Hiking the Mount Baldy Trail in California
Hiking the Mount Baldy trail is beautiful and challenging – it’s one of my favorites in all of Southern California. Every time I go, I’m blown away by how challenging it is, and how accomplished I feel after – and how beautiful the views are. For backpacking trips, I usually try to make it up to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, but day hikes are great for those weekends that I don’t want to drive 5-6 hours. Read on for information about hiking Mount Baldy in California, as well as how to get there, where to park, and where you can camp.
Hiking Mount Baldy has become increasingly crowded over the years, so it’s important to be prepared so that you can have a successful summit! Although very strenuous, if you do it right, it’s well worth the hike!
Where is the Mount Baldy Trail?
The California Mount Baldy is here:
There is another Mt Baldy in Utah, so you definitely don’t want to confuse the two!
Otherwise known as Mount San Antonio, the summit of Mt Baldy in California sits at 10,064 feet in elevation. To get to the Mount Baldy trailhead, you exit the 210 freeway and head north about 20 minutes on a curvy, mountain road towards Manker Flats campground. It’s really quite a quick ride from the 210, unlike the mountain road to Big Bear which can take forever with some traffic. The hike to the summit of Mt Baldy in California starts just beyond the Manker Flats campground (less than a mile, I’d say) at around 6,000 feet, so there’s a substantial amount of elevation gain on this hike.
There is parking near the trailhead for Mt Baldy…with the caveat that you have to be there early. Because it’s become so popular, parking tends to fill up pretty early in the morning these days.
Mount Baldy Trail
There are 2 main trails up to the summit of Mount Baldy – The Baldy Bowl / Ski Hut Trail, and the Devil’s Backbone Trail. I like to do the Mount Baldy trail loop heading up the Baldy Bowl and then down the Devil’s Backbone which turns out to be about 11 miles with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain total, but there are alternatives if you wish. The Mount Baldy trail map below will bring you to caltopo.com where I’ve highlighted the Mount Baldy loop and main Mount Baldy hiking trails.
The Baldy Bowl
Hiking uphill in the Baldy Bowl is pretty rough, I’m not going to lie. But, it’s beautiful and I recommend not skipping it if you can manage it. That being said, I’ve seen people hurting on this route, so please be smart and know your limits ahead of time. And again, please don’t bring your dog if it’s hot, or if they are not used to hiking long distances.
You start off up the service road, and then at about a half mile, you meet the San Antonio Falls. Grab a quick picture, and then continue up the trail. The trail for the Baldy Bowl comes up pretty quick and surprisingly so on your left up a dirt hill. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss! But don’t worry – if you do miss it, you’ll end up going up the other route towards the ski lift / Devil’s Backbone.
From this split, hiking the Mount Baldy trail is pretty much uphill for a long time, switchbacks for a long time, and then you reach the ski hut (about 2 miles from the trailhead). There is a bathroom at the San Antonio Ski Hut, which is nice – although usually loaded with flies. Also, feel free to bring/leave some toilet paper for others! Donations are welcome.
Most people stop at the San Antonio Ski Hut for lunch and a nice break before resuming for the second half of the hike to the summit of Mount Baldy. The view is great, there’s plenty of shade, and there are some picnic tables to eat at.
As you can see from the Mount Baldy trail map above, the second part of hiking the Mount Baldy trail on the Baldy Bowl is just as steep and just as tough…but largely without cover, and at a higher altitude. For those who haven’t hiked at altitude before – there is a drastic difference from 9,000 feet to 10,000 feet when you’re starting at 6,000 – even more so when you drive up from California sea level on the same day (camping at altitude will help a bit).
The last mile or two to the summit of Mount Baldy is a scree – it’s very loose rock and gravel with no clear trail. It’s more like there are multiple kinda-trails you can take, just be careful to stay on the “trails” so that you don’t get lost! It’s happened, so don’t count it out.
Just when you think you really can’t move anymore, you’ll see the final set of switchbacks to the summit of Mount Baldy. You’re almost there, although you’ll probably think that about 53 times before it’s actually true. Hiking Mount Baldy has a few false summits which can be deceiving. If you’re lucky, you’ll start to see people on the ridge above you, and that’s when you’ll know you’re there.
Once you reach the summit of Mount Baldy, remember – you’re only half way there. I know, that sounds like a terribly negative view – but it’s the most important thing any hiker needs to remember. The top is only half way, and you need to still be able to make it all the way back down, so that should be considered when taking this route.
That being said – the summit of Mount Baldy…is amazing. If you’re really lucky, there may be a cloud inversion below you, which is one of the coolest things to see. You’ll likely have to wait your turn to get a picture with the Mount Baldy summit sign, but if you brought along your summit beer, you’ll be fine to hang out for a few.
Devil’s Backbone Trail
When hiking the Mount Baldy trail, I usually take the Devil’s Backbone Trail down from the summit, but you can really go whichever way you’re most comfortable. Whereas the Baldy Bowl is a rough hike uphill the whole way, the Devil’s Backbone Trail is not an easy route for those who are afraid of heights. They call it a backbone for a reason!
The Devil’s Backbone trail starts out down a scree (loose rock and gravel) for a mile or so and then follows along a ridge. There are some parts where it’s a drop on both sides, but those are just teasers until the really steep parts. They’re no joke – it can be very dizzying!
In spite of the heights, the views on this side are also incredible. Breathtaking. As you can see in the Mount Baldy trail map above, you’ll travel along the ridge for a few miles (about 2-3) until you get to the Mount Baldy ski lodge. From here, you can see how tired you are and either walk down the service road which is a nice, wide, gradual decline along a dirt road that literally seems to go on forever – or spend a few bucks and cheat your way down on the ski lift. I won’t judge, I swear.
I usually end up walking based solely on the fact that I refuse to pay what they charge (I think it’s like $15 or $20 one way) for the ski lift, but my ego is kind of a bitch and I usually end up hating it by the time I get to the car.
Towards the bottom of this trail, you’ll see the Ski Hut Trail to your right, and then you’ll come back to the same service road where you started. Stop for a celebratory photo – you’re done!
Ski Lift Alternative
I believe that everyone should (responsibly) be able to enjoy the outdoors. I do encourage everyone to work up to a level where they can complete the total 11 mile Mount Baldy trail loop because it’s such a huge accomplishment, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t start with baby steps. If you’re new to hiking and you’d prefer a smaller challenge for hiking the Mount Baldy trail, this is your route.
There is a parking lot right at the base of the ski lift, and you get to enjoy a fairly-rickety-but-I-think-mostly-safe ski lift ride up to the ski lodge. Now, don’t get this confused with the San Antonio ski hut on the Baldy Bowl side – that’s a backcountry ski hut for serious skiers, whereas this is a cushy restaurant for those who want to sit and enjoy a beer. In the winter when we have good natural snow, this is actually a great resort. Unfortunately, they don’t have a ton of snow making equipment, so most years there’s not much to work with.
From this ski lodge, it’s, I believe, about 2-3 miles to the summit. But don’t be fooled – remember you’re going from just under 8,000 feet to 10,000 feet and each 1,000 makes a huge difference. Three miles at altitude is not easy. You have a lot of uphill in a short distance, and you’ll get above the tree line which means no cover from trees. So, yes, this is an “easier” route for hiking Mount Baldy, but it still requires a lot of work!
You’ll take the same route back to the ski lodge (check the Mount Baldy trail map above for reference), and then get to enjoy a nice ski lift ride back down to the car in the parking lot. If you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to one of Mount Baldy’s beautiful sunsets.
Parking at Mount Baldy
As mentioned, there is parking at the trailhead to the ski hit and devil’s backbone, and also parking at the base of the ski lift. If you park at the trailhead, I believe an adventure pass is needed. I can’t confirm that they’ll enforce this, but for a few bucks, it’s worthwhile. And it goes towards a good cause!
If you’re driving up for the day, you’ll want to get there really early or you’ll be walking a bit – the parking lot fills up quickly. Everyone parks along the median or the side of the road near the trailhead and up and down the road, as needed. I can’t say if the parking fills up completely or not because I always start early, but better to get there early and not risk it!
Mount Baldy Camping
If you’re looking for Mount Baldy camping, Manker Flats is a cool little campground right down the road from the Mount Baldy trailhead. However, when I say “little”, I mean it. There are only 21 campsites available for Mount Baldy camping, and they’re all first-come-first-served which means that during the busy season, and especially holiday weekends, don’t be surprised if it’s sold out.
That being said, I went most recently in August 2016 on a Friday, got up there early afternoon, and there were plenty of spots. However, there was also a fire very close by so I’m guessing that kept a lot of people away.
The campsites are $10 a site, and there isn’t a ton of campground enforcement so if your camping neighbors are rowdy at night, I have never seen a camp host around to quiet them down. The bathrooms are nice but basic. Don’t expect fancy. They do the job, and there are toilets to sit on. No showers.
If you’re planning to camp near Mount Baldy at Manker Flats and all the campsites are taken, you’re pretty much out of luck as there are no campgrounds nearby. You may consider heading towards Mount Islip to hike that instead as there are more campsites available, but it will take you about 45 minutes to get there from the Mount Baldy trail. Alternatively, there are some reasonably priced hotels closer to the freeway if you want a comfy bed!
Also, it’s helpful to know that the campsite closes for the winter. There may or may not have been one year when I went up in February only to find out that the campsite was completely closed. I may or may not have slept in my car across the street from the campground. I can neither confirm nor deny. Park Rangers, I love you and I cleaned up all my trash. I promise. Please don’t yell at me. I appreciate all you do, truly. I want to be you one day (think Yosemite will hire me?).
Last – I’ve heard people say there are no bears in the San Bernardino mountains, and they don’t have bear bins at the campsite, but I’ve definitely seen a small brown bear on the side of the road on my way to Manker Flats. So, just camp smart!
Tips for Hiking Mount Baldy
The Mount Baldy trail is a tough one, so make sure you’re prepared for a successful summit with these hiking tips!