One of my annual traditions is to head out to San Jacinto in the wintertime to partake in some of the best backcountry skiing in Southern California. However, if I’m being honest, it looks like this tradition is going to take a one-year hiatus based on the conditions I saw on Sunday, January 23, 2012, as there is not enough snow to get in any runs, unless I’m willing to ride over rocks and more rocks. Perhaps the conditions will change in the next six weeks, but at this point, as I noted yesterday, it looks like a drought year for us, which means no backcountry skiing on San Jacinto. (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/1/23/current-snow-conditions-on-mt-san-jacinto-january-2012.html)
Forget the snowpack though for now: let me tell you why I think San Jacinto is the best backcountry skiing in Southern California. First, it’s easily accessible – it’s a quick twelve minute ride up the Palm Spring Aerial Tramway to Long Valley, and in a good snow year like 2010 or 2011, you can instantly head out once you leave the tram station. Even in poor years, or late in the season, it’s a short hike/walk up towards Round Valley at around 9000 feet, where you will encounter snow that can be traversed and then skied. Second, there’s lots of variety. You can ski around either Long Valley, Round Valley, or many other portions of the park on relatively flat terrain; and there is plenty of downhill terrain either on the face of the peak proper, or in various chutes and small hills. In this respect, the terrain can be great for beginners – or for experts looking to get in some serious backcountry runs.
In my experience, should there be enough snow, and should you be willing to invest some effort into traversing with skins or on ski, or hiking on foot, you can get a good run of approximately 1500 vertical feet in – not too shabby! Third, unlike Baldy, and the terrain around it, it’s not too busy. Sure, you’ll pass people in Long Valley, but once you get out in the open, you’re going to find fresh powder – I guarantee it. In this respect, I’d say San Jacinto is one of the more unknown areas to ski in, even though it’s readily apparent to everyone.
Tips: I always try and head up the day after a storm, because there will be fresh powder everywhere. Even if I can’t make it after a storm, I arrive at the tram station early to catch the first tram up at 8:00 am as the tram cars fill up as the day progresses, and it’s a hassle dealing with a full tram and all of your gear. Do also note that a permit is required for traveling past Long Valley, but such permits are free, and are found at the Long Valley Ranger Station. I always have the proper gear for this trip – map, compass, GPS, and spare clothes, among other things, just in case the tram stops running, or something else comes up. I generally also carry/wear my Avalung, but I’ve never had to use it there. I also make sure to have lots of high caloric foods and to have lots of energy, because there are no lifts after the tram, and you will be expending a lot of energy on whichever runs you do go on. Lastly, do note that the weather can change on San Jacinto fairly quickly, and the summit region does get hit pretty hard at times by high winds, which can lead to some fairly iced out conditions, so exercise the proper care.
With those things in mind, the next time there’s a mammoth dump of snow in Southern California, and you want to experience acres of wide open backcountry, check out San Jacinto – but just realize that it might be 2013 before this happens!
More Information: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=636, http://www.mtsanjacinto.info/index.php, http://www.pstramway.com/, http://inthewildernesswithtodd.blogspot.com/2011/03/san-jacinto-backcountry-skiing-2-27-11.html, http://san-diego-ski-club.org/backcountry.htm