Key Hike Statistics:
Distance: 9 miles
Trail Style: Out & Back
Elevation Gain: ~3,900 ft
Popularity: Very High
Best Time: Early Morning
Bathrooms: At Trailhead
Parking: Ample, Adventure Pass Required
Trailhead: Manker Campground, Mt. Baldy, CA
For hikers in Southern California there are a few peaks that make it onto a regional ‘must hike’ list. Mount Baldy (also known as Mount San Antonio) is certainly one of those peaks. Mt. Baldy sits northeast of Los Angeles, towering over the community of Rancho Cucamonga directly south of the mountain. The peak of Mt. Baldy reaches 10,069 feet above sea level making it the tallest peak in the San Gabriel mountain range and the third tallest peak in Southern California.
The hike to the top of Mt. Baldy starts from Manker Campground just north of the small community of Mt. Baldy. I drove up from San Diego with my brother-in-law after work on a Friday so we could camp at Manker Campground and get up and hike in the morning. Unfortunately, we didn’t factor in the holiday weekend (we accidentally planned our hike for Labor Day weekend). So naturally, when we arrived at Manker there were no campsites open. We did a quick drive through the campground anyway in the hopes of a miracle before we drove down the mountain road a little ways to find a quiet turnout to park and sleep in the car. We weren’t the only ones in said quiet turnout either, which should have been our first sign about the trail population for tomorrow.
After a night of choppy sleep in my Subaru we awoke (for the final time) around 7am and headed back up the road towards the trailhead. When we reached the trailhead we were surprised (although, in hindsight, probably shouldn’t have been) to find a fleet of cars lining the roadway. We squeezed the Subaru into a tight spot off the road a fair ways down the hill from the begin of the trail. After gearing up we hit the trail right about 8am.
The trail up Mt. Baldy from Manker Campground is an easy one to follow, it’s actually more of a dirt road to start. After maybe a quarter mile on the dirt road you’ll reach San Antonio Falls which must be year round because it was still running when we were there on September 5, 2016. From here the dirt road trail continues behind you (presuming you’ve stopped to look at the falls for a second). At this point you’ll want to keep a watchful eye to the left as you hike if you plan on taking the Baldy Bowl Trail (shortest but steepest route to the peak). About a third of a mile after the falls a trail will break up the slope to the left of the dirt road, this is the Baldy Bowl Trail. If you want to take the Ski Lift Trail to Devil’s Backbone to the peak you’ll want to continue down the dirt road to the right. We veered left at the fork.
From the fork in the trails, the climb begins. You’ll wind up and up from around 6,500 feet where the split is to the Sierra Club Ski Hut which is nestled just below the actual bowl of Mt. Baldy around elevation 8,000 feet. Here is a good spot to take a breather, eat a snack and prepare for the next half of the climb to the top. From the Ski Hut you’ll have about 2 miles to the peak and another 2,000 feet elevation gain to contend with as you contour your way across the bowl along the now aptly named Baldy Bowl Trail. The trees become a bit more sparse as you draw closer to your goal and finally you’ll emerge from the trees all together as the peak becomes visible. Enjoy the panoramic views from this point on. With clear weather you’ll be able to see out to the Pacific to the west and the Mojave to the east.
Once the time has come to leave the top of Mt. Baldy you have the choice of returning the way you came or taking the Devil’s Backbone to the Ski Hut Trail which will also get you back to your car at Manker Flats. I typically recommend going back down the way you came unless you are familiar with the other trail to get you back or are with someone who is.
Another note about this peak hike, plan on foot traffic. As I mentioned, we inadvertently planned our hike for a holiday weekend which no doubt increased the amount of hikers. Once we reached the Ski Hut there were people having picnics, evidently many of which not really planning on going further than that. Leaving the Ski Hut we had to navigate a line of hikers of varying paces. My brother-in-law and I are pretty experienced hikers and were pacing quicker than a good number of these hikers who started their climb earlier in the morning. I would advise trying to avoid these heavy traffic weekends if you are a hiker that likes to move at your own pace instead of the pace of the 5 person hiker group you’ve just caught up to until there is ample room for them to step out and let you by.