Those of you who read my blog or know me personally understand how much I love to brag about my amazing dad and stepmom Diana. Ever since I was little my dad has never stopped moving. He and Diana have lived in Southern California for the last 16 years and have hiked over 800 unique peaks, probably over a thousand if you count repeat trips! Every weekend they’re out hiking and not small hikes, but big 20+ mile, 20+ hour excursions. When people ask me, “Where does all your energy come from!?”, I don’t have to look far to find the answer.
I’m a sucker for challenges, especially when it comes to the outdoors. My folks and I have turned it into a tradition of sorts to come up with some kind of crazy yearly hiking/peakbagging challenge.
Back in 2014 we met up in Arizona and hiked from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon down to the river and back in a day. It was a 21 mile venture with nearly 5k of descent and a brutal 5k climb back out.
A few months later they came to Seattle and joined me and some friends in completing the Death March, a 20 mile day hike with over 7k of gain through the gorgeous Enchantments of Central Washington. We even tacked on a summit of Little Annapurna for bonus points.
In the summer of 2015, Diana and my dad tagged along for part of my John Muir Trail adventure and backpacked 5 days on the trail with me. When I had to abandon the trail due to wildfires, we regrouped, lucked into a Mount Whitney day permit and completed the ball-busting hike to the summit and back in a day. It was a 22 mile trek with 6k of gain that took us about 14 hours.
When the calendar rolled to 2016, we could only think “What in the world were we going to do this year!?”
While reading some outdoor blogs I stumbled upon a Southern California peakbagging challenge called the 3 Peak Challenge. Sponsored by the now defunct A16 Outfitters, a Southern California outdoor supply company, completing the 3 Peak Challenge entails summiting the three tallest peaks in Southern California: Mount San Antonio (10,064’), San Jacinto (10,834’), and San Gorgonio, (11,502’). The challenge must be completed in either a 24 hour, 3 day, or 3 month time frame.
24 hours is a little insane, even for us, but when I told my folks we had to try the 3-day challenge they of course didn’t hesitate to say yes. Well, I think my dad said something like “What!? Are you trying to kill me!?” But I know he loves it. We also knew there was no way he’d let us do it without him!
After 8 years of freelancing I finally returned to full time work back in July and could think of no better last big adventure than completing the 3 Peak Challenge with my folks. I flew into LA on July 21st and Diana and I decided that to do it proper, we needed party supplies! Our first stop was the local party store where we procured a small piñata, a fiesta sign, and an assortment of hilarious props.
Peak #1: Mount St Antonio (aka Mount Baldy)
High Point: 10,064’ | Mileage: 10.2 | Elevation Gain: 3,900’
With our piñata safely packed, we hit the road on Saturday for Mount Baldy, the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. I had already climbed Baldy a few years ago with my dad so I was familiar with the area and the trail. Unbelievably it would be my dad’s 18th time up the mountain. Though we picked a sweltering 95+ degree day, we lucked out as shifting winds blew away wildfire smoke from the nearby Sand fire that started the evening before. Had winds not been in our favor, we might not have been able to complete the hike.
I got a tad ahead of my folks so I waited for them at the Ski Hut near the halfway mark as we’ve done before. I took a break away from the trail, my eyes closed, basking in the sun. I waited for nearly an hour knowing there was no way they were that far behind. Funniest moment of the day was me asking hikers coming down “Hey! Have you seen a lady with a piñata on her backpack?”
Finally a couple overheard me and said “Yes! The piñata lady! Are you the fiesta party? They were heading up to the summit!” It turns out I was lounging pretty far off the trail and when my folks got there and didn’t see me they took a short break and continued up the trail, assuming I had kept on hiking. Oops! Good thing Diana had a piñata so I could spot them!
I hiked Mach 3 all the way to the summit and when I finally caught dad and Diana they seemed a little puzzled as to why I was behind them. We laughed for a bit then broke out our fiesta gear at the summit, enjoyed some still-cold Coronas, and basked in the comfortable 75 degree weather. We had left the smoke and sweltering heat behind for at least a bit.
Our little fiesta party was quite the hit as several other hikers asked to take photos with our props, ha! We explained the challenge we were trying to complete and everyone had nearly the same reaction. “Wow”, they said. “What an amazing thing to do with your family!” Once back down the mountain we went out for a celebratory dinner. 1 down, 2 to go!
Peak #2: San Jacinto
High Point: 10,834’ | Mileage: 10 | Elevation Gain: 2,190′
San Jacinto rises 10,000’ above San Gorgonio Pass and is home to the famous Cactus to Clouds trail, a very strenuous 20 mile hike from the bottom of the desert all the way to the summit that gains a staggering 10,300’ of elevation. Definitely not for the faint of heart! Luckily, this approach wasn’t in the plan for us today. Instead, we booked a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and took the “easy” approach to San Jacinto. Of course, easy is still a 10 mile roundtrip journey with a few steep sections of trail but with only 2,190’ of gain, it’s a very comfortable and easily hike-able route.
The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is the world’s largest rotating aerial tramway and travels 2.5 miles up the cliffs of Chino Canyon to San Jacinto State Park. The trams takes approximately 10 minutes to travel up 5,873’. The rotating cars allow for some tremendous views in all directions! Tickets for the tram are about $26 per person round trip and reservations are strongly recommended.
My dad calls San Jacinto one of his favorite hikes in Southern California and I can easily see why. From the Mountain Station tram a paved path quickly turns to dirt and winds through some spectacular boulder and rock formations. I can never get over how blue the sky is here in Southern California and despite fires, today was no exception. Most of the hike is through gorgeous forest with glimpses of that deep blue sky. Near the halfway point, Wellman Divide makes a great spot to take a rest and admire the views out to the San Jacinto Wilderness.
The trail continues up, the views getting more and more open until you finally reach the Emergency Shelter on the arm of the summit. From there, the summit is a scant 0.1 mile journey, though more of a rock scramble than an actual path. The scramble is an easy one though and you just point yourself up whichever way you’d like.
Hiking on a Sunday meant a crowded summit but we were still able to find an area to sit and relax. Just as we did on Baldy, we seemed to attract the attention of fellow hikers when we unpacked our assortment of party supplies and lots of folks happily joined us for the celebration. I always find the camaraderie you get from total strangers an extra bonus to being outdoors!
On the way back down, my dad decided one summit wasn’t enough, so we did a small side scramble up to Miller Peak, just a short ways off the main San Jacinto trail. A fun extra bonus for the day, especially because we had it all to ourselves!
Peak #3: San Gorgonio
High Point: 11,502’ | Mileage: 18 (23.84 with our bonus summit) | Elevation Gain: 5,840’ (8,187’ with our bonus summit’)
And then there was one.
We all knew San Gorgonio would be our hardest day. It was the tallest peak with the longest approach and we’d be completing it after having already done hikes both days prior. On this hike we’d be joined by our good friend Herman, who hikes frequently with my folks and was in the midst of completing one of many Sierra Club peak challenges. He needed to bag two peaks nearby so we made a plan to continue to at least one of them after topping out on Gorgonio.
There are a number of ways to reach San Gorgonio, most very long approaches. We chose the Vivian Creek Trail, the shortest but also steepest of the bunch. Gorgonio requires a backcountry permit that is commonly sold out on weekends so we planned this hike on a Monday and had no trouble getting a permit.
We left the trailhead at 7am to give ourselves plenty of time and shortly after crossing the Mill Creek floodplain after the trailhead, turned straight up the mountain. This mile of trail is the steepest on the route and a brutal way to start the morning, though I suppose there’s something to be said for getting the worst part done early, right!? My dad mentioned that he always remembers this section of trail on the way back down because it turns into a brutal knee-crunching descent. Indeed, he was right!
Once past the tough climb, the trails eases into a consistently steady grade and up and up you go. About 6.5 miles up after the High Creek camp you get a lovely view of San Jacinto though it seems surprisingly further away than it should! The trail continues upward to an open rocky ridge that eventually winds around a knoll and at last, to the summit of Gorgonio. This rocky part of the climb is above 10,500’ and a bit of a slog, but a beautiful one nonetheless.
I had hiked ahead of my folks and told them I’d meet them on the summit. When I arrived there were only a few hikers. A weekday summit made for a relaxed and quiet “get away from it all” sort of experience. I struck up a conversation and a group of us chatted about Seattle, hikes in the area, and what compelled us to be out on the top of San Gorgonio. As much as I love the solitude that comes from getting outdoors, I also enjoy meeting others. It’s amazing what a small world it is and how many of us are united by simply being outside.
After telling a few other hikers that we were completing the 3 Peak Challenge today, I lounged in the sun and it seemed I wasn’t the only one eagerly awaiting my folks’ arrival. When I finally saw them in the distance, I stood up and cheered and so did everyone else. It was a pretty surreal experience, all these strangers, cheering for us. I have to admit, I did get a little teary eyed.
We all exchanged hugs and hi-fives and had a hilarious attempt at trying to break our practically unbreakable tiny Piñata. Target makes some quality products I tell ya! And who knew that swinging trekking poles at 11k would be such an exhausting experience! We stayed at the summit for quite a while, lounging, relaxing, and enjoying our accomplishment. As it got later, we finally discussed whether or not we’d try to make one of the bonus summits that Herman needed.
Well, it wasn’t really a discussion. We all hiked down from Gorgonio and stopped at the flat plain below the summit. My dad surveyed the cross country jaunt over to Dragon’s Head Mountain, one of Herman’s needed summits and one that my dad and Diana have done before. It was very close but required a nearly 1,000’ descent followed by another 1,000’ climb to reach its summit. I have to admit, I didn’t feel that motivated!
Then my dad, true to form, took off and started going for it. As he and Herman headed down the steep slope Diana and I looked at each other and it was clear that “Well shit, we’re going for it!” My dad gets things into his head and he’s off to the races. It’s pretty amazing really. I mentioned he’s 68!?
The initial descent to the gully below Dragon’s Head was a steep shale slip and slide but reasonably quick. Once at the bottom we looked up at the brutal climb ahead of us and realized with it being nearly 3pm, we’d likely be hiking out in the dark. Well, this is the fun of outdoor adventuring, right!? It’s not like we could come this far and not do it! So up we went and I must say, the summit was a fantastically dramatic perch with a sheer drop on the east side.
Not only had we completed the 3 Peak Challenge but we had gotten Herman a bonus summit and all of us an extra 2k of climbing, woohoo!! My folks even found their signature on the summit register from back in 2005. Pretty amazing!
The climb out from the gully between Dragon’s Head and Gorgonio was a brutal 900’ over about 3/4 of a mile on some of the loosest, rockiest terrain I’ve been on. It was worse than hiking straight up sand and took us a grueling hour to complete. I swear we’d take one step forward and slide back down two. Finally back on the Vivian Creek trail we sat down exhausted with a 9 mile descent still ahead of us.
Each of us charged ahead at our own pace, regrouping from time to time until a few miles from the trailhead. When I finally got near enough to the end to see the wash below, I was dismayed that it still seemed 2,000’ below me! When I finally crossed it at long last and hit the road to the finish, little black bugs swarmed around my head. My hiking boot had come untied but I was so focused on reaching the car that all I could do was flail my trekking poles around in a furious manner, yelling f-bombs at the stupid bugs, tripping on my shoelace, and screaming to the heavens. A couple came around the corner and I barely mustered a feeble “I’ve had a reallllllllly long day”. They smiled at me and I can only imagine they thought I was a complete raving lunatic.
I collapsed in a heap at the car nearly 11 hours later, overjoyed that I could finally stop moving! I waited about 45 minutes for dad, Diana, and Herman, who looked similarly exhausted. We hugged and congratulated each other but as excited as we were to have finished this epic challenge, we were too tired to go out and have a proper celebration!
Completing this challenge with my dad and stepmom was pretty incredible. All total in 3 days, with our bonus peaks, we tallied 44 miles and 14,277′ of elevation gain. I can’t say how proud I am to have such adventurous and fit parents. They inspire me everyday to keep moving and never stop exploring. We completed our challenge paperwork and submitted our photos, becoming the 58th, 59th, and 60th people to have completed the 3-day challenge this year. We even got a surprise prize pack for simply getting out and doing what we love!
The biggest surprise of the contest? Turns out my dad would win an award for being the oldest 3-day finisher of the challenge that year! I’m so proud I can’t even say.
A very big thanks to A16 for putting together a great challenge and for providing such an unexpected prize pack. I’m forever grateful for my amazing dad and Diana and their friend Herman, who joins us on most of these silly adventures.
After summiting Dragon’s Head I waited a few minutes on the trail for my folks and though I pretty much hate myself on video (can I possibly say ‘man’ enough times?!), I felt compelled to capture the moment somehow, so here’s my silly soliloquy on our 3 Peak Challenge weekend.
Now the big question is, what in the world are we going to do next year!?