Distance (round-trip)

14.2 mi

Time

7 hrs

Elevation Gain

2344 ft

Season

Spring
Summer
Fall

Weather

A lengthy trip from the high desert to Burkhart Saddle, amidst the high peaks of the San Gabriels. This trail will take you through several California Climate zones – from Joshua Trees to Jeffrey Pines – and show off some weird and wonderful geologic features along the way. A great, rarely-used path, nice for a long day hike or backpacking trip deeper into the mountains.

The Burkhart Trail is a no-nonsense route from the north side of the San Gabriels all the way to the center of the high range. It’s a gorgeous trail that can take you from the desert floor to snow-capped peaks, and even if you don’t reach (or even have) a destination peak it’s a fantastic journey worth experiencing.

When I hiked this, we’d just had a healthy amount of rainfall here in Southern California, which usually translates into snow in the higher elevations. I was feeling a bit nostalgic for winter and wanted to try to get up and into the white stuff before too much of it melted away.

The trailhead is right at the parking lot to Devil’s Punchbowl State Park, and is clearly marked.

Trailhead
The trail meanders through some low trees before reaching a dirt road that skirts the western edge of the Punchbowl Formation. You’ll get a great view inside the Punchbowl itself – which, if you have time, is absolutely worth exploring. The Nature Center near the park’s entrance is also very well done – stocked with helpful rangers and great info on the geology of this strange area.

Snow and Punch
Punchbowl East

Stay on the road and in just under a mile, you’ll reach a junction with the Devil’s Chair Trail, a fun trek in and of itself that will give you some outstanding views of the Punchbowl. But for now, just stay on the Burkhart – you’ve still got a long way to go!

Directions
The trail turned away from the Punchbowl and heads west toward Holmes Creek, skirting the baseline of the mountains through some lovely high desert / alpine transitional vegetation. Around 2.1 miles the trail turns north and seems like it’s going away from the mountains, but don’t worry – you’re just rounding a large ridge instead of climbing up and over it. Take this chance to look to the desert in the north, where you can clearly make out the work of the San Andreas Fault that lies underground here.

Shaded Trail
San Andreas

The trail plateaus and stays relatively level until you get to the 2.3 mile mark. Here you’ll be able to see the trail across the banks of Cruthers Creek – and you’ll also note that the trail drops quite a bit in elevation before it starts crawling up into the San Gabriels.

Beautiful and Awful
Switchback

It’s a little disheartening to have to drop below the elevation of the trailhead before you start that long hard slog up to the Saddle, but just remember – you’re out here to have fun! Any residual grumpiness you might have about this extra work will melt away once you start hiking through the meadows to see the peaks ahead of you – Pallett to the left and Will Thrall to the right with Burkhart Saddle in the bullseye center.

Framed Peaks
Alpine Meadow

From here, it’s pretty much a straight-shot on the Burkhart Trail. The trail makes a few switchbacks and climbs up the western side of Cruthers Creek Canyon. Slowly, the scrub of the desert floor gives way to a few pine trees carving out homes for themselves.

Two Pines

Further up the trail, the oddball geology of the Punchbowl below was mirrored in the sides of the mountains, as large sheets of bent and cracked igneous rock snuck their way out from beneath the dirt along the side of the trail. It’s always humbling for me to think about all of the countless slow planetary processes that had to happen to get the trail into the state it’s in today.

Saddle in the Center
More Twisted Rocks

As the ascent continued up the north face of the mountains, the temperature cooled and I started seeing snow on the trail. Nothing too bad yet.

Starting to Snow

But as the trail continued, the snow got thicker and deeper, and the drop offs on the side of the trail got steeper. Or at least they seemed to …

Snowy Ascent

The single pair of day-old footprints I’d been following up looked like they put on snowshoes around here. I, however, was not so prepared and instead did my best to stomp through the snow just above the trail, reasoning that if I slipped there, I’d still be able to land on the flat trail instead of tumbling down into Cruthers Creek canyon. That’s a better option, no?

I will admit that my heart started pumping a bit faster than it necessarily needed to around this point in the trail. But I still thought I had my situation under control.

Then I saw this:

Worried

A faintly snowshoe-printed trail, covered by more than six inches of slippery powder and dropping fairly quickly down a long snow-covered stretch of canyon. I looked ahead. The saddle was tantalizingly close. I looked down. The canyon floor was quite a ways away.

I took a deep breath and told myself I didn’t come all this way to not even reach the saddle and – against better judgment – pressed on.

I fell a few times on the steep incline, but managed to steady myself by burying my ungloved hands in the snowpack. Thankfully, this was the worst of the snowed sections, and when the trail rounded a bend into a more well-lit west-facing slope, the snow disappeared again … but I did have to stop for a few minutes afterward to calm myself down.

After that harrowing cliffside adventure, the trail wound up through some more lightly snowed switchbacks to Burkhart Saddle. As the wind whipped around me from all directions, the sweeping views were 100% worth the trouble of getting up there in the first place. Looking north, the entire flat Mojave spread out before me, vanishing in a distant cloud of haze. And to the south, the snow-capped alpine summits of the San Gabriels, with windswept clouds brushing up against their southern faces. It still blows my mind that I’m able to see these two incongruous landscapes standing in the same spot.

Desert View
Clouds over the San Gabriels

It’s for scenes like this that I go hiking in the first place. The fact that I had to fight my way up the mountain to see it only made it more rewarding.

I sat down on a fallen log once I reached the Saddle at around 7.2 miles and tried to shield myself from the wind as I downed some granola. After a few moments’ rest, I looked at the steep slope directly to my west. A faint use trail led up the side, partially obscured by snow and ice. I was about a half mile away from the summit of Will Thrall Peak, and I wanted it badly.

It took a lot of effort to stand up, and even more to signal my blistered feet to shuffle forward, but I began up the summit slowly but surely. I sure as hell wasn’t going quickly, with the trail gaining several hundred feet of elevation in very little distance. The snow and ice started to thicken, and I started slipping again.

As the trail rose, so did the angle of the slope. Each potential slip got more and more dangerous, and with the ice on the ground getting increasingly sheer and solid, more likely, too.

And so, after crawling up a few hundred more feet, huffing and puffing the entire way, I stopped. It may have been my tired legs, painful blisters, or some residual common sense that was catching up with me from the snowbanks, but I didn’t think it was safe for me to keep climbing up the icy peak. I let out a deep sigh, turned around, and started back down.

The mountain beat me.

Or, if I want to look at it in a less defeatist attitude (and I do), Will Thrall Peak was giving me some clear signals that I wasn’t supposed to climb it yet.

Say what you will about the perseverance of man, and I’ll counter with my healthy respect for the cold indifference of nature. Also, I’ll bemoan my crampon-purchase-procrastination.

On the way back down, though, I did get to pass several marks I’d made in the snow while slipping and falling. That was more than enough evidence to let me know I’d made the right decision.

Fall Site

… I’ll be back when it’s warmer.

The seven mile shuffle back down to the trailhead went a bit slower than usual, due to the blisters, the soreness, and the extra incline on the way. But I will say that getting back to my car and taking off my boots ranks as one of my favorite parts of this hike … even though I had trouble walking later on that night.

The drive home into the low desert sunset wasn’t bad, either.

UPDATE: A few years later, I did make it up to the summit of Will Thrall Peak, but from the Buckhorn Campground to the south. For that route (or for a description of the final stretch from Burkhart Saddle to Will Thrall Peak), read here!

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, Author of "Day Hiking Los Angeles," Walking Meditator, Native Plant Enthusiast.





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12 Comments

Casey Schreiner Oct 20, 2015 06:10In reply to: Bill Wohler

Ha - this is a tough one! A few weeks ago I made it up to Will Thrall from the Buckhorn Campground and that steep trail from Burkhart Saddle to the Pleasant View Ridge is NO JOKE. Look for that on the site soon!

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Bill Wohler Oct 20, 2015 05:10

Hi Casey, your page on the Burkhart Saddle pulled me in. Thank you!

I really wished I had taken a photo in the same place that you took your photo following the text, Then I saw this. Heck, I was a little nervous crossing the stretch and I didn't even have snow to contend with. Also, the dead tree just above the trail at the rear of the photo has since fallen down and across the trail.

When I uploaded my hike to Strava, I noticed that the map on Strava, driven by OpenStreetMap, showed a trail called Pleasant View Ridge running from Will Thrall Peak across Pallett Mountain and out to Mt. Williamson and beyond. Looks like lots of possibilities to explore! When I'm in better shape. I'm still sore two days later.

http://www.newt.com/wohler/events/2015/palmdale/

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Charlie Jun 30, 2015 11:06

Hey all,

Thanks Casey for another stellar write-up. Definitely helped me in tackling this one. I did this trail 06/14/15 and hoo boy, it was a doozy. I made it to Thrall and with any snow or ice that would be impossible. The grade on the last ascent actually reminded me of that last half or quarter mile of Fox, i.e. brutal. I don't know if I would highly recommend it for summer but if you do, bring plenty of water. Such a great hike!

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Burkhart angeles | Raceforthetrea Sep 3, 2011 11:09

[...] Hiking Burkhart Trail to Burkhart Saddle | Modern HikerFeb 28, 2007 … You can also continue on the Burkhart Trail to Buckhorn or Cooper Canyon campgrounds, near Mount Waterman on the Angeles Crest Highway. … [...]

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Devil’s Chair in Devil’s Punchbowl, Straddling the San Andreas Fault! — Greene Adventures Apr 25, 2011 20:04

[...] which way you go.  Just under a mile up the trail, you’ll come to the actual split with the Burkhart Trail, which is pretty well-marked.  You’ll want to stay to the [...]

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Modern Hiker Jun 21, 2010 10:06In reply to: Tresco

Thanks and Welcome, Tresco! With the right amount of training, you'll be able to get to Will Thrall no problem!

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Tresco Jun 21, 2010 09:06

Hi everyone, I googled Burkhart Saddle and stumbled on this site. I like it! I'm considering Will Thrall from either the Punchbowl or from the aforementioned "farmer's" property. I'm mostly a day hiker and put in 20 miles each week with 3-4 milers. Sometimes, I will stretch it to 10 miles a day. Will Thrall will be a good short term goal for the next 4-6 months I think. Life is good.

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Modern Hiker Nov 5, 2009 10:11

Hey, Perry.

Yes, you are absolutely 100% right that it's in that landowner's right to refuse travel over his property. I was merely recording what I was thinking when I was on the trail and saw the straight b-line to the road (which is what I bet a lot of other hikers have thought), but after seeing the way people treat more popular trails near residential areas, I don't blame the guy at all.

I don't know if anything like this is offered in the ANF area, but trail groups like the American Hiking Society often work with private landowners to ensure safe access through private through-ways for hikers, often by leasing the land from the owner and helping provide maintenance and security. But if this family's already been-there-done-that, then there's probably no incentive for them to try again.

I am always interested in learning the local history of the areas I'm exploring, so thanks for bringing this to light!

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perry chamberlain Nov 5, 2009 10:11

I personally know he farmer you spoke of, at the cruthers creek intersection.
Before you speak disparagingly of him let me enlighten you.
He and his father ( he is in his mid 50's) and his grandfather have owned this land since the start of the century, and farmed on it raising turkeys and apples. They were there before the national forest boundries actually existed at this latitude.
So to be clear, they were here first.
They were the original homesteaders, of that whole 2 quarter sections( 720 acres)
years later before the trail system existed.
In previous years they allowed hikers to park and use the trail head but after years of thefts, vandalism and abuse they closed their land to the public.
Just imagine 50 cars parked on your lawn every weekend. now reconsider your statement .
With the popularity of the trail now there is no way anyone would reasonably expect that someone would allow hundreds of strangers to walk through there front yard just to save a short hike to the punch bowl.
The gated fence is actually inside his property as is most of the punchbowl trail link to the Burkhart trail.
He kindly allowed the punchbowl trail to pass through his property against the ridge so hikers could use the burkhart trail at all.
when you walk along that trail you are all ready on his land.
How many people do you know who turn over dozens of acres of their own land, to allow hikers permnant access to mountain trails.
so be nice, and think about what you say before you make statemants about people you DON'T KNOW.

RESPECTFULLY
Perry chamberlain
canoeman.

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Derek Oct 7, 2009 11:10

Hey MH! I really like your website as I love to go camping and hiking in the San Gabriels. I am thinking of planning a backpacking trip soon.

What trails would you recommend for backpacking?

Thanks for your time!

- Derek

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