My First Cowboy Camp: Backpacking Ontario Peak

Trip Date: June 19-20, 2020

Trail Overview

Trail: Ice House Canyon to Ontario Peak

Distance: 13.2 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,824 ft.

Location: San Gabriel Mountains

Permits: Wilderness permits required for overnight stay. Permits are self-issued at the trailhead.

The Story

My very first backpacking trip ever was in the San Gabriel Mountains, nearly 8 years ago. I was lucky enough to fall in love with backpacking on my very first trip. We camped at Kelly Camp and I clearly remember there was a bear next to our tent in the middle of the night. Since then, I’ve only backpacked in the San Gabriel Mountains once and we camped just below Ontario Peak. My friend Janelle planned to hike the JMT this past summer and wanted to get in as many backpacking trips before her big journey. I was excited when she reached out and wanted to go hiking that weekend. Luckily, I was able to talk her into a quick overnight stay in our local mountains. And somehow, she talked me into my first cowboy camp experience!

Cowboy camping: camping outside on the floor, without a tent or any shelter.

It was Friday, middle of June and we just arrived to our trailhead at 5 PM. Being middle of June, the sun doesn’t really set until late like 8:30-9 PM, so I figured we had just enough time to hike up to Ontario Peak via Ice House Canyon trail and still catch sunset from the peak. Something I’ve always wanted to do! Okay, well we might have underestimated the hike up and we took a little longer than usual. It took us 2.5 hours to make it to the saddle and when we reached the saddle, we saw a few others with packs headed up to Cucamonga Peak. Of course, being the introvert that I am, was happy to see that we were the only two people headed towards Ontario Peak, but that didn’t mean there were already people up there.

We started to get a few colors in the sky from a pretty sunset after we passed the saddle and once that happened, it was almost like nothing was going to stop us from catching the sunset at the peak. It was more a personal goal of mine that I didn’t share with Janelle, so it’s not like we were rushing to the top by any means. From the saddle, it’s 2.5 miles to Ontario Peak, passing Kelly camp along the way. There were a few people set up at camp, and a few others making their way to the peak for sunset. I remember there being a small seasonal spring located by Kelly Camp, so we had planned to fill up our water there, but unfortunately, we were not able to find it and we were loosing daylight.

We met an older gentleman who wass backpacking solo, also planning to camp up near the peak. We stopped and chatted for awhile as we all tried to catch our breath. We still had about a mile left before reaching the peak, and the sun was already starting to set. We missed the sunset from Ontario Peak, but it was still pretty awesome to be surrounded by all the color in the sky. When we finally reached a spot to set up camp, just below the peak, we were tired. Racing the sunlight, going uphill was tough. Our 6ish mile hike was tough, but the views of the city lights from 8,000 ft high was rewarding to say the least.

Now for the moment of truth, will I be tough enough to actually sleep outside without a tent?! Being the middle of June, we had the best weather, clear skies and all. It was soo easy to throw down the tarp, blow up our sleeping pads, and just lay there. Views 100%. We boiled water for dinner, had a shot of Fireball and knocked out.

Catching sunrise without a tent is way easier than having to climb out of your cocoon. So you bet we were up for sunrise; and it was amazing! We snapped a few photos, ate a quick breakfast and started to head down before the early morning weekend crowds started to make their way up, as well as to beat the summer heat. Luckily for us, it was all downhill from there! We ran into maybe 3 people passed the saddle, and then we met up with the large hiking groups at the saddle. Going downhill is fun, but not when you have a line of 25 people hiking up, slowing down our fast pace. There were so many people hiking up that morning, that we decided the take the extra 2 miles down the Chapman Trail, and we saw not 1 person for the first mile! It was beautiful. It was also my first time hiking the Chapman Trail, a lot less maintained, but love a trail without the crowds! We made it back to the car in 2.5 hours, a little longer because we took a detour coming back down. Safe to say I miss hiking in our local mountains and I cannot wait to cowboy camp again! 😉

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Vanessa is an outdoors enthusiast, hiker at heart, and the storyteller behind Forever She Wanders; a women's lifestyle + travel blog inspiring all to get outdoors, seek adventure and live an active lifestyle. As an outdoors enthusiast, Vanessa has found passion in being outdoors while backpacking, camping, hiking and creating memories of a lifetime.

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