Potato Mountain – what the heck is it?
Potato Mountain lies just on the outskirts of LA County, nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains. You guys know how much I love a good backstory. I searched far and wide for some history on this so called Potato Mountain. Like, WHERE DID IT GET THAT NAME??
I heard about this hike from a high school friend. She regularly posted bomb photos of her frequent walks up Potato Mountain with her adorable spotted puppy. Plus, it was named Potato Mountain. I was intrigued.
My sister recently picked up an interest in hiking, so about four minutes after she got home from work (she works night shift), I poured some cold water on her and stuffed her in my car.
Totally voluntary on her part.
I drove through the familiar territory of my childhood, trying to block out all those fabulous memories of high school. Potato Mountain is very close to Mt. Baldy, so if you get confused by following Google Maps and all you see are signs pointing towards Mt. Baldy, don’t be alarmed. You’re on the right track. You’ll find a small little dirt parking lot and I didn’t see any signs to pay, so it’s probably free. You might need a permit though?? I didn’t have one and didn’t experience any issues, but if you want to do things the right way, you could look into it. I read that you can get them from Pomona College for free.
Actually, I’m not even sure if this was the correct start to the trail because this bright yellow barricade blocked the entrance to the path.
If this isn’t the right entrance and you know where it actually starts, lemme know. ANYWAYS, after completely ignoring this sign, I began the hike. I passed a clearing that gave me definite ‘The Hills Have Eyes” vibes. The beginning of the hike is very shaded, but it is only flat for about five minutes. Prepare for an uphill climb.
(example of possible side path)
The main trail has many deviations and side paths, so I feel like this is a hike that can be explored over and over. I took a small detour at the beginning of the hike, following the sound of the babbling stream nearby. My sister was hungry though, so we didn’t sit around for too long. Back in 2002, a huge fire wiped out these foothills. I enjoyed experiencing green slowly retaking the mountains.
The first stretch is definitely the hardest, however hikers of all ages (teen and above though) took on the challenge. If you have problematic knees, I might advise using a walking stick of some sort since most of it very uphill. If you’re in otherwise mostly decent health though, you should be fine.
What to bring on this hike
- water – I didn’t and thought I would die
- a hat for shade – I wore a beanie. No help
- doggie bags (if you bring a dog, I didn’t see any baggies on the trail)
Although the beginning of the hike is lined with trees, once you begin the hill, you’re exposed to the elements. The hike is about five miles round trip and probably won’t take longer than 2 hours unless you plan a full on photoshoot. My sister and I spent a good chunk of the beginning planning out her 5 year plan and debating the best items on the Taco Bell menu. About halfway to the top, the road forks as you approach this sign from the back. Take a sharp left (follow the arrow) to continue up the mountain to the peak.
Directly after passing the sign, a vantage point presents itself. It is a great place for a pitstop. I was insanely sweaty at this point and unfortunately wore a light grey shirt. Excellent planning on my point, as usual. Wear sunscreen because the sun is relentless on this hike.
Going back to the fire that overtook these mountains nearly 15 years ago, officials determined it was started by an overheated parked car. It took a full 10 days to contain the fire, but only after it had already consumed 4,192 acres of Angeles National Forest. But just like the dream chasing inhabitants of Southern California, these mountains are resilient.
After a short break, the incline continues. As you climb higher, the impressive Mt. Baldy stands tall behind you. I have only a few Mt. Baldy stories. My family was not an outdoor family by any means. What I do know about Mt. Baldy (and the surrounding hills) is that it is full of wildlife. There are bears, big horn sheep, coyotes, raccoons, deer, bobcats, and even foxes. Supposedly. The biggest animal I had ever seen while hiking was a lizard. I have seen mountain lions in my friend’s backyard and raccoons at the McDonald’s drive thru down the street, so they must be hanging out in these mountains somewhere.
In the winter, the higher elevation mountains are usually snow capped.
The top is a lot closer than it looks.
Once you finally get to the top, a concrete water tank provides a great resting spot to take in the sights of the Pomona Valley down below. The elevation isn’t the highest, so don’t expect the freshest air quality. Oh who am I kidding, if you’re in SoCal you shouldn’t expect that anyway. Kick your legs over the edge of the tank and pretend this wasn’t the most exercise you’ve had in three months. There are tons of photo ops from the top, but I mostly just took in the view.
From the top, a couple different mountains appear in the distance: Saddleback down in the OC, the two tallest mountains in Southern California to the east, the San Gabriels to the west, and, of course, Mt. Baldy to the north, the third highest mountain in Southern California. Apparently on a clear day you can even see the Pacific Ocean. If you’re REALLY lucky, Catalina Island is visible on the horizon as well.
We arrived at the top a little after 12pm, so all the smart hikers had already left the summit and the unbearable sun. But that just meant we had the whole place to ourselves. My sister and I tried to spot our house and the high school and that corner where our grandmother almost accidentally picked up a prostitute. We didn’t find any of them, but it was fun nonetheless.
So why is this place called Potato Mountain?
There are potatoes at the top of the mountain. But no, not potato plants. Just potatoes. People bring regular ol’ potatoes to the top of the mountain and then leave them there. Hikers draw faces on their potatoes and write quotes, lyrics, and wishes in Sharpie.
I looked everywhere for the story behind the potatoes, but I found nothing. Not even Jeeves had an answer for me (shoutout to all the millennials who remember that search engine lol). I couldn’t find who started the tradition or the significance of the potato. Also, who cleans up all the potatoes? What happens to them?? Red paint kind of spelled out POTATOE on the water tank. The letters faded though. If you squint, you can almost see the letters near the bottom potatoes in the picture.
The United States has seven mountains named after everyone’s favorite starch. Even Canada has a Potato Mountain. Do all these mountains have the potato tradition? Who has the authority to name mountains? Do potatoes attract mountain lions? Who spells potato as potatoe? So many questions. So little time. And so many potatoes.
I neglected to bring my own potato, so I borrowed someone else’s for a picture. I also forgot a Sharpie.
This isn’t a TOTALLY INSTAGRAM WORTHY HIKE – there aren’t any waterfalls or base camps or light rays filtering through a canyon. If you don’t live in Southern California, it isn’t a must climb. But it was peaceful.
Be careful on the way down. It was steep coming up and it will still be steep going down. My sister, bless her heart, ran down the whole way but almost rolled her ankle. The good news is that the way down is a lot easier. After you leave, the Claremont village is only 15 minutes away. The village is a great place for an after-hike snack. My sister and I opted for a nap after, which was equally as refreshing.
What do you think came first: The name or the potato tradition?
P.S. Let me know if you find out the story behind the mountain name, I’m insanely curious and probably won’t have another good night’s sleep until I find out.