A moderate trek around one of the most breathtaking natural landmarks in the region. A hike to Devil’s Chair gives you panoramic views of what happens to the ground near one of the most active rift zones in the world. A great winter trek, I got to do this trail after a fresh coat of snow, with clear air giving great views in all directions.

The Devil’s Punchbowl County Park is one of my favorite areas in the San Gabriels. Hidden on the northeastern range of the San Gabriels – far away from us city slickers – the otherwise flat high desert is slowly being ripped and bent into odd angles by the tearing of the San Andreas and Punchbowl Faults, with the resulting canyons further eroded by the wind and water from the 8000+ft peaks right to its south. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and every time I catch the first glimpse of the formation from the road, I’m still awestruck.

On this particular day, I came after a weekend of on-and-off precipitation, which at this elevation was snow. The Punchbowl was lightly dusted, which served to highlight the jutting slabs of sandstone.

There is an easy, mile-long loop trail that leaves the excellent Nature Center and dives right into the Punchbowl Canyon, but my destination was the Devil’s Chair – a rocky promontory overlooking the eastern Punchbowl. So I took off from the southeastern corner of the parking lot and hitched onto the beginning of the Burkhart Trail.

Here, there was about an inch, maybe an inch-and-a-half of snow. The sound under my boots was soothing, and the cold air filling my lungs was better than any cup of coffee I’ve ever had.

The first mile or so of this trail is where you’ll be doing most of your ascent, along a relentless but gently graded fire road. You will have a few opportunities to peer over the edge of the Punchbowl, as well as look out over the immense flatness of the Antelope Valley to your north. After that first mile, you’ll reach a clearly marked trail junction, where the paths split to Burkhart Saddle and Buckhorn Camp or the Devil’s Chair and South Fork Camp. Continue down the path toward the Chair … and try not to think about how this is almost your peak elevation for this trip.

Try instead, like I did, to focus on the transitional flora as you skim the border between high desert and subalpine forest. Or just enjoy the great single-track trail. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be walking in the dead of December after a recent snowstorm, think about how great it is that this is just a short drive away from downtown L.A.

I also took ample opportunities to look off my left shoulder at the Punchbowl’s plates as I stomped through the snow. It’s always nice to see new this place from different angles.

As the trail continued, it seemed like every time I had a stretch of elevation gain, it’d be immediately countered by a quick decline … which makes sense, as the trail was basically hugging the lower north face of the mountains as it crawled eastward. The scenery and fresh air were great, but I’m not sure how much of that just had to do with the fresh snowfall …

After reaching and passing several mini-summits that seem like they’re the end of the trail, the pathway finally peaks out just in front of Holcomb Canyon. From here, you won’t be able to see the Devil’s Chair itself, but you will get broad, sweeping views of Holcomb behind you and the Punchbowl in front of you. You’ll also see a beautiful, gnarled old tree husk that a certain Northern California hiker/blogger would definitely stop to take a snapshot of.

Here, the trail makes a quick dive in elevation down a series of short, steep switchbacks. When the High Desert National Recreation Trail keeps heading on to the South Fork Camp, you’ll hug the cliff-side and see – for the first time – the Devil’s Chair. It’s a tiny rock promontory jutting deep into the Canyon. And you’re headed there.

Say what you will about adding artificial safety devices to the wilderness, but this whole area is fenced in and I’m glad. The narrow, winding approach to the Chair itself would have been unhikeable in these conditions without them. Also, I’m guessing, there probably wouldn’t be an established trail here if it weren’t for the fence.

The Chair itself is an incredible place to soak in the views of the eastern Punchbowl formation. There’s a whole lot of geology at work here.

Wherever you are on this trail, make sure you stop every once in a while to take a look down at the Punchbowl formation. You never know when you’re going to get those angles just right.

On the way back down to the trailhead, I turned back to see a bright light shining out of Holcomb Canyon. While all around me was covered in slate gray snow clouds, a part had formed just south of the Canyon, allowing the rays of the setting sun to shine only in that location. The overall effect was incredible, and I had to stop and just watch for a few minutes.

And then, as I returned to the trailhead, I was treated to another beautiful sunset. I’ll have to say, the decreased daylight hours are a drag, but if I keep getting these brilliant sunsets at the ends of my hikes, I think I’m sold on winter hiking.

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Casey Schreiner

Founder and Editor at Modern Hiker
In addition to writing about the outdoors, Casey is also a seasoned television producer.He was the Head Writer on G4's "Attack of the Show," co-writer and host of "The MMO Report," and the Series Producer / Head Writer of pivot's "TakePart Live."
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on December 12, 2007

15 Comments

  • David says:

    Hiked it on March 21st. No snow on the ground anymore (although there is lots on the mountains above). It’s starting to draw crowds so get there early.

  • Zebra24601 says:

    Hiked it on Feb. 14:
    http://myown100hikes.blogspot.com/2010/02/devils-punchbowl-and-devils-chair.html

    Lots of snow on the ground, but not dangerous. I did notice a shovel and a wheel barrel near the last stetch to the Devil’s Chair. Clearly someone shoveled a path to make it safe.

    It was a pretty hike. The contrast between the snow-covered north-facing hills and the dry, dry, DRY Antelope Valley was very interesting.

  • Frank says:

    I visited this park in early february after a brush of storms. There was a few inches on snow in the parking lot and most of the park was complatly covered. I went in to ask the ranger for information on The Devils Chair trail and he told us there was over 3ft of show on the trails and it would be a “suicide mission.” I decided to do the lower loop trail instead. There was less snow and amazing views of the mountains. I couldn’t believe that I was standing in a few feet of snow and I could turn around and see the sweeping desert in the antelope valley.

    I plan on going back when the there’s less snow on the trail. I personally love the sight of snow but my friend was spooked by the rangers warning.

    Love the site. Please keep it up.

  • says:

    As of yesterday, parts of the ANF were reopened. The part that is still closed (huge western part that basically is the burn area) may stay that way for a while (definitely until it gets lots of rain, but I’ve heard up to a year). Devil’s Punchbowl should be fine.

  • Katharine says:

    Is this trail currently accessible? Or was it destroyed by the Station Fire?

    • Modern Hiker says:

      The Devil’s Punchbowl was not directly affected by the Station Fire, and should still be in good condition.

      However, I would call before you drive out there. While the Punchbowl itself is a County Park, it is surrounded by the Angeles National Forest, which is currently closed.

      Their phone number is (661) 944-2743.

  • James says:

    Does anyone know about hiking beyond Devil’s Chair to South Fork Camp, Camping for the night, then hiking up to Hwy 2?

    It looks like there are trails on the map that the park provides, but I have no idea what the hike is like. Has anyone done this? Can you get to Hwy 2 to be picked up? Is this a cool hike or are there better overnight hikes?

    Thanks.

    James

  • Breck says:

    My buddy and I tackled this trail today. I believe it topped at just above 100 deg’ so it was a hot one, but well worth the little extra sweat. Thanks for the great write-up on this hike; we may have passed it up had I not read your article. We’re both looking forward to doing this one again in the snow later this year.

  • Hiked with Linda yesterday and spoke about past hikes with snow on the ground. Hope your pictures interest my fellow hikers in walking the trails after a snow fall. Great work.

  • Linda Schulz says:

    I just hiked this yesterday, then found these photos and videos online. It’s a pretty good way to get an idea of this hike. Nice work.

  • kristen says:

    nice write up

  • Casey says:

    You can thank iMovie for that.

  • WR says:

    Getting fancy with those lower thirds on the videos

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