Thursday, April 13, 2017

Up, Over, and Around Strawberry Peak

Strawberry Peak from Colby Canyon
Start a new chapter
I find what I'm after
Is changing every day
The change of the season
Is enough of  reason
To want to get away.
~Rush, Fly by Night

Early October, 2005. My first foray into the San Gabriels. A friend and I drove up the Angeles Crest with mountain bikes strapped to the car. Into the unknown. We stopped at Clear Creek, unloaded our gear, and began to ride. Our 16.5 mile route took us up the Josephine Fire Road (2N64), over to the junction with the Colby Canyon trail, onto the spectacular single-track that descends to Strawberry Portrero, out and up the slow grind to the Lawlor saddle, around and down Lawlor's southern flank to Red Box, onto the wondrous Gabrieleno Trail down to Switzer, and then up the short, steep, and miserable pavement climb to Clear Creek. We thought we were all that until a fellow bi-pedal easily pedaled past us on a fully rigid, skinny-tired cyclocross bike as we inched our way up the Josephine Fire Road. As we were San Gabriel newbs, he rode with us for a spell to act as our navigator, sensing perhaps that we were search and rescue candidates in the making. But at the Lawlor saddle, he finally left us after causally drinking a beer he pulled from his pack, exasperated I'm sure with our snail's pace.

That was kind of a watershed moment for me in terms of the San Gabriel Mountains. It opened my eyes to the vastness, the ruggedness, the immensity, and the sublimity of the range that John Muir called "ruggedly, thornily savage" and "more rigidly inaccessible" than the Sierra. That's high praise or low praise for these mountains depending upon your viewpoint and disposition. 

Since that day I've revisited this same area on a number of occasions to scale the local peaks. But what I hadn't done for over a decade was repeat my original circumnavigation of Strawberry Peak. I also hadn't scaled Strawberry Peak via a scamper up its steep and rocky western ridge. This past weekend, I set out to rectify this latter gap in my experience and ended up also accomplishing the former.  

I started my day at the entrance to Colby Canyon. The skies were gray, the temperatures cool, and the parking area full. Dropping into Colby Canyon from the Angeles Crest, I found water still trickling over the falls and coursing through the creek bed. Crossing over into Daisy Canyon, I discovered water still running in that drainage as well. Further up the trail, high above the channel now, the serpentine twists and turns of Colby Canyon came into view behind me. Here, I stopped momentarily to admire my surroundings before making the push up the boulder-strewn, south-facing slope to Josephine Saddle. The sour sky and cool air that I bemoaned earlier were my good friends here.

The tip of the tongue of Strawberry's western ridge licks Josephine Saddle at the intersection with Colby Canyon. Here I met a couple from San Diego who had come north to explore the San Gabriel Mountains. They had started earlier that morning at Red Box, dashed up Strawberry's eastern ridge, retraced their steps to the Lawlor saddle, and then circled Strawberry in a counter-clockwise direction. We all sat on the adjacent water tank eating snacks, taking in water, and chatting about hiking before they dropped into Colby Canyon to connect up with the Gabrieleno Trail and I began the off-trail scramble toward Strawberry's summit.
Labyrinthine Colby Canyon 

Backside of Josephine Peak from the Josephine Saddle

View Into Upper Tujunga Canyon

Strawberry Peak from the Western Ridge Route

Water Tank at Josephine Saddle from the Western Ridge Route
Ok, to be honest, there was some scrambling along the way, but really not a whole lot. And the route up Strawberry's western ridge is only "off-trail" in the most nominal and technical of senses. Immediately north of Josephine Saddle, there is a well-worn and obvious use trail that zig-zags up the western ridgeline. The path is steep in places, but not technically difficult. There are two locations that involve what I imagine is Class 2 or 3 scrambling. At the first "obstacle," it was not immediately apparent whether the "formal route" veered left, right, or straight up and over. From the looks of things, folks had gone every which-way. I tacked right as others obviously had, climbing a short, slippery, and exposed chute that I had reservations about descending.

Beyond the first scramble, the path arcs around the head of Colby Canyon to the base of Strawberry's western face. This is the crux of the climb which involves picking your way up a series of steep, blocky gashes on the rocky mountainside. Route-finding is not really an issue as someone has marked the way with a series of spray-painted arrows which point you in the right direction (Ugh!). Here again, going up was really not terribly intimidating, but being solo, I did have second-thoughts about wanting to descend the same way I came up.

Finally atop Strawberry, I shared the summit with 4 pretty young ladies who were busy taking selfies and lazing about in the sunshine that had finally broken the cloud-cover. A register box was securely chained to a nearby boulder, but I found no register. The register-ripper strikes again.

The Western Route up Strawberry Peak

View North from Strawberry's Summit

View East from Strawberry's Summit

The San Gabriel Complex of Peaks from Strawberry Peak
The return trip was now before me and the prospect of down-climbing what I had just ascended wasn't really that appealing to me. Going up is always much easier than getting down, I had the time, and a couple of attractive alternative were readily available, so I made the decision to continue east from the summit and down to the Lawlor Saddle. Much like the route up Strawberry's western ridge, the use trail from the east is well-worn and easy to follow. In fact, it is so heavily used it almost doesn't qualify as a "use" trail anymore. It is that well established. 

At the saddle, I briefly considered veering south, skirting Lawlor's southern flank, dropping down to Red Box, and then following the San Gabrieleno trail back to Colby Canyon, but that was comfortable territory that I visit more regularly. So I opted for the northern route which circumnavigates Strawberry and would ultimately return me to the Josephine Saddle. This would allow me to replicate on foot the first excursion I made into the San Gabriel Mountains by bike almost 12 years ago. 

The trail north from the Lawlor Saddle (the Strawberry Peak trail I believe) is a pleasure to walk. It has a gentle drop, is well maintained, and it affords nice looks into Coldwater Canyon and the upper Big Tujunga drainage. And because it probably doesn't see as much use as the front side, it has retained its character as a "single track" instead of what otherwise passes for a "trail" in other parts of the forest that sees heavy mountain bike use. That's not to say that mountain bikers don't use this trail--they most certainly do--but they have not yet managed to destroy this fine back-country track. 

Strawberry Peak Trail to Strawberry Potrero

Strawberry Spring. There's More Water Here Than it Appears

Looking North from the Strawberry Peak Trail

Remnants of the Station Fire

Ceanothus in Bloom
The character of the land here is a bit schizophrenic. Like many places in the San Gabriels, it can't quite decide if it wants to be mountain or desert. Evergreens growing on the cool and shady north-facing slopes cohabitate with yucca and manzanita that dot the warm hillsides with a more southern exposure. The damage done by the Station Fire is still evident, but the area is recovering nicely. And like the front side, there are surprises here like water trickling from Strawberry Spring.

The trail bottoms out at Strawberry Potrero just south of Colby Ranch. Here, the trail splits in two different directions. The fork north terminates at Colby Ranch; the other fork (now technically the Colby Canyon trail) passes through Strawberry Portrero before tracking back to the Josephine Saddle. Unique and fanciful trail signage here is helpful and makes it impossible to get lost.

Strawberry Portrero is a very pleasant spot, but appeared to be quite dry with the grasses already gold instead of green. The real star of the show here, however, is not the meadow, but the dramatic north face of Strawberry Peak that stands silent sentinel over the little valley. I'm too old to be much of a rock-climber, but if I was, Strawberry's stony north face would be high on my must-visit list.

Beyond the meadow, the trail climbs softly over a low ridge before it winds lazily along Strawberry's western side. Like it's counter-part on the east, the path here, which sometimes clings precariously to the steep hillside, is fine and easy walking that allows views into lower Tujunga Canyon and beyond. It's easy to get lost in your thoughts and the scenery here. Distances seem much shorter than they ought to be. Time becomes irrelevant. This is a path I hoped continued forever.

Unfortunately it doesn't and before I had time to even enjoy my hiking-induced stupor, I was at the Josephine Saddle. Roused back to reality, I clamored atop the water tank for one last survey of area. Unlike when I started, the sun was now shining brightly and the skies were a deep blue. Mt. Wilson and the peaks of the San Gabriel complex were plainly in view. So I lounged a bit on the cool concrete tank and dined on peanut butter pretzels and warm water before reluctantly retreating down Colby Canyon and back to the trailhead along the noisy Angeles Crest.

Trail Signage Near Strawberry Meadow

First Glimpse of Strawberry's North Face

North Face of Strawberry

Another View of Strawberry's Impressive North Face

Zoom of Strawberry's North Face

Josephine Saddle and Water Tank from the Colby Canyon Trail

Sitting Atop the Josephine Saddle Water Tank

Last Look at Strawberry from Atop the Water Tank. Start of Western Ridge Route Visible Left Frame.
My Route for the Day


  1. A San Gabriel classic and you took the scenic route. I went up and down the west ridge. Fun scrambling!

    1. Yeah, kind of a fun little route. I don't know why it took me so long to do it.