Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Santa Rosa Mountains Part II: "Switch Back Logging Road"

map credit: 4 WD Club

Sugarloaf Cafe and Market
Okay, this map is an area of Pinyon Flats where the Sawmill  trail head starts at the foot of Santa Rosa Mountain and ascends to almost the top where the abandoned Sawmill camp was originally. From California State Highway 74 and even the Sugarloaf Cafe & market, you can actually see this back and forth meandering switchback road making it's gradual climb to the camp. The Sawmill trail is also called Pigeon Springs Road, which may well be named after a spring which feeds to small lake or pond up at the old camp. I have once driven all the way up there in my Toyota 4X4 in 1986. Of course it really wasn't a public trail back then as you will see where there is now a parking area around which is just before and next to the Refuse Transfer Station. There U.S. Forest Service had not even remotely started construction of the present Cactus Spring - Sawmill Trailhead parking area and adventure jumping off point yet. So I had to drive around a shrubby barrier and up a bank to get to the actual forest road. There always was and no doubt still is a closed iron gate down near the Hwy 74. 

The entrance now though is just prior to the Transfer Station. I went there once after they created the parking area and it's a very nicely maintained starting point. There is an interesting story behind the construction of this long winding switched back road. Back in 1983 I had the privilege of meeting the man who constructed it and found out the reason for it's construction. He lived on Sage Rd in Radec (well, technically Aguanga). His house is out front there of the old famous Cottonwood School House which itself is next to the more modern Cottonwood Elementary School. The house he lived in was an older home with all manner of Barns and other smaller out buildings along with a whole lot of heavy construction equipment. He said the equipment mostly belonged to his son Daniel. The man's name was Jay Dee McGaugh and his wife was Vivian McGaugh. Some of the Idyllwild and Mountain Center residents may know of his brother or even the road named after their family name just west of the Mountain Center 243/74 Jct which is actually called McGaugh Road. That road leads to a Baldy Mountain Meadows area where there is a small Trailer Park and even a medium size lake (when there are wet years) called McGaugh Lake.

Image - Radec Cemetry
Anyway, Dee, as he preferred to be called, mostly did cattle ranching in the old days to make a living. He told us of the story of how he met his wife Vivian and informed her that if she wanted them to move to the city, they'd have a rough time of it, as he only knew ranching. He was a funny old guy with that typical southwestern drawl and all the quirky old time country humor expressions to go along with that New Mexico or Texas accent. You know how country folk have expressions which relate to living life on the land and farm ? After explaining how he met Vivian, and his decision to court her, he explained after he took a liking to her, he said, "So I took to snortin her flank . . " (anyone raised on a farm knows what that is) She, Vivian, interrupted and said, "Oohhh Hooooney, these kids don't want to here talk like that." Anyway, he did a lot of other things to make a living out there, like quite a bit of road building for one. I believe he said he also built the original highway leading east out of Anza towards Palm Desert which most know as Burnt Valley Road. Same road I use to live on. The present highway 371 originally did not run through the Hamilton Creek Canyon. That was later built. Burnt Valley Road which was part of the old Cahuilla Road was the original. The other road he was involved in creating was that famous Sawmill Road that switch backs up towards the top of Santa Rosa Mountain behind Sugarloaf Cafe

Image - TemeculaTim 2008
I'm not exactly sure when this road was built, but I would guess sometime in the 1930s. Dee McGaugh was in the Army during WW II, so at the latest after the war, but I thought he said sometime in the 30s. He said the reason was some experts said the trees had to be harvested because they were labeled as "Bug Trees", which I took to mean they had some pine beetle problem. Anyway, he simply built the road, but never underestimate the justification needed to profit off natural resources by special interests who know somebody in government. Early Sawmills in the San Jacinto Mountains never truly practiced any type of reforestation or replanting programs in the early days. Like most get-rich-quick pioneering ventures, the natural world's raw resources were there for the taking by those who a had the means and the drive to do so. The early irresponsible decision making and consequences of the actions by the early pioneers no doubt have contributed to the present climate change were truly began back around World War I. Although I highly doubt most scientists today would go back that far in making a connection. Countless mammoth trees in Garner Valley, Thomas Mountain and Idyllwild were taken for the building or even rebuilding of southern California cities and industry. The choice of harvesting location was no doubt influenced by the ease of access to the coast. Lumber didn't have to be shipped in from the Pacific Northwest as it does today. In their ignorance of ecology and the environmental disaster they were creating, how could they have possibly known that southwestern forests are incapable of repairing themselves as quickly as those in the wetter northern climates ?

Dee McGaugh said that the forest tree line came down much lower down the switch back then it does now. Makes sense because when I went up there the first time you could see old chain sawed stumps and even stunted Jeffrey Pine trees (sadly a few decades old) in bare spots trying to make a come back and grab a foothold, but with some great difficulty. Considering the huge charred Jeffrey Pine stumps I found on both sides of Hwy 74 near Spring Crest, I had no reason to doubt what he said. Of course experts will disagree as to how low the tree line actually was, but it is clear in only a few hundred years back things were clearly much different then. Even my Great Uncle who was born in 1903 and hunted Thomas Mountain in the 1920s couldn't believe the lack of forest there now when we drove him to Idyllwild in early 1990. He's long since dead now and like Jay Dee McGaugh, you loose a lot of historical knowledge of what the past was really like when these folks pass on. Too bad that we don't think to ask more questions and really get to know them while they are still alive and with us. Below are a few other interesting pics at the old logging kamp like the small lake or pond that is spring fed. Also the water tanks which siphon water off the spring for use in Pinyon far below.

Sawmill Trail - Madelm1953

Sawmill Trail where tree line once existed

credt: Outdoor Adventure USA

Spring fed Pond created by Logging Kamp

Outdoor Adventure USA
Spring with black plastic pipe tapped into it.

Outdoor Adventure USA

Water Storage for Pinyon Water Company
Below here now is a great video of a group's off-road trek up & down this old Sawmill Logging road built by Dee McGaugh and others many many decades ago. It offers great views and an experience which probably most of you will never take. However, if you do, please only go the 5.5 miles and turn back the way you came. Further roads going up are horrible and destroys the nature.

Here is a link of another group which drives beyond the better road to the Sawmill Logging Kamp from below, but the trail which goes  beyond the kamp to the top are extremely rough and not maintained at all. They are pretty torn up and the surrounding landscape badly eroded. I wouldn't recommend anyone go beyond the Logging Kamp. Just go down the same way you came up. Nature up there in spots has been badly beaten up. You'll have to scroll halfway down the page to the Santa Rosa climb, as the first photos are of their Borrego to Anza Valley Trek which is interesting, especially since I thought that road was closed for good. 

This YouTube Video is very Kool. The guy uploaded and published it on December 19, 2012. It's a hiking trek from Toto Peak in the Santa Rosa Mtns along the ridgelines of Dawn Peak, Rabbit Peak and Villager Peak, which very few people have ever taken (including myself, though I always wanted to) because of it's remoteness and the strong degree of difficulty and numerous obstacles along the way.  But it's great that some have documented there adventures for those who may never have an opportunity for such an exploration of remote regions.

Some References and Great Photo Streams by other Visitors
The Sawmill Trail can be accessed by Hiking, Horse, Bike or Offroad Vehicle, but you will need an "Adventure Pass" permit.
USDA - Forest Service: Santa Rosa Mtn Sawmill Trail 5E02
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
Tom Chester's Webpage: "Plant Guide to Sawmill Trail, Santa Rosa Mountains"


  1. Timeless, that was VERY informative! I often go out to the parking lot there by the waste station and take photos, but I've never been down the trails...I'll put that on my "to do" list! I would walk it...I don't have 4 wheel drive anymore, now that the Toyota RAV4 is gone...sigh...

    1. Don't forget your wilderness pass and make sure you go with a group. In the old days I did so many things by myself. Times have changed.

  2. By the way, hubby learned how to make abelskevier (spelling?) the other morning. We had some raspberry jam to go with them...yummy! Our daughter has two of the cooking pans for them! :-) I posted a couple of photos on my blog.

    1. Yes I believe that is mostly a Danish dish, but they are all basically the same people as Sweden and Norway. It's only national and Cultural pride that separate them. But then that pretty much describes our world.

  3. What a cool-looking trip...I think there's a travel guide series in your future. How long until you move from Sweden?

    1. I'm thinking it will probably be another year. I've got to look for work somewhere before that. We'll see. We also have to sell our place here.


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