As I sat in Friday afternoon Los Angeles traffic I subconsciously tapped the spare set of keys in my pocket. I thought for perhaps the twentieth time in the last hour how these keys needed to make it into my backpack or else I was going to have a very unpleasant Sunday evening. Nothing spells bummer like ending a long weekend in the mountains only to find that you can’t get into your car and drive home.
The keys in question weren’t mine, but my friend Mac’s. A little over an hour ago we had swapped keys in the work parking lot before getting in our cars and heading separate ways. My stomach clenched with a confusing mix of excitement and fear as the traffic inched forward and I thought of the weekend ahead.
Mac and I would attempt a crossing of Angeles National Forest via the Silver Moccasin Trail, using just our available weekend. She would start at the northern terminus at Vincent Gap and head south. Meanwhile, I would start at the southern terminus of Chantry Flats and head north. If everything went according to plan we’d meet back at work on Monday, tired, sore, and driving each other's cars. I tapped the keys in my pocket just once more as I exited the highway.
The Silver Moccasin Trail is a 53 mile foot path that traverses Angeles National Forest through large sections of the San Gabriel Wilderness. The trail starts at Chantry Flats before winding its way through deep canyons, up to exposed ridges, and connecting parts of the Pacific Crest Trail as it climbs its way to the summit of Mt. Baden Powell before descending to it’s finish at Vincent Gap near the town of Wrightwood, CA. The trail was officially established in 1942 by the Los Angeles Area Council of Boy Scouts, although the trail started as a series of game trails used by Native American Tribes.
Unlike the John Muir Trail (JMT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), both of which have become highly popularized in recent years, almost nobody knows of the existence of the SMT. Whereas its more famous cousins inspire hundreds of blog posts, Facebook groups, speed record attempts, and books, the SMT sits quietly among the chaparral forests of Angeles National Forest waiting to be rediscovered. While the southern terminus of the SMT is only 26 miles from downtown Los Angeles, completing this trail will require a decent amount of research, wayfinding, and in Mac’s and my situation, speed.
As I pulled into the parking lot at Chantry Flats I made a quick double check of everything I would need. Backpack, check. Adventure Pass hanging in my window, check. Trekking poles, check. Mac’s keys, double check. I glanced down at my watch, 5:35pm. Heading down the trail into the gathering dusk I did a little mental math in my head, with a goal of arriving at Mac’s car by 8pm Sunday evening, I had just over 50 hours to cover 53 miles, and more than 14,000 feet of elevation gain.
Mac and I had decided that the best time to attempt a SMT crossing would be late June, after most of the snow has melted out of the mountains, but before the summer heat of July and August makes hiking in Angeles National Forest nearly unbearable. Furthermore, by scheduling our trek near the longest days of the year, we’d have extra daylight during which we could cram in extra mileage. My plan for Friday evening was to make it to Spruce Grove Campground, four miles from Chantry Flats. Upon arriving at Spruce Grove I was unsurprised to find that I had the campground to myself. As the sun set I busied myself with making food on my little stove, setting up my tent, and reviewing my maps for the next two days.
The next morning my alarm clock rang through the empty campground and I hurried to pack away my tent. Munching on snacks from my hip-belt pockets I began to climb towards Newcomb Pass. I didn’t see another soul for hours as I hiked through the oak forests, crossing over Rush Creek on my way towards Angeles Crest Highway at the twelve mile marker.
The SMT through this part of Angeles National Forest climbs through a series of lovely chaparral canyons, and water crossings are relatively common, linking together the Gabrielino Trail as it passes through Shortcut Canyon becoming the Silver Moccasin Trail once again. The trail can be confusing during this section due to a series of fire road crossings and small sections of road walking. More than once I was grateful for my printed maps, and the GPS file I had loaded onto my phone.
As the afternoon wore on, the forest around me started to change. When hiking the SMT northbound one begins at 2,000-feet above sea level and slowly climbs to over 9,000-feet. This means that hikers will pass through several different ecosystems as they gain elevation. By mid-afternoon I had left the shady oaks behind me and was now surrounded by swaying pine trees. My goal for the first day was to reach at least Cloudburst Summit where the SMT connects with the PCT, which it will follow until its terminus at Vincent Gap. I knew that the well marked and highly traveled PCT would be easy to follow on Sunday morning even through my fatigue.
As the sun started to approach the horizon I reached Camp Valcrest and my second crossing of the Angeles Crest Highway. From the fading light I saw a small figure bounding towards me and I knew it could only be Mac. She had covered nearly 26 miles by that point, proving that her ultramarathon training had set her up well for this weekend. We exchanged a brief hug and went on our separate ways. She was headed just a mile or so down the trail to Bandido Group Campground, while I had another several miles planned to Cooper Canyon Trail Camp and a reliable source of water. By the time I finally made it into camp all I could do was stuff a snickers in my mouth and roll out my ground cloth to cowboy camp, leaving my tent stuffed in my bag and grateful for the fact that it rarely rains in this part of California.
My Sunday morning alarm found me feeling groggy and beaten down as I sat up in my sleeping bag and looked around. It was still too early to enjoy the sunrise as I hit the trail, popping caffeinated jelly beans in my mouth until body and brain were running at full steam again. The back half of the SMT would take me above 7,000 feet where I would stay until Vincent Gap.
All morning I hiked next to Little Rock Creek, making multiple crossings of Angeles Crest Highway which parallels the PCT/SMT through this section. One o’clock in the afternoon, and my second lunch of the day found me at Islip Saddle, which marks the start of the last 14 miles of the SMT. Here I began to climb towards a ridge that would have me summit three peaks, Throop Peak, Mt. Burnham, and finally Mt. Baden Powell.
I arrived at the summit of Mt. Baden Powell at 6pm. Knowing that I’d all but achieved my goal I sat down to eat a celebratory handful of sat-on cookies. Somewhere south of me I knew Mac must be emerging from the woods near Chantry Flats and loading her tired body into my car for the drive back to LA. Before departing the peak I signed the trail register and took in one final view of the San Gabriel Wilderness that stretched out towards the horizon. It seemed like so much longer than a weekend spent in these incredible mountains, and my mind reeled as I realized that tomorrow morning I’d be driving into the office. Shouldering my pack I checked, yet again, to make sure I had Mac’s keys before I began my descent to Vincent Gap.