba Buena Trail


  1. According to the USGS map there is another BM west of Iron called "Tin." You didn't happen to go there, did you?

    1. We did not visit the benchmark. But looking at the topo now, we should have. It would have trimmed some of the road walk.