My Experience – March 31-April 1, 2013:
Icehouse canyon is many different things to different people. It’s an easy access point to a scenic stream for photographers and the lightly adventurous. It’s the last turnoff before the icy switchbacks up to Baldy for the snow skier. It’s a history lesson – with a name reminds us there was once a time before refrigerators. It’s a line of cabins for those fortunate enough to own a little house in the woods. For us, it was a route to Kelly’s camp for the night – a gear shakedown and a bit of training for Whitney.
Trevor with his external frame pack - looking like a minivan with a roof rack
We didn’t head up until after 2 PM on Easter Sunday, since we had such a short trip to camp, and assumed we would be able to do better than 1 mph overall pace. Our pace was faster, but not by much. This was my first backpacking trip since last August; I forgot how much more you notice when you are slowed down by a 40 lb pack. I’ve hiked this stretch of trail quite a few times, but I noticed more than ever on this trip. To save some weight at least for the first couple miles, we skimped on how much water we started with and tanked up at a spring along the way.
No filter necessary
After loading up on water, we struggled along with that much more resistance. In addition to the weight, the weather began to get worse. By the time I reached Icehouse Saddle it began to rain a little. I’ve seen the saddle clouded over before, but never as spooky looking as this. The saddle is a cluster of trails. It reminds me of the holiday-tree-portals scene from a Nightmare Before Christmas – so many different options in the middle of the wilderness.
Approaching Icehouse Saddle
The rain stopped a minute after it started, we strapped on our microspikes, picked the correct path among all the trails, and proceeded to camp. Their were a few stretches of icy snow, but we made it without incident, and plenty of daylight left to set up camp. Sleep was difficult. It was cold, mountains amplified the noise from planes overhead, and I made the mistake of listening to a podcast on Jack the Ripper. I finally fell asleep hard around 4 AM, but at 7:15 woke up to the sound of pinecones being chopped up to fuel the stove for hot chocolate and coffee.
We dragged a little in the morning, but eventually got out on the trail. Our packs felt like feathers compared to the day before – we left our tents and all our overnight stuff at camp, still set up. After less than a mile we were cresting the ridge between Ontario and Bighorn. I tried to prepare Trevor for the view that was in store, but he was still shocked.
View from Ontario-bighorn saddle
There is a decent trail from the Ontario-Bighorn Saddle to the summit of Bighorn, but beyond the summit it’s a true use-trail. I’ve come up the northeast ridge to Bighorn before, but I had never been on the southeast ridge. It’s steep but luckily there was enough foot-traffic to leave an apparent trail down to the Cucamonga-Bighorn Saddle.
Looking down to Cucamonga-Bighorn Saddle, coming down the ridge from Bighorn
Once we were down the ridge to the next saddle, there was maintained trail there all the way to the summit of Cucamonga. A mile or so before the summit, we had to put our microspikes back on, but before long we were standing on top of Cucamonga looking over the fluffiest most expansive range of clouds I’ve ever stood above.
Gorgonio and Jacinto off in the distance.
After some lunch we headed back for the tough climb back up the ridge to Bighorn. My energy was still pretty high, so I took Bighorn with ease – double bagged that peak like a gallon of milk. I got pretty far ahead and started to take my time snapping pictures and looking around. I happened upon a big knife in the dirt. I don’t have a good history with knives or anything with a blade. I picked up the knife and immediately did something stupid and dangerous with it – I tried to throw it and get it to stick into a fallen tree. That knife has a new home at Kelly’s camp for anyone who forgot their knife.
When I got back to camp their was a squirrel eyeballing the food bag we hung before heading to Cucamonga. I scared him away, dropped our bag, and finally we packed up and headed back down the canyon.
Power line along the first mile of trail, like the last tentacle of civilization reaching into the woods
Distance 4.4 miles
Gain 2800 ft
Time to Camp 3 hours 15 minutes
Day 2 Part 1:
Distance 6.4 miles roundtrip
Net Gain 975 ft (camp to summit)
Gross Gain 2400 ft (camp to summit to camp)
Time to Summit 2 hours 30 minutes
Total Time 4 hours
Day 2 Part 2:
Distance 4.4 miles
Loss 2800 ft
Time to Trailhead 2 hours
Icehouse Canyon = N34 15.006 W117 38.169
A wilderness permit is required to enter the Cucamonga Wilderness. They are issued at the ranger station across from the Baldy Lodge. Call them the day before and they will put a pass out for you the night before, if you want to get an extra early start. You also need a Forest Adventure Pass to park.
When to Hike:
This trip can be done year-round, but you should have crampons and an ice axe if you plan to go with a lot of snow up there. There are a lot of shady, north-facing slopes along the route that hold their ice and snow.
From the Icehouse Canyon parking lot, the trailhead is at the east end of the parking lot near the toilets.
The first hundred yards or so are a broken up pavement and gravel road. The single-track picks up at the end of this on your left. You’ll pass by small cabins for the first mile or so. The first intersection is at the 0.9 mile mark with the Chapman trail. There are signs for it, but you may pass by without even noticing. The Chapman trail is a sharp left turn, but you want to stay straight on the Icehouse Canyon Trail - unless you want to add some bonus miles.
If you need to get more water, the next thing to watch out for is the spring, which will be on your right around the 2.3 mile mark. It’s not obvious by sight, but you’ll hear it if your listening.
The next intersection is again with the Chapman Trail. This is also signed very well, so hook a right and follow the sign pointing to Icehouse Saddle.
From there it’s only 0.6 miles to Icehouse Saddle. This is where you can easily make a big mistake. Five trails converge at this point. You want to take the trail furthest to your right – with a sign that clearly says Kelly Camp.
As the sign says, Kelly’s Camp is a mile down the trail.
Take some time to explore Kelly’s Camp while you are there. We didn’t and I regret it. An older gentleman told us about some old logging equipment from decades ago, that was left in the wilderness to rot, and a spring with many nearby animal carcasses. From camp, continue up the hill until you are smacked in the face with a stunning view of the Inland Empire.
Turn left on the trail to the summit of Bighorn – about ¾ of a mile to the top. Here is where it gets a little tricky. The clear trail runs out, but if you are experienced in finding trails, you should be able to follow the faint use-trail east to where the peak starts to drop off and follow the southeast ridge all the way down to the saddle between Cucamonga and Bighorn.
Looking down the ridge from Bighorn, towards Cucamonga.
Once you hit the saddle, you are on an actual trail again. Turn right and follow it south where it will begin to switchback almost all the way to the summit. Approximately three miles from camp, the trail splits – you want to stay right. Every time I’ve been to this intersection the marker signaling the split is different or missing completely. So, if you start going back downhill, you probably missed the turnoff. If you find the turnoff, it’s just 0.2 miles to the summit.
Return the way you came. If you did this as a day hike, and don’t have to go back to camp to pick up your gear, you can go around the east side of bighorn back to Icehouse Saddle instead of back up and over.
Mt. Baldy & Cucamonga Wilderness (Tom Harrison Maps)
If you are on the trail early enough on the first day, drop your heavy gear at Kelly’s camp and bag Ontario before setting up camp. It will add about 3.4 miles to your first day, but you can do it without your full pack.
There is supposedly a reliable spring for a water source in the summer at Kelly’s camp, but we didn’t notice it while we were there.
Day 1 overview in purple.
Day 1 elevation profile
Day 2, part 1 - camp to summit and return.
Day 2, part 1 elevation profile.
DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A GUIDE. I am an amateur hiking enthusiast who likes to share personal experiences on the trail. I offer bits of information that may assist you in planning a certain hike, but this is no substitute for a real guidebook or accurate maps. Before embarking on a trip, make sure you do all the appropriate research, and bring the appropriate gear, clothing, maps, guidebooks, supplies, first aid kit, the Ten Essentials and most importantly TELL SOMEONE EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE GOING AND WHEN YOU PLAN TO BE BACK. Cell phones cannot be relied on when hiking and you will often lose service before you even get to the parking area.