Saturday, March 5, 2016

No Thrill on Thrall: High Desert Trail to Burkhart Saddle

Looking Toward the Burkhart Saddle Up the Cruthers Creek Drainage
There are essentially two established routes to the summit of Will Thrall Peak: the Burkhart Trail from the south out of Buckhorn Campground (a variation of which involves dropping into Cooper Canyon on the PCT from Cloudburst Summit along the Angeles Crest Highway), and the High Desert Trail from the north out of the Devil’s Punchbowl. You can also get to Will Thrall from Mt. Williamson by way of a cross-country jaunt across Pleasant View Ridge to the summit of Pallet Mountain and then down to the Burkhart Saddle where all three of these routes intersect. And I just discovered courtesy of Cucamonga Man that you can also access Will Thrall by way of a cross-country route via Alimony Road (4N15) in Juniper Hills. Having previously experienced the cross-country route from Mt. Williamson with an exit at Buckhorn, a couple of friends and me decided last Sunday to make an early season attempt on Will Thrall by way of the High Desert route from the north.

This route starts from the parking lot for the Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area which is managed by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. From here, the trail (which initially follows a fire road) climbs gently south for approximately ¾ mile where it intersects with the High Desert Trail which runs in an east-west orientation along the northern foothills of the Pleasant View Ridge. Going east here will take you out to the Devil’s Chair and ultimately South Fork Campground. Traveling west will take you to Cruthers Creek which drains the narrow canyon leading to the Burkhart Saddle.

We tacked west here and began the 3 mile walk toward the mouth of Cruthers Creek Canyon enjoying the shade, the Mojave views, and the gigantic Manzanita along the way. The terrain here is mellow and trekking is easy, primarily because you’re continually losing elevation all the way to Cruthers Creek. You’ll realize just how much elevation you’re losing on your way back out.

The High Desert Trail Just Beyond the Split from Devil's Punchbowl
The High Desert from the High Desert Trail
Descending Into Cruthers Creek
Signage at the Base of  Cruthers Creek
Colorful Rock Formations
At Cruthers Creek, the track turns south, crosses the stream (where we found water flowing), and begins the steady climb toward Burkhart Saddle some 3+ miles up the canyon. A dirt road from the north intersects the trail in the canyon bottom here, but it traverses private property and is secured by a locked gate. That is unfortunate because the road provides direct access to the canyon and would trim some miles off the overall trip if it was available for use by hiker trash. Not that miles are necessarily a bad thing, but whether having to traipse them is desirable or not I suppose depends upon your objective.

Out of the canyon, the trail initially climbs northward up the exposed western slope of the canyon before switching back south at a point along an obvious ridge. The ascent here would be uncomfortably warm on a mid-summer day. Shortly beyond this point, the trail crosses back over to the western slope of the canyon and then continues south well below the ascending ridgeline. Mileage markers, which I understand to be measured from Buckhorn Campground, dot the trail which is useful in terms of tracking your progress.

Cool Cruthers Creek
Climbing Out of the Canyon
Looking Back 
Desert View from Higher Up
From Cruthers Creek all the way to the Burkhart Saddle is a sustained climb. This climb is never steep, but it is unrelenting with few level stretches and fewer suitable spots to pitch a tent for the night. If I was a PCT through-hikers who opted for this official detour around the Williamson Rock closure area, I would probably try to plan my route to avoid spending the night along this stretch of trail.

As the path climbs deeper into the canyon and the air thins, the character of the surroundings changes. The canyon narrows, the slopes steepen considerably, and the flora thins. Manzanita, sage, and chaparral give way to evergreens. In several places, the track crosses scree slopes which could be dicey in winter conditions, but on our visit, the path was devoid of snow for most of way and trail conditions were excellent. Tip of the hat to the fine folks who maintain our trails and keep them passable.

Trail Ascending the Steep Western Wall of the Canyon
Trail Conditions
The path wasn't bereft of snow the entire way, however. At approximately the 6,000 foot level, roughly 1/2 mile from Burkhart Saddle (between mileage markers 6 and 5) we encountered snow where the path takes a hard bend and tacks east. It wasn't much snow, but it covered ice and sat on an off-camber stretch of the trail that was exposed. A tumble here could definitely get you a helicopter ride out of the canyon. My friend gingerly attempted to start across the snowy section and immediately slipped in his trail runners. We then tested the shoulder and it promptly gave way. Finally, we attempted to skirt this section of the trail by going high, but the slope was so steep and loose, and the rock so crumbly, that ultimately we abandoned that option as folly. So we contended ourselves with sitting on a nearby log in the snow, having a bite to eat, enjoying the amazing moment, and living another day to tell the story.

Dangerous Patch
Your Fate if You Slip Here
The Sketchy Part of the Trail from Down Canyon
After absorbing as much of the mountains as we could, we turned tail and retraced our steps back to Devil's Punchbowl. As mentioned, the return trip is all downhill except for the climb back out of Cruthers Creek which my device measured at roughly 800 feet from the creek-bottom to the high point along the High Desert Trail. My device measured total mileage and gain for the day at roughly 13.9 miles and 3,750 feet of elevation gain.

As for my hoped-for date with Will Thrall, it was disappointing that it was cancelled, but it will happen at some stage. In the meantime, this was a really nice tease by a less visited section of the San Gabriels that just enhanced the attractiveness of the object of my mountainous desires.

Almost Back to Devil's Punchbowl
The Punchbowl


  1. Nice report and pics. Sorry you didn't make it to Thrall. It's only that half-mile or so stretch that had a few dicey spots. The trail to Thrall from the saddle gets a lot of direct sunlight and clears up fast.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks. No big deal on not making it. It'll be still be there. I figured if we could get around that eastward trending stretch of trail it'd be open all the way to the summit.

      Nice route up to PVR from Alimony Road btw.