By TIM WILCOX
Special to the Alpine Mountaineer
Where: Rimforest/Twin Peaks
Length: 1.6-mile loop (including spur)
Elevation gain: 214 feet (from lowest point)
Difficulty: easy to moderate
If you live in the western San Bernardino Mountains, you’ve probably driven past the Ponderosa Trail many times, possibly without knowing that it’s there. This unusual route is a hidden hiking gem situated near the intersection of Highways 18 and 189. The easiest way to get there is through Rimforest and then half a mile or so downhill on Highway 18. Watch for a turnout on the right across from another turnout with big trees. Either turnout offers safe parking, though the one on the right is more convenient.
Step around the gate and look for a group of boulders immediately to the left. That’s the informal trailhead. Walk a few paces uphill through the boulders, and your hike is under way.
On the Trail
Almost immediately you’ll encounter an amazing Ponderosa pine with a huge trunk and a remarkably contorted/convoluted canopy. In my hiking notebook, at least, this is one of our mountain’s most striking arboreal sculptures.
Just beyond is a row of benches that used to be part of a small, theater-like teaching facility (one of several along the trail) for youth from nearby PineCrest Camp and other visitors. At this point, because the route is carpeted by pine needles, the trail is somewhat obscured. But this condition clears up momentarily as pines give way to oaks and other deciduous trees.
The path levels off briefly, then heads downhill past another time-tested Ponderosa. Pause for a moment as the trail, now clear of pine needles, widens. Look up to the left, and you’ll see the bunker-like green building (telephone equipment) backed by microwave towers and, in the middle of that array, Strawberry Peak Fire Lookout.
The trail transitions to an old rocky road and leads to its dramatic-view spur. Turn left just before a pair of boulders, then follow the narrowing and increasingly rocky pathway for two-tenths of a mile through a “chaparral tunnel” and on to the vista point.
There, you’ll discover a clearing that boasts views of 200 degrees or more – from Mt. San Bernardino to the east, the San Gabriels to the west and then, to the southwest, Saddleback Mountain and farther still (on a really clear day), the silhouette of Catalina Island.
When you return to the twin boulders, head down the road to the left. Now you’ll notice that pines reappear to share the forest stage with oak trees. You’ll also come upon a green sign that announces, “You are now entering Better Place Forests.” The text underneath explains that “this is conservation memorial forest where cremated remains are spread.” Now you understand the significance of the adjective “unusual.”
It’s essential to be especially “trail aware” at this point, because at this point the trail enters a private parcel of forest owned by the company whose name is on the sign. The appropriate M.O. for the next several tenths of a mile is “respectful silence.”
According to Better Place Forests: “When memorials are scheduled, we put up signs and close this part of the forest for the privacy of the grieving families.”
This is a significant heads-up that needs to be honored, so please watch for any memorial closure signs. In their absence, continue on the trail down to the parking area off of Highway 189 and across from PineCrest Camp. That flat spot with tables is meant for Better Place clients. Walk through it and bear left up a steeper pathway that leads to a fork. Head right there, following the more-narrow route over a stream bed.
Soon you’re on what was once a road but now functions as a wash in heavy rains. This is the primary “elevation gain” stretch of trail and the most challenging part of your hike, though not overly difficult. Several minutes later, you’re back where you began, having traversed slightly more than a mile and one-half on the Ponderosa loop. Congrats!
NOTES: This is an unusual “hybrid hike,” comprising public and private stretches of trail. Better Place Forests, the private company/landowner, welcomes hikers to its portion of the route as long as no memorial observances are under way. Watch for signs of such special events, which occur only occasionally, and avoid entering that area when they’re present. Note that the trail’s spur leads to a vantage point offering splendid views of more than 200 degrees.