Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Deer Springs to Suicide Rock Trail Report: Memories Renewed

~7 miles RT
Moderate Difficulty
1850 Elevation gain/loss

There are views, trees and trails that exist in a hiker's memory forever. It is difficult to describe to someone who may not frequent the outdoors or backcountry, but for many who seek out dirt paths and open skies, these places and things have a special hold on us. Not unlike a special song that resides in the soundtrack of a person's life, it is possible for a hiker to recall with extreme clarity when, where and with who he or she was with on a particular trek.  All it takes is a particular vista or bird song or vanilla-scent pine bark or the taste of dust on your tongue or the weight of a pack to bring all of it into focus.

For me, those moments are deeply rooted in the San Jacinto mountains. Located due west of Palm Springs, it was in those mountains and on those switchbacks where I learned a great deal about the wilderness, and about myself. For me, these rugged peaks are personal touchstones for so much of my life.

John Muir called the San Jacintos Southern California's own "range of light" since they are very similar in geology, climate, appearance and altitude to the Sierras. In fact the same forces that created it's northern cousins are responsible for the San Jacinto wilderness area.

My first excursion into this area was at age 13 climbing the Devil's Slide Trail to Skunk Cabbage Meadow. A relatively short hike but as anyone who's hiked the Devil's Slide, the 2.5 mile climb from Humber Park to the Saddle is notoriously steep for a beginning hiker and due to its popularity, a bit over-loved.

Other than the Palm Springs Tram, it is generally accepted as the most popular and fastest way to the higher elevations and hanging valleys that rest between San Jacinto and Tahquitz peaks. I've lost count on how many times I've been on that trail, but suffice to say it became as familiar as an old boot and eventually, about as exciting.

It certainly isn't the only way up, and though at one time I could easily boast that I had hiked every trail in the system in the area, there was one exception, the Deer Springs trail. That is no longer the case and I truly regret for not correcting that experience gap many years ago. Deer Springs is a sweetheart of a trail and highly recommended for anyone visiting and hiking the Idyllwild area.

From Deer Springs, one has access to the entirety of what these mountains have to offer, including San Jacinto peak, Round Valley and and all the rest without having to deal with an overly crowded parking area, heart breaking hiker limits or endless switchbacks that is the hallmark of Devil's Slide. For sure, it takes a few more steps to gain altitude, but the more moderate elevation gain allows a hiker to perhaps enjoy the scenery a bit more.

Last October was my first time on the trail with an inaugural trek to Suicide Rock. It occurred to me that the last time I had even visited Suicide Rock was via a face climb. But that was 35 years and 35 pounds ago. I prefer walking sticks to carabiners these days.  Accessing the top of Suicide Rock via this route was just as satisfying as the face climb done so long ago.

The trailhead is located directly across the street from the San Jacinto Nature Center, about a mile north of the small mountain community of Idyllwild. A turnout serves as the parking area with the trail leading quickly away from the adjacent highway noise. Follow the wide and well marked trail for about .5 miles after which you'll enter the San Jacinto Wilderness. You'll need a wilderness permit to enter the area from that point on. Unlike the Devil's Slide trail, you'll have no problem getting a permit for this trailhead at the ranger's station in Idyllwild the day before or even the morning of your hike.  The only restriction is that your group is no larger than 12 hikers per permit.

The trail is a steady but manageable climb from 5,600 feet to an eventual 7,450 elevation on top of Suicide Rock. Oaks and Mazanita will give way to magnificent Incense Cedar and Maidenhair Ferns as you near the Suicide Rock Junction 2.25 miles from the starting point.

Follow the signs to Suicide Rock another 1.25 miles on. A left turn at the junction leads to San Jacinto peak, but I'll leave that destination for another day.

Many of the trail guides you'll read will tell you that after the steady climb to the junction, the trail flattens and the mileage is right at or just below a mile to the Rock. Don't believe it. The trail continues to climb, albeit rolling but steep in parts, for the longest mile in hiking history. In other words, if you think the hard part of the hike is over when you reach the junction, it's not. Expect more of the same that you've already hiked to this point and you won't be too surprised or discouraged with the remaining section of trail.

The views from Suicide are spectacular. It affords a clear view of Tahquitz Rock, the town of Idyllwild and miles of flatland laying westerly towards the ocean. There are plenty of places on bare, flat rock, exposed to the sky, perfectly suited for gazing heavenly or spreading out a lunch. It's advised to be on the lookout for rattlers nesting in wide cracks on top of the bald, however. On the day we visited, a total of 6 of the snakes were spied, two of them coiled together and as large as a fire hose. They were content to let us visitors to have our time taking all of it in before returning the way you came for a nearly 7 mile round trip hike in Southern California's own alpine ruggedness.

The Deer Springs Trail is highly recommended as a convenient and lovely access to the wonderful peaks and valleys above Idyllwild. Don't pass it up just because it may add a mile or two to your destination. The extra trail time is well worth it.

Amazingly detailed plant guide following the entire trail: Deer Springs Plant Guide

Park Guide and Permit Information: San Jacinto State Park Guide