The Easy Way To Bag Mt Baldy?
I had always heard that hiking Baldy via the Devil’s Backbone Trail was the easiest way to bag Mt Baldy, so I scheduled a group hike for July 13, 2014 for my Lazy Ass Hiking group. But since I’d never before ascended Baldy via the Backbone, and heard reports of a washout on the trail necessitating a rope, I decided to do a pre-hike one week before the group hike to check out the trail.
I had twice before hiked up the Baldy Bowl Trail to the summit and hiked DOWN the Backbone, and figured the Backbone Trail would be relatively easy. Needless to say, I was in for a rude awakening…
The Recon Team Pre-Hike Up Baldy
The pre-hike was on July 6, 2014. I rounded up a couple of my Lazy Ass Hiking Recon Hikers and knowing that the actual hike started at the Notch, not from Manker Flats, we used our Groupon vouchers to ride the chairlift up to the Notch. It was a ridiculously hot day and our arms and legs were feeling the blazing sun, even on the chairlift ride up.
Is It Cheating To Take The Chairlift To The Notch?
I’m aware that SOME hiking snobs will call the chairlift to the Notch cheating, But that just shows ignorance of where the Devil’s Backbone Trail actually begins. Sure you COULD add the extra 3.6 miles and 1600 feet elevation gain walking up the long and tedious fire road from Manker or from the Ski-Lift parking area if you wanted to. Sure you COULD start from Icehouse Canyon and do the Three T’s on your way to the Notch and THEN hike Baldy. Heck, why not do Everest?
But that wasn’t our hike. Our hike started at the beginning of the Devil’s Backbone Trail, just north of the Notch. And that’s the trail we took on both the 7/6/14 pre-hike and the 7/13/14 group hike.
Where Does The Devil’s Backbone Trail Run?
The Devil’s Backbone Trail starts just north of the Mt Baldy Notch and runs all the way to the summit of Mt Baldy. There are four distinct sections of the Devil’s Backbone Trail:
- The tedious wide path that resembles a fire road or truck trail
- The breathtaking Devil’s Backbone ridge
- The single track traverse around the side of Mt Harwood
- The nasty east slope of Mt Baldy
The Fire Road Section
There’s a lot of confusion about exactly where the Devil’s Backbone Trail actually begins. There are no signs pointing anywhere and when you step behind the Top of the Notch Restaurant and look out, you see two different fire road styled paths leading up. I’ve read about this and knew there was actually a third fire road path located to the right, out of view from the restaurant area. All three paths eventually merge so it’s not that big a deal which one you take.
On the pre-hike, we took the steep rocky path on the left and on the group hike we took the one farthest to the right which is the actual start of the Devil’s Backbone Trail. Either way, I was huffing and puffing and sweating almost immediately.
As you might expect, I found the road portion of the hike the least interesting. I mean, who really enjoys hiking on a fire road? Aside from the altitude, we might as well have been on the Claremont Loop. Fortunately, the closer we got to the Devil’s Backbone Ridge, the better the views got and we also bumped into a couple of hikers along the way named Shane and Arturo who we kept on encountering on the trail. Before long, Arturo surged ahead and Shane was pretty much hiking with us.
Just when I was really starting to get tired of the fire road, we finally emerged onto the obvious beginnings of a mountain ridge and encountered Arturo on his way back down. This is where the Devil’s Backbone Ridge starts. Arturo looked like he had just run a marathon and said he had gone up to the summit with his denim jeans and one small bottle of water. It was agreed that Shane would hike with us to the summit and Arturo would find a shady spot to rest.
The Devil’s Backbone Ridge
The Devil’s Backbone Ridge is located about 1.3 miles from the Notch and is only about seven-tenths of a mile long. In my opinion, this is where the fun begins. It starts off with an immediate steep climb up the ridgeline and then another climb up a somewhat more rocky ridge before leveling off a bit toward the knife-edged ridge with the breathtaking views that everyone associates with the Devil’s Backbone.
Because it is a knife-edged ridge with somewhat sketchy sections of trail, we gave reasonable care when crossing the backbone. Although the Devil’s Backbone is especially treacherous during foul weather or when snow or ice are present, this is not a place to get careless on even in the best of weather.
There is a picturesque outcropping of rock (shown above) that suspends over the north end of the backbone that many hikers take pictures on or in front of. Both Kim and Aska love climbing up rocks, so it wasn’t long before they were both perched atop the rock. I took their pictures and then took my turn on the rock. This is not something I recommend others do, just something we did on the pre-hike. On the group hike, I stayed off the rock and took photos of hikers standing in front.
The Traverse Around Mt Harwood
Once you pass the Backbone, it’s just a matter of getting around the side of Mt Harwood to the saddle between Mt Baldy and Mt Harwood, about 2.6 miles from the Notch. There are again some sketchy sections of trail here as you climb above the backbone. The trail isn’t the greatest but I didn’t encounter any washouts or ropes.
This portion of the trail changes in character from loose and rugged to fairly level and smooth the closer you get to Baldy. Having hiked down the east Baldy slope, I knew what was in store for us on the other side of Mt Harwood and took my time so as to rest up for the nasty climb ahead. Kim, Aska and Shane hiked ahead of me.
Before long, the massive east slope of Mt Baldy popped into view and we got our first glimpse of what we were facing. It wasn’t very encouraging, but we stuck with it getting closer and closer to Baldy.
The Nasty East Slope of Mt Baldy
Finally, we reached the saddle between Mt Harwood and Mt Baldy and took a good look up. My initial reaction was, “Oh, HELL No!” We could see hikers snaking their way up looking like ants. This was gut check time and we were here to hike Mt Baldy. So after giving ourselves a nice little rest, we started up the hill. It was even tougher than it looked. I had to stop every 20 to 30 feet to catch my breath. The girls and Shane creeped further ahead of me, ever closer to the top.
The Mt Baldy Summit
After trudging up the hill for what seemed like forever, we finally made it to the top and took our obligatory pics at the Baldy plaque. We congratulated Shane on his noteworthy accomplishment. He had only planned on taking a short walk around the Notch with his buddy and ended up bagging Baldy instead.
We took a well deserved break on the Baldy summit and leisurely took in the views. And after drinking plenty of water, we headed back down the way we came, taking our time knowing that cold beers waited for us at the Top of the Notch Restaurant.
Once back to the Top of the Notch Restaurant, we got our cold beers and had a nice lunch before riding the chairlift down to the parking lot.
Mt Baldy Via The Devil’s Backbone Trail Summary
All in all, this was an enjoyable but tough hike. Probably the toughest 2400 foot elevation gain hike I’ve ever done. And it didn’t help knowing I had another hike in just two days to Tahquitz Peak in the San Jacinto Wilderness and then would be right back to Baldy for the group hike a few days after that. But like it or not, I was back on the Devil’s Backbone Trail to Mt Baldy with the Lazy Ass Hiking group one week after the pre-hike.
Fortunately for me, my friends Jim and Sylvia, fresh back from bagging Mt Whitney, joined me on the group hike and led all the fast paced hikers up the hill. I stuck with the slower hikers and though we were way behind Jim and Sylvia’s group, we still managed to shave almost and hour and half off the hiking time. It wasn’t any easier though.
Hat’s off though to all the first time peak baggers on the hike who marched up Baldy like they owned it. Way to go team!
After hiking this beast of a trail twice in one week, I don’t think the word “easy” should ever be associated in any context when talking about this trail…