August 12, 2017

Photo Essay: A Snow-Free Day at Mt. Baldy

[Last updated 9/22/23 12:26 AM PT—Video embed player added at bottom of post.]

I'm not what you'd call a "skier." Never have been.

Sure, I was forced to cross-country ski in middle school gym class in Upstate New York once or twice, but I've never made a habit of it.

If my family ever took a trip to any mountain in the Snow Belt of the Onondaga Valley, it was during the summer.

And now that I'm in California, I've had no desire to pursue much winter recreation in the mountains, which is the only place you'll find much snow out here. But I still find myself fascinated with California's old-school ski resort towns—particularly when it comes to what happens there once the snow melts.

Skiing down a snowy mountain seems a bit obvious to me. But when that layer of powder is gone, you've got to improvise to keep bringing people up the mountain.

I've gone to Big Bear, for instance, for the alpine slide and ziplining, and yet again it was ziplining that finally brought me through the 1950s-era tunnels in the San Gabriel Mountains to another ski resort area, Mt. Baldy.

Mt. Baldy has been on my list for a while now.

For years, I've wanted to come take a ride on the chair lift (so called if you're not skiing, I suppose), have lunch at the top, and come back down sometime during one of these summers.

After all, although it's at least a 90-minute drive from home, at least the mountains tend to be a bit cooler in these "dog days."

And with an unexpected day off at my day job, I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate a little surprise Friday freedom.

So, I climbed up to the "Sugar Pine Chair Lift"...

...which was built in 1952...

...and modernized in 1975...

...grabbed the center pole of a approaching chair...

...and hopped on.

What a ride!

Not only do skiers use it...

...but hikers also take it as a popular shortcut to climb to the top of Mt. Baldy.

The 20-minute ride is worth it just for the scenery...

...dangling from a cable, 20 to 60 feet off the ground, over the course of a mile...

...gliding through the Angeles National Forest... this mid-century resort area that can only exist under special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

Whenever I climb a mountain (and however I climb that mountain), I always turn around to remind myself of where I've been...

...but on the ski lift, I had to make it quick so I'd know when to lift the bar in preparation to jump off my chair.

By the time I reached the top of the ski lift—the so-called "notch"—I'd climbed 1300 feet of elevation to reach 7800 feet above sea level.

Although it is alpine up there, it's also a bit sparse—particularly on the south face of the mountain, known as the "Baldy Bowl."

That's why nobody ever calls Mt. Baldy by its real name, Mount San Antonio.

But when I was at Mt. Baldy, everyone just called it the mountain.

Although much of present-day Mt. Baldy is from the 1950s, including the Top of the Notch restaurant... was actually in the mid '30s that the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Devil's Backbone trail.

I, however, had come to zip Mt. Baldy, not hike it—so I proceeded past the trailheads, stopping briefly at the Desert View overlook...

...and suited up for my 600-foot thrill ride back to the notch.

The run takes between 15 and 30 seconds, and it's the entirety of the zipline experience at this point—but reportedly, that's just a teaser of what's to come. After all, it was only last May that the resort was able to get the permission of the federal government to install even one little zipline course.

While there are other chairlifts to take visitors even higher during the snowy season... was my time to go back down the mountain... explore some more.

Below Mt. Baldy is even more historic still, the former "Camp Baldy" having been so named in 1910, a holdover from the late 19th century and early 20th century "craze" of mountain exploration and recreation.

During Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, Camp Baldy was a place you could actually get something to drink.

But in 1938, flooding wiped out nearly all of it, including a casino—the same catastrophic flooding that also took out the roads on either side of the nearby Bridge to Nowhere.

Camp Baldy was rebuilt and, in 1951, renamed Mt. Baldy Village—which still features some original structures that survived the flood, like the Buckhorn Lodge (the former hotel to the ill-fated casino).

It's a charming little enclave of mountain cabins and bears and birds...

...the quietude interrupted only by the occasional motorcyclist roaring past...

...and the calls of a flock of Steller's jays alighting every rock, fence, and branch in a grove of evergreen trees.

It was a lovely way to end a lovely day on the mountain.

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