Cram Peak on New Year’s Eve

One way to make sure you’re not awake at midnight on New Year’s Eve is to hike up Cram Peak.

About thirty years ago, a group of about five guys and I had the bright idea to explore the Cram Peak “trail”. Back in those days, there was no app to consult but we had heard tell that there was an old route that would take one off the backside of Morton Peak, all the way down to Mentone via Cram Peak. The ascent of Morton Peak is no small feat as the fire service access road is granny-gear steep, so, by the time we reached the alleged trail, I was already pretty toasted. But, always the optimist, I plunged into the unknown, believing that it would be all downhill.

The first mile or so was indeed downhill and wide enough to ride. But then came a series of what we call hogbacks, where the ridge humps up and then drops to a saddle before rising again, even though the general elevation loss is greater than the gain. Aside from the hike-a-bike ascents and the brush-choked, white-knuckle descents, the only real excitement was when we aggravated a Diamondback Rattle snake who had been peacefully basking in the sun, until we came slip sliding, almost in control, through his territory. We have a saying that the first rider wakes the snake up, the second rider pisses him off, and the third gets bit. Well, I was the sixth in line and had little choice but to zip past him as fast as I dared, hoping I could regain control of my speed once beyond his reach.

Sycamores line Morton Creek

Today it was cool and overcast with no danger of snake encounters and too early in the season to worry much about ticks. Unlike the overgrown route of thirty years ago, there is now a well-worn path that we could follow with little difficulty. The only difficulty lay in the approximately 1,000′ of elevation gain per mile. At one point, I put my gloves on so I could scramble up on all fours. The view from the peak was worth the effort though we had some second thoughts as our age-worn knees objected to the steep descent.

Looking across Morton Creek canyon at the Morton Peak Lookout Tower
Sadie pauses to allow the old ladies to catch up.
A view of the damn dam.

The story of the accursed dam is a real heart breaker to local mountain bikers. Jerry Lewis, U.S. Representative and Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, carved out an obscene amount of money for his district to build a dam on the South Fork of the Santa Ana River under the auspices of protecting development downstream. The proponents assured those who were concerned about losing access to this lovely stretch of canyon, with its perennial stream, that once the dam was completed, full access to the canyon above the dam would be returned. In due course, a previously unspoiled riparian habitat was blasted into the largest earthen dam in the country, an eyesore that’s visible from almost anywhere in the valley. The first rainy season after the dam was completed, the entire season’s runoff was too polluted by mud to be used. A season of heavy rainfall followed a year or two later and the dam’s spillways were damaged by the urgent need to send water downstream to prevent a breach. And the canyon was never reopened to recreation.

That’s not to say we never enjoyed the canyon again. Sally and I have been escorted out by flustered security guards more than once. There are two forest service roads that allow access to mountain bikes that can be hoisted over the gates at the top of the canyon. Once you’re down at the dam, there’s not much they can do but tell you to leave, which is what you are in the process of doing when they find you.

Once we were standing at the top of the dam, marveling at the muddy pond a hundred feet below, when a security guard drove up. “You can’t be here!” he spluttered, though clearly we were here. He continued his tirade and we listened politely until he stopped for breath. At which point I asked sweetly, “I guess this means you won’t take our picture?”

His shoulders slumped and he grinned ruefully, holding out his hand for the proffered camera. He dutifully followed us down the face of the dam to the gate where we had to wait for him to catch up to let us out. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that we knew of a route that circumvented the gate.

5 thoughts on “Cram Peak on New Year’s Eve

  1. Sadie and Molly both made it to the peak with great enthusiasm. The steep descent just about crippled me. My legs are so sore, I can barely walk! One would think that I would know my limitations by this time!

    Liked by 1 person

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