I had tried to do this trail earlier in the year but was turned back when the surprise Santa Ana Winds kept knocking my car doors shut and almost blew me off the trail … and now that I’ve done the whole thing, I’m very glad I turned around on that windy day and didn’t try to scramble to the summit – because there’s a good chance I would have been tossed off the firebreak and into the San Gabriel Wilderness.
So, on a much calmer and cloudier day, I returned with the hope of actually hitting the summit.
The trail begins near a very large parking area just before Coldbrook Camp. It’s tough to miss – there’s a large gate just north of the lot and an outhouse on the western side of the road. The trailhead is just to the north of this outhouse.
The trail begins by working its way back south alongside the road you just drove in on – but it gains in elevation fairly quickly. In fact, you’ll gain almost 600 feet in this first mile – never during any truly steep sections, but because the rest of the trail is more easily graded you might get a little winded near the trailhead. Thankfully you’ll have some nice views of the surrounding mountains to take your mind off of the incline.
This is a trail that doubles back on itself a bit, so you’re going to end up looking at a lot of the same canyons and ridges … as well as the trail itself.
Just before the you hit the mile marker, you’ll get a good chance to look southwest toward Smith Saddle. The incline of the peak (seen here on the left) doesn’t look that bad from here, but the closer you get, the steeper it appears.
It’s another two miles to Smith Saddle, and other than a few seasonal creek crossings the trail itself is fairly consistent. You’ll only gain a little over 400 feet during this shadeless stretch, but as you venture further away from the 39, the feeling of remoteness grows. Just make sure you save some energy, ’cause the really tough part is just around a few more bends.
At the 2.9 mile mark, you’ll reach Smith Saddle. A long firebreak extends to the north and the Bear Creek Trail continues into the San Gabriel Wilderness to your west. If you’re not up for scrambling, turn around here and enjoy the pleasant hike back to the trailhead – or continue further into the San Gabriel Wilderness (free Permit required). If you’re in the mood to get your hands dirty, turn south and face your next challenge:
The next half-mile is almost all scramble, with just a little bit of bushwhacking thrown in for good measure. You’ll be gaining about 800 feet and using your hands and knees in a few places. It’s steep, but there is a fairly apparent use-trail and many solid rocks to hang onto along the way. Just take your time and you’ll be fine … and be sure to occasionally stop to soak in some of the views, too.
After a bit of scrambling you’ll reach a small false summit, but the true summit will be clearly visible and most of the tough scrambling is now behind you. Hike confidently to the peak, look for the register near the USGS marker and take in your (hopefully non-cloudy) summit vista.
For those interested in seeing what the 20 minute scramble descent looks like, here’s a sped-up video shot with a forehead-mounted camera on the way down:
Excellent. The Upper Bear Creek Trail is in fine condition and there aren't any junctions until you leave to hike up the firebreak to the summit of Smith Mountain. That fire break is much different, though - a sometimes nearly-vertical scramble / climb through use-trail and brush on ground that can sometimes be pretty loose. Use caution here and take your time - there are plenty of rock handholds, but it's easy to psych yourself out in a situation like this.
Coldbrook Campground is the closest developed site, just a bit up the CA-39 from the trailhead. It is first-come, first-served. If you are heading inside the San Gabriel Wilderness on a longer trip, you'll have backcountry camping options like Upper Bear Creek Campground and the developed Lower Bear Creek just outside the Wilderness Boundary. If you are camping inside the Wilderness area, you will need a free Wilderness permit from the Forest Service.
From the 210, take the CA-39 exit north 18.1 miles into the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Park at the large trailhead at Upper Bear Creek Trail -- look for signs for the San Gabriel Wilderness and an outhouse. If you've hit Coldbrook Camp, head back 1/4 mile. Display your Adventure Pass.
With wildifres, smoke conditions, COVID-19, and National Forest and other public land closures rampant, please reach out to the land management agency in charge before you head out for a hike to make sure the trail is open and safe to be on.