Account of Events
Prelude: Standing on top of Iron Mountain a few months ago and looking west I was very intrigued by the sharp ridgelines of Rattlesnake Peak. Standing at 5,826 feet, it is rather unimpressive in terms of plain elevation. However, the hike up to its summit consistently makes the Top 10 of most strenuous day hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains; enough to catch my interest. After the latest storm blanketed the higher elevations in much snow we decided that the time has come to conquer Rattlesnake Peak. We planned to hike up its south ridge, explore the ridge leading from its summit north towards South Mount Hawkins, and return the same way.
Part 1: Excited about what to come I drove up San Gabriel Canyon Road on December 7. The weather was beautiful with sunny and clear skies. I am always surprised how long the drive from Azusa up San Gabriel Canyon to the East Fork Road turn off is. I was to meet some other fellow hikers at the end of Shoemaker Canyon Road above the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. Driving into the parking lot at the trailhead I was surprised to see TacoDelRio, who decided to join our party this morning. Shortly after, we were on our way. The trail started easy past the gate on the Shoemaker Canyon Road gaining just about 500 feet in about 1.5 miles. Walking on that road reminded me on what I have read about its history. The road was planned in the 1950s as an escape route in the event of a possible nuclear attack from the then Soviet Union or one of its allies. The road was intended to connect with the Angeles Crest Highway at Vincent Gap. Engineers decided to use convict labor from the California Men’s Institution in Chino. However, due to the extremely rugged terrain from 1954 to 1969 the workers managed only 4.5 miles up to an elevation of ~2,700 feet. The project was finally abandoned in 1969. Hiking in that rugged area today, subject of potentially disastrous floods, it is not surprising that that project was doomed. After about 1.5 miles at an elevation of about 2,700’, well before the entrance of the first tunnel, a faint use-trail (~34°14.962’ N; 117°45.886’ W) leads up west a steep gully to connect with the Rattlesnake Peak south ridge. The trail now winds steeply over several bumps through low chaparral in about 2.5 miles and 3,000’ of elevation gain to the summit of Rattlesnake Peak. At some spots easy scrambling over rocks on the ridge adds to the fun. At around 4,700’ of elevation you traverse the most prominent bump on the ridge, known as Baby Rattler. The views all around were simply amazing. To the east Iron Mountain dominated the view. Mount Baldy loomed in the distance. To the northeast the East Fork of the San Gabriel River carves a deep wound into the High Country of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness. After reaching the top we all enjoyed a nice snack and marveled at the surroundings.
Part 2: From the summit the ridge leading to South Mount Hawkins looked intimidating with a very steep initial descent over possible loose terrain. After some discussion and consideration of the time we then decided not to explore the north ridge further this time but to return via the east ridge. The east ridge was supposed to be more overgrown than the south ridge and navigation could be difficult at times. Eventually it would connect with the end of the Shoemaker Canyon Road completing a nice loop. The initial descent from Rattlesnake Peak summit was steep and involved some scrambling over rocks. After a short while however we found ourselves in very thick buckthorn and other chaparral. Often times we had a leave the direct ridgeline to find a way through the several feet high bushes. At some places we picked up a faint use-trail which disappeared very quickly. Although not easy to navigate you cannot go wrong if you stay basically on the ridge. Soon we saw the Shoemaker Canyon Road winding its way around the southeast side of Rattlesnake Peak. After more than 2,000 feet of mostly trail-less descent, we finally left the east ridge (at ~3,550 feet elevation) and made our way west through low bushes towards the road which was still several hundred feet below. Luckily we picked up a use-trail which we followed down the slope. The last descent down to the end of the road was steep and we had to traverse a small gully. Once on the dirt road it was an easy about 4.5 mile stroll passing both tunnels to the parking lot. Overall, the loop totaled to a little over 10 miles and ~5,000 feet of elevation gain.
Disclaimer: The track was recorded on a Garmin GPSmap 60CSx with coordinate savings every 30 seconds. Mileage- and elevation readings were calculated after importing the gpx file into National Geographic’s Topo 4.0 software.