Mount Baldy Night Hike

I had been wanting to do some hiking when in LA but wasn’t sure where to go. So when the news broke that Battlefrog Series were cancelling all their races everyone started talking about doing a night hike up Mount San Antonio (aka Mount Baldy).

Mount Baldy is the highest point in the Los Angeles County and is often talked about by my LA based friends.

My friend Chris organised the overnight hike and I started preparing myself for an uncomfortable night. I’ve only ever been on one night hike before, during the SISU Iron, so this was to be my first hike when I wasn’t fatigued or half asleep.

That afternoon I packed a ruck with a sleeping bag, extra clothes, water, food and hiking poles and waited for my friend Wesley to pick me up and take me to the mountain.

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The plan was to meet at 9pm at the Manker Flats Campground hike to the summit of Baldy, and then have a few hours’ rest before watching the sunrise and heading back down. The hike up was expected to take three hours and there were about 20 people interested in going, but things didn’t go exactly to plan.

Due to various reasons there were a number of people who could no longer attend, resulting in only six of us left to hike. Other than me and Wes there was Dannie, Tina, Carolina and Richard.

We started hiking just before 9:30pm and were prepared to take things fairly easy and hike up the Baldy Notch and Devil’s Backbone Trail. This trail is longer but not as steep as the Baldy Bowl Ski Hut Trail. As we approached the turn off for the Ski Hut Trail we saw three hikers coming down the trail. They advised against going up the Ski Hut Trail as it was incredibly steep so we continued along the service road trail.

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About an hour into our hike we saw another headlamp and started chatting to a guy named Derek who was hiking the trail alone. He too was preparing to sleep at the summit overnight and wait for a friend who was doing the race to the summit on the Monday morning.

We continued on at a moderate pace however quickly had split into three smaller groups. I was ahead with Derek as we powered along the trails, Wes and Richard were a little behind us, and the girls were with Dannie bringing up the rear.

I may not be the fastest runner but I can be a fast walker when hiking up a hill. Having long legs means my steps are considerably longer than others so I found myself as the one waiting for others to catch up. As I approached the ski lodge first I took a moment to use the toilets one last time before we rested and had a snack. We’d been walking for just over two hours and needed to pick up the pace as we weren’t even halfway done.

Shortly after leaving the lodge, Carolina started complaining of pain in her foot which turned out to be plantar fasciitis. Luckily she had some tape in her bag so I strapped her foot to provide some support and relief. It was still too painful for her to walk on so she decided to turn back and Richard offered to walk her back to the car and drive her home. Derek had powered on ahead so Wes, Dannie, Tina and I said goodbye to Carolina and Richard and continued on.

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As we walked along the air got cooler but I was sweating like crazy. There was nobody else in sight except for the four of us and the only noise was the sound of our footsteps on the gravel. Eventually we got to the start of the Devil’s Backbone trail and prepared for the last few miles of the hike.

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The Devil’s Backbone is a 3.3 mile (5km) long single track which sees you gain 2,350 feet in elevation. There are sections that are surrounded by trees and other sections that have steep drops either side. Hiking at night meant we all had to be aware of our footing as one wrong move would have resulted in a long tumble down the side of the mountain.

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As we all hiked at different paces we kept separating and so we stopped every five or ten minutes to re-group. We continued on slowly and could see the outline of Baldy in front of us, but it never seemed to get closer. The moon was barely visible meaning that the only light was coming from our headlamps and we had no idea how long we had left to hike. Someone had mentioned earlier that the hike was 6 miles long, but as we passed the 6 mile mark we all wondered how long we still had to go. Wes kept saying that it was just around the corner and I’d keep saying ‘yeah, but which corner’.

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We’d been hiking for over five hours when we reached the last section of the Devil’s Backbone trail. This was the steepest and rockiest section and hard to navigate at night. Wes continued on as I waited for Dannie and Tina and together we continued walking to the top. I was now leading and would follow what I thought was a path, only to find myself standing among a pile of rocks with the path several metres away. I kept powering on but would stop every now and then to allow Dannie and Tina to catch up. The three of us were all exhausted and just wanted to get to the top so we could sleep.

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Finally, after almost six hours of walking, we finally made it to the summit! It was 3:15am and we were all exhausted. All the good sleeping spots had been taken by the people helping at an event the next day, so Dannie, Tina and I found a slightly less rocky section and prepared ourselves for a few hours’ sleep.

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I put on all of my clothes, with the exception of my Belief hoodie which I was using as a pillow, took off my shoes and curled up in the sleeping bag. No less than five minutes after doing so I put my shoes back on as my feet were freezing. I tried to place my ruck in a position to keep my lower back warm but the change in wind direction meant other parts of me would get warm and then cold again. The only thing between the sleeping bag and the floor was a thin towel which didn’t do much to keep me warm.

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I finally found a comfortable position, wrapped the hood of the sleeping bag around my head and fell asleep. I awoke about an hour later to the sound of snoring and had trouble getting back to sleep as my legs were so cold. Despite wearing two layers it felt like I was standing in freezing water. Eventually I feel back asleep and was woken by various voices just before the sunrise. I was surprised to find that the ground had actually been comfortable to sleep on. The most uncomfortable part had just been the cold.

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I reluctantly emerged from my cocoon, I mean sleeping bag, and joined others in waiting for the sun to rise above the clouds. As it rose I thought about how grateful I am to be able to witness incredible sights in such incredible places. I’ve never watched a sunrise from on top of a mountain so it was a pretty special moment.

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After enjoying the sunrise, we took some photos, had some protein bars for breakfast, packed our gear and started the hike back down.

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The trail was so different during the daylight. It was handy to be able to see where we were going and the views were incredible. Although the thinner parts of the trail may scare people who are afraid of heights. As we walked we would say hello to the people stationed along the trail who were there to help out for the event (a run to the summit) before seeing some familiar faces along the path. We briefly stopped to chat to Ashley and Lauren before continuing along in attempt to make it off the backbone before too many people came past.

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The first runners came past just as we stepped off the trail and onto the service road. We clapped and cheered on the runners and eventually I started singing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to keep up spirits of the people who looked like they wanted to quit. We stopped at the lodge once more for a food and toilet break and then got lost briefly before finding the trail again.

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As we kept walking downhill I noticed that my pack was feeling significantly heavier than the previous night. It may have been because I wasn’t used to carrying the weight, or maybe it was because I was now leaning more forward, but my shoulders ached the whole way down. At one point we heard someone call out “Hey SISU!” and looked up to see Nancy and Jairo walking towards us. We stopped for a hug and quick photo and then kept walking.

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We’d been hiking downhill for about four hours when we finally saw cars below. We had one final snack break before picking up the packs once more and hiking the last section of the road. Finally, we were back at the cars and ready for a good feed!

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I had such a great time on the hike and am so glad that I went. It may have taken us a while but it meant we could appreciate the hike and the beauty of the surrounds (during the daylight at least). It’s an easy enough hike for beginners and is definitely something that everyone in the LA area should do at least once.

If I did an overnight hike again there’s a few things I would do differently. Here’s my tips for the trek:

  • Take a tarp, sleeping mat, or thick towel to put under your sleeping bag. This will ensure minimal heat is lost through the ground.
  • Take more food than you think you need. It’s amazing how hungry I was despite having eaten a lot prior to the hike.
  • Take multiple layers of warm clothing. The wind at the summit is cold and can change direction several times during the night.
  • Have a bright glowstick attached to your pack. This will make it easy for those behind you to keep sight of you.
  • Allow plenty of time to get to the summit. The average time to summit is about 3 hours, but things are different at night and I would suggest starting around sunset.

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Trail: Baldy Notch and Devil’s Backbone Trail.

Location: Mount San Antonio (Mount Baldy). Approx 1.5 hours from downtown Los Angeles.

Distance: 7.8 miles (12.5km) one way.

Ease: Moderate

Time: Allow between 2-6 hours each direction.

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