Baldy via the North Backbone

I had no idea a fine hiking trail exists on the ridge connecting Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak, and Mount Baldy. Better yet: in summer, you can drive Blue Ridge Road to the trailhead, where, at 8300' in elevation, you'll enjoy the highest start in the range.

Our guidebook says it's only four miles from the trailhead to Mount Baldy's summit, but this is one of those don't-be-fooled kind of hikes. You'll ascend and descend the range's three highest peaks, making for a one-way total vertical change of just under 5000 feet, all of it at relatively high altitude.

The smart way to do this would be to arrange a pickup at Manker Flat so you don't have to repeat the ridge in reverse. If you do this as a round trip, as we did, it is quite strenuous.

Between Pine Mountain and the trailhead, the ridge is steep and loose, approaching Class 3 (I used my elbow, once, though I was holding my camera at the time—is there an elbow rating in the Y.D.S.?). The exposure level didn't bother me, but it would be a whole different ballgame with winter ice on the ridge.

Thanks to the well-maintained trail, routefinding issues are minimal, but be aware this is a high-altitude ridgetop traverse, making it a hike you absolutely want to avoid if there is any threat of thunderstorms.

T-storms crept into the forecast on the morning of our climb, adding a layer of anxiety I could have done without. I watched the sky very carefully and never felt the cloud depth was rising to a dangerous level, but even so, I would have much preferred fairer weather (my hair stands up when I watch us summiting in the video).

After summiting Baldy we downclimbed about 500 vertical feet and ate lunch. It rained on us, briefly, and then the clouds blew over and Baldy's summit was in sparkling sunshine for the rest of the day—fifteen minutes after we'd been atop the mountain. Go figure.

On the subject of the climb from Dawson saddle to Baldy's top, let me say this is a very steep 1300 or so vertical feet, putting quite the exclamation point on the hike's effort factor.

But the views are surely worth it. Here at last is the extended alpine climb you've been looking for in the San Gabriels. Baldy's north face is revealed all at once when you summit Pine Mountain, and complemented with striking looks at San Gabriel Canyon and of course sweeping vistas of the entire range.

It's possible to do this hike from Wrightwood if things just sound too easy for you. Otherwise, take Blue Ridge Road about six miles to the trailhead, passing through both Mountain High West and East; the hike begins where the ridge and road intersect—just south of Wright Mountain's summit.

— June 24, 2021

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Matt D June 24, 2021 at 9:45 am

The view of Baldy from Dawson is both inspiring and disheartening… we have to go all the way down there and then back up?? I had convinced myself Dawson was just a bump between Pine and Baldy (hey they’re only 400’ apart!).

Andy June 24, 2021 at 12:19 pm

A BIG bump! :)

Dan Conger June 24, 2021 at 3:20 pm

What a great hike … still amazed at how much great terrain is so close to LA.

John F June 25, 2021 at 5:30 am

That looks like a very difficult 4 miles each way. It's great to see you out with your son getting these tough miles in for the rest of us.

Joseph G June 25, 2021 at 12:06 pm

Great video, I'm so glad you captured this area.

North Backbone is a favorite, I've only ascended that way once, but I'm amazed by how quickly one gets those big desert views. When we went, we enjoyed a predawn start as we got to watch the dawn lighting set the desert alight. Cannot think of better views anywhere in the San Gabriels. I always love seeing Baldy’s W/NW face too.

Brad Brown June 26, 2021 at 10:46 am

Yay Andy, another great video. I’ll send you my scratchy narration of my 360 from Dawson, July 2017. My wife was in the hospital for a week preceding this hike plus the Forest Service shut down the access road for fire reasons, adding about 6 miles and 500’ to a surprisingly big day for non- Sierra treks. We arrived at trail head proper around 9 but after the Dawson summit and days on no sleep I did the math and concluded Dawson/Dawson-Baldy saddle/ Baldy and reverse (2,000’ of steep) would push us (me) well passed dark. An ambitious and fitter Bob went on a timed mission, and smoked that 1,300’ vert in 45 minutes both summitting MB and hitting our cut off time when he rejoined a napping me on the south flank of Dawson. Still we made it back to the truck at dusk. I still consider this a wise abandon despite my peak bagger mentality still nagging me for a revisit.

This route is perhaps the greatest visual treat of the range. All major peaks and many drainages are seen en route . The short horizontal distance is pure mountain deception due to vertical gain (my math says 5,300’ as I recall). I’ve read reports of frequent fliers in the range not completing this one. It’s good training though as Bob and I summitted Mt Langley a week later.

I wrote this from my hospital bed recovery from cancer surgery still filled with mountains dreams. Thanks for the spark of the high life your reports and great videos provide. Also, I’m pretty sure Owen actually grows taller during these videos!!!?

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