Having originally planned to hike Rattlesnake last weekend with the Sierra Club and then reading Mountain Impulse's Trip Report, Tom and I were inspired to complete this hike on this beautiful, spring Southern California Sunday. We also wanted to mix it up a little by ascending the "secondary" route (east ridge) and descending the "primary" route (south ridge). Since Mountain Inpulse already created a nice, detailed trip report, this is just going to be a short one, providing some pictures, GPS track, elevation profile and a little history.
Rattlesnake Ascent via Secondary RouteThe seconday route (East Ridge) is fairly straightforward. It involves more travel along Shoemaker Road than the primary route, through both tunnels, following the road that becomes an overgrown trail all the way up to the east ridge. Once on the ridge, follow it all the way to the summit (just keep going up). At one point you come across the trail that follows above the East Fork of the San Gabriel (leading to bridge to nowhere I think, near airplane flat - anyone hiked this before?) but you only follow this trail for about 10 yards and then turn left to continue to follow the ridge (there is a small cairn) up to the top. The trail is faint, but not really necessary other than to avoid the thick brush. There is a little bit of elevation loss going over the bumps along the ridge, but less than the primary route. The views are beautiful, offering good view of Iron Montain, Mount Baldy and the Bridge to Nowhere. Here is a picture of the entire ridge.
A side note, we saw a trail near the summit coming out of Rattlesnake Canyon just north of the East Ridge that we followed on our ascent. The USGS Map shows that there is a trail that leads part way up the canyon, but then heads back down towards the East fork of the San Gabriel. Based on this find, we assume that you can also ascend Rattlesnake via Rattlesnake canyon, which looks to be a nice route.
Rattlesnake Descent via Primary Route
The descent via the primay route (southern Ridge) has a good trail all of the way. It is steep and loose in sections. It does involve about 400 ft of additional elevation gain, the majority to ascend "baby rattle", the biggest bump of the route. Make sure you go down the ridge to the west-southwest that starts at bump 4040'. There is a steel post marking this spot.
This trail starts along Shoemaker Road right before the large excavated, 3 terraced triangle (before the first tunnel with a steel pipe). It is not marked and easy to miss (GPS coords N34.24946 W117.76476).
The ascent took me 3 hours and it was 5 miles and 3000 ft gain. The descent was just over 4 miles, had an additional 400 ft of gain and took just over 2 hours. The following elevation profile show the gain/loss, however I noticed that the spikes you see along the beginning and end are following the original elevation along the road, but obviously the road cuts most of these out, and the tunnels have large spikes that would result if you hiked over the tunnel, but obviously we didn't, we went through instead. It took me a little to figure these spikes out.
I have also attached a detailed topo map showing the GPS track overlay. This clearly shows the route we took. I do recommend this route, a loop is always better than returning on the same trail, I think.
History of Shoemaker Road
I am an Engineer and often ask "why?". Immediately on this hike I started to ask "why?". Why did they build this road, construct these obvisouly expensive tunnels, complex drainage systems, rock walls, etc. So I had to search the internet to attempt to answer this question and came up with the following:
There are many ridiculous things from the Cold War, backyard bomb shelters, duck and cover drills that would "protect" schoolchildren from a nuclear bomb attack, and then there are those that could have only been conceived from paranoia and government pork.
Enter Shoemaker Canyon Road.
In the paranoia of the 1950s with the "looming threat" of a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union or its allies, concerns were raised to the lack of escape routes from Los Angeles. As a result, potential escape corridors were evaluated, one of those that was approved was a road in the San Gabriel Mountains that went through the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. The road would wind through the East Fork and connect with the Angeles Crest Highway near the small mountain community of Wrightwood, just 15 miles away from Interstate 15 and the Mojave Desert.
The idea of a road through the East Fork was not original, an earlier attempt had been made to make the community of Wrightwood more accessible to the people of the Los Angeles Basin in the 1930s. At the time, the San Gabriel Mountains were full of campers, hikers, fishers enjoying themselves and dozens of camps welcomed visitors who wanted to spend a rustic weekend. Today, much of the same is true, driving down the East Fork on a Friday afternoon one encounters people fishing on the side of the road or near their car sitting on the side of the road enjoying the lush canyon scenery, but there's still no road that grants direct access to Wrightwood through the East Fork for good reason—it's too difficult.
The East Fork contains some of the most rugged terrain in Southern California—hikes such as those to Iron Mountain and Rattlesnake Peak routinely rank among some of the most strenuous and difficult hikes in the San Gabriels—the river itself is also subject to violent flash flooding during storms. Unsurprisingly, the initial attempt to carve a road in the 1930s (which largely kept close to the riverbed) was obliterated in a large storm and the project abandoned, due to concerns about the stability of the area. Today all that is left is some crumbling evidence of the road bed and a beautiful 1930s-era concrete arch bridge that crosses the East Fork at the Narrows—the deepest gorge in Southern California—almost 5 miles away from the nearest road.
Despite the unforgiving terrain and past history, engineers decided to forge ahead using convict labor from the California Men's Institution in Chino, earning the road the nickname, "Convict Road". To avoid the potential washouts that consumed the earlier road, the new road was constructed high above the East Fork itself. The road starts at the lower end of the canyon at an elevation of approximately 1700' and was intended to join with the Angeles Crest Highway at Vincent Gap with an elevation of 6629'. The terrain is so bad that in the 15 years of construction, from 1954 to 1969, workers only managed to complete 4.5 miles of work to an elevation of 2700'.
By 1969, the lack of progress, budget constraints, and growing ecological concerns regarding the project lead to its demise and work was halted. Despite the abandonment of a road through the East Fork, it appears that the project had became absorbed into the vast California highway system as part of Highway 39. When Shoemaker Canyon Road was abandoned, the connection with Angeles Crest Highway was rerouted to Islip Saddle, more than 8 miles away from the original junction at Vincent Gap. The road opened in 1961, but the 6.2 mile section from Crystal Lake (a small camping area and lake) to Angeles Crest Highway has been closed since 1978 due to unremitting landslides. CalTrans seems to have an interest in restoring the section, but has been thwarted due to lack of funds.
Today, not much has changed. There is still no effect eastern access to the back ranges of the San Gabriels and Shoemaker Canyon Road remains little more than an odd historical footnote in the San Gabriels. It has become a popular day hike for people interested in local history or the simple curiosity of exploring a "Road to Nowhere".
What's Left of this odd, unfinished, and ill-advised piece of civil engineering...
Aside from the two miles of paved, drivable road? Past the locked gate is an additional 2.5 miles of graded roadway and even two tunnels that were constructed: the first is about 1,000' long, constructed in 1961; the second is shorter at about 700' constructed in 1964. Upon emerging from the the last tunnel the roadbed suddenly stops. A footpath continues for a short distance afterwards, but all reports seem to indicate that the poorly maintained trail is hardly worth the bushwhacking necessary to navigate it.