Distance: 8.8 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 6164'
Elevation Gain: 2770'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.21
Max Slope: 73.7%
Round trip time: 5 hours
Recommended water: 132 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
Strawberry Peak was closed for 5 years due to the 2009 station fire that burned 160,577 acres. The USFS recently reopened the area and I was looking forward to climbing the class 3 west ridge. It has a reputation for being exciting with moderate length pitches and some airy exposure in places. Noel and I carpooled up the Angeles Crest Highway to Clear Creek Fire Station and started up the Josephine fire road. The climb to Josephine saddle was uneventful. We headed right to pick up the Colby Canyon Trail and got our only shade of the day on the north side of the saddle. We were looking out for the use trail on the right up the ridgeline to Strawberry but walked right by it. It is very faint and cuts sharply about 100 feet past the point where the trail starts to wind around to the north side of Strawberry Peak. On the way back, I built a rock cairn where the use trail starts. Missing the use trail ended up creating a close call that could have earned either one of us a hospital visit.
We continued down Colby Canyon Trail for about half a mile until a GPS check showed we had missed the use trail. We considered heading back to look for it, but since we missed it the first time, decided to scale the ridge next to us and intersect the use trail. There were some loose dirt animal trails that got us to the top of the first ridge and also got us covered in dirt PigPen style. From there we followed a shallow dry creek to the top of the next ridge. Noel was about 20' behind me as we crested it when I heard him drop an F-bomb. My first thought was that he fell on the way up, but when I checked on him, he said a snake had struck at him and missed. I came back and saw a juvenile rattlesnake, maybe 3' long, moving under a bush. I had walked over the exact same spot where Noel encountered the snake, but never saw it. It never rattled to warn Noel, but it did rattle at me when I attempted to smash it with a rock (from a distance). It slithered further into the brush and we moved on, glad that it had missed its target. Soon we were back on the use trail, but since 5 years had passed since the area was officially open, large swaths of trail had gone feral. Dead and living poodle dog bush and buckthorn lined the trail and while the trail was never completely choked, there were sections where contact with one or both were unavoidable. I had chosen to wear shorts and now regretted that decision. The next challenge was a roughly 100' section of class 2 boulder scrambling I called the Strawberry Notch. After the notch, we took a short break before tackling the vertical class 3 section of the west ridge. After climbing a short distance up the west ridge on the right side, Noel spotted the first painted arrow, showing the best route. The arrows were green, purple, and white, and were very helpful. Some were placed to aid people down climbing and we made good use of the arrows both ways.
There is a short trail to the summit when the class 3 section ends. There we met two German tourists who had come up the east ridge from Red Box. They were friendly and we chatted about mountains and the World Cup before they took off back down the east ridge. The metal summit register box had been destroyed, but there was a plastic tupperware container with a fresh register in it dating back to May 30, 2014. I didn't recognize any of the names while we were adding our own. The 360 degree views from Strawberry Peak were fantastic and you could see most of the major mountains in the front and back range. After some food, we headed back to the west ridge to a fun down climb. Again, the arrows were helpful and the few times we strayed from the main route, it was obvious because we hit class 4+ or a cliff. We successfully followed the use trail all the way back to the Colby Canyon Trail, but it led over a bump with an unexpected 50-75' class 3 down climb. The cross country route we came up completely bypassed this section and I think it was easier than following the use trail. With that bit of extra adventure behind us, we cruised down Josephine Fire Road and took a short cut at the end that saved us a couple of switchbacks. It was a great day in the mountains with high adventure and big fun.