Distance: 16.4 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 8862' (Cucamonga), 8444' (Bighorn), 8696' (Ontario)
Prominence: 1299' (Cucamonga), 361' (Bighorn), 1039' (Ontario)
Elevation Gain: 5262' (combined)
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 4.20
Round trip time: 8 hours 20 minutes
Recommended water: 192 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
This was my final training hike for Mt. Whitney, and I wanted it to be difficult. I chose three peaks in the San Gabriels from the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks List and added a splash of cross country. Bam! I planned a route starting from Icehouse Canyon to Cucamonga Peak, dropping back down to the saddle between Cucamonga and Bighorn, off trail up the ridge to Bighorn, then back on trail out to Ontario Peak, returning through Kelly Camp and Icehouse Canyon. The plan was to bag 3 out of the 7 peaks in the Cucamonga 50 (C50), a superhuman hike-a-thon completed by Sean Green and documented on the San Gabriel Mountains forum. I broke one of the C50 rules by going cross country, but I have no aspirations to attempt the full C50. I don't think anyone else has taken up that challenge either, so far.
I started at 5:40 AM from the Icehouse Canyon parking lot with the required permit. There were a couple of other vehicles in the lot with people preparing their own hiking or camping adventure. I started toward the saddle moving at a decent pace and passed a couple of hikers. On the upper section, a couple passed me, also on the way to Cucamonga. They were moving fast, and I would run into them later on the Cucamonga summit. When I got to the saddle, I took the second trail to the right, signed as Middle Fork, but stayed higher when Middle Fork dropped. If you see the fallen tree on the trail just past the saddle, you are on the right track. There is no clear sign for the Cucamonga Peak trail, but it skirts the opposite side of Bighorn Peak from the trail to Kelly Camp and Ontario.
The Cucamonga trail eventually passes the saddle between Cucamonga and Bighorn, then starts steep switchbacks to the top. The lower switchbacks are talus and scree. It gets sandier as you ascend. Near the top, the Cucamonga sign is flat on the ground, but someone wrote "CMP =>" with the arrow pointing in the right direction where the summit trail leaves the main trail. The views from the top are maybe the best from any local mountain. The drop off is severe, leaving nothing but views of the metropolis below and the lower mountains and foothills. It was still mostly cloudy and hazy so my photos didn't turn out great. The couple that passed me was on the summit and we started talking. They are both competitive marathon runners (so I don't feel so bad), and were at the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs exploded. They told harrowing stories of the chaos. Because of the events, they both felt compelled to run it again and both qualified for the next one. They were very nice people and took a picture of me with my phone and I snapped one from them before they trotted back down.
Downed summit trail sign. It pointed in the right direction, straight ahead.
The main trail continues to Etiwanda.
The main trail continues to Etiwanda.
After resting for a while and looking around, I headed down toward my next goal, Bighorn Peak. As I was descending Cucamonga, I could see a pretty clear use trail going up the Bighorn ridge, at least part of the way. When I got down to the saddle, I followed the trail up the ridge. There is a steep part, then it levels out, then it gets steep again. A short way up, I saw two faint use trails. One followed the ridge and the other was about 40 feet below the ridge. Both looked usable but I stuck to the ridge. As I neared the top, the trail faded in and out, but that close, it was not really needed. The summit of Bighorn had a tin chocolate can holding a fresh summit log. It appears to have been started around July 1, 2013 and my entry was about the 5th. Bugs were buzzing me on the summit, so I didn't stay long. I followed the more clear trail toward Ontario Peak.
Descending from Bighorn toward Ontario Peak, I passed a sign at the trail junction to Kelly Camp and continued straight. The trail stays on the Icehouse Canyon side of the rough ridge line, avoiding a lot of roller coaster action. The trail was nearly overgrown with bushes and weeds in several places. Worse, the bushes were filled with buzzing bees. I've never seen or heard so many bees. I was reluctant to force my way through some of the sections and considered trying to find a way around, but ended up just pushing through. As I got closer to Ontario, the trail cleared up. It seemed like I traveled a long way before finally spotting the Ontario summit. The views were nearly as good as Cucamonga, and it provided better views of Baldy and friends. The summit consists of a small boulder pile, but I found a summit log under a prominent tree. It was also a fresh log, only dating back to June 24, 2013. There was also a bottle opener installed on the tree. I didn't have any bottles to open, but appreciated the sentiment. I climbed the summit boulders, ate the last of my food, and started down. Just below the summit, I met two hikers on their way up. They told me they had seen a family of bighorn sheep just below Kelly Camp and showed me a photo. I was quite envious, since I had never spotted a bighorn sheep in the wild.
When I got back to the trail junction for Kelly Camp, I readied my phone (which is also my camera), and started scanning around for the bighorns. I had not seen anything when I reached Kelly Camp. Shortly before reaching the Icehouse Canyon saddle, I saw two bighorns maybe 50 feet above the trail. There were a total of five that I saw, and more may have been a little ways up the hill. I took a few pictures, then a video, then some more pictures. I thought they might run if I moved or made noise, but other than staring at me in curiosity, they were unconcerned. I was very much in awe of them. This encounter with a group of noble bighorn sheep was one of the best experiences I've had while hiking.
Back at Icehouse saddle, there were about a dozen people resting, and the trail was busy with afternoon hikers. I was about 50' behind a couple walking single file, the man in front, when the lady screamed and jumped off the trail. Then, she did some kind of involuntary shudder. As I caught up with them, I asked if she had seen a snake. She pointed in horror and said "I almost stepped on it". It was a rattlesnake, slowly crossing the trail about a mile up from the Icehouse trailhead. It had 7-8 segments in the rattle, but the snake was possibly a juvenile. It made no attempt to warn anyone nearby by rattling. The sun had finally come out and now so had the reptiles looking for some basking time. I left a growing crowd with the snake and made my way back to the car.