In the News
Jul 11 2023

Huntington Health Pediatrician and Search-and-Rescue Volunteer Offers Tips for Safe Hiking This Summer After Record Winter Storms

Record rain this winter wreaked havoc on Los Angeles area hiking trails, damaging roads and dumping snow at lower elevations than normal. As the weather heats up, and the last of the snow melts, day hikers should plan ahead to avoid on-trail hazards caused by the unusually heavy rainy season.

John Rodarte, MD
John Rodarte, MD. Photo courtesy of John Rodarte, MD.

 “Trails got washed out, and the vegetation got washed out. In some instances, actually, the roads even getting to those trails are washed out and continue to be to this moment,” said John Rodarte, MD, a pediatrician with Huntington Health, an affiliate of Cedars-Sinai.

Rodarte also is a reserve deputy sheriff with Montrose Search and Rescue, a team of volunteers that helps the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department respond to emergencies in the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains. As a volunteer, Rodarte has treated injured hikers, bike riders, drivers and motorcyclists. Those with traumatic injuries are sometimes airlifted by helicopter to nearby Huntington Hospital, where Rodarte works. 

“It’s great having Huntington Hospital in our local community of the mountains because it’s a Level II trauma center where we can send our patients,” Rodarte said. “I love being on staff there because I can also follow up on patients that I see in the field.”

Rodarte spoke with the Cedars-Sinai Newsroom about some of the hazards that hikers might encounter on the trails this summer and how to deal with them or avoid them altogether.

Damaged Trails and Roads

Heavy rains carved narrow gashes into some hiking trails while washing out others altogether or leaving trees or large rocks blocking their paths. Some roads sustained such significant damage from rockfall and other debris that they remain closed.

Eroded trails can give way, causing hikers to fall and get injured. Hikers can get turned around on a washed-out trail, ultimately getting lost. “The next thing you know, darkness comes on and they can’t find their way back again,” Rodarte said.

Rodarte recommends checking online sources for the latest information on trail and road conditions before heading out. The latest comments or reviews in hiking apps like AllTrails, and real-time maps on sites like CalTrans showing current road conditions also can be useful.

“You can find so much,” Rodarte said. “Try to get the latest in terms of what trails [and roads] are actually open and be prepared that it may not be what it seems like when you read about it online.”

Getting Lost and Getting Found

One of the most common scenarios Rodarte sees as a search-and-rescue volunteer is hikers getting caught out on a trail after dark. Hikers might get lost or realize that a trail was more difficult or longer than they had anticipated. “Once it gets dark, it gets very hard to find your terrain, especially if you’re not familiar with that trail already or if it’s overgrown,” he said.

To help increase the chances of being found, hikers should share their plans with others and never hit the trail alone.

“If you don’t get back on time, your family or friends can say, ‘They were supposed to be back by 6 tonight. It’s now 8, 9 at night,’ which is probably the time we get most of our callouts for the rescue team when someone hasn’t come home,” Rodarte said.

For hikers who need to be rescued, the best thing to do is stay put.

“That way we’re not chasing you while you’re still moving,” Rodarte said. “The hardest thing to do is to find a moving target. So, if you can stay put for the night, find someplace safe, then we can come out and kind of look where your last known location was.”

Carrying a loud whistle also can help a hiker flag down rescuers. “It’s so easy to do. Yelling is really, really hard, and after a while you lose your voice. You never want to rely on just trying to yell out for help,” Rodarte said.

Poisonous Plants

Southern California exploded with color after the rain, as green grasses, yellow mustard and orange poppies have blanketed the hills. But among that beauty lurk some poisonous plants, like the deceptively pretty poodle-dog bush, which flourishes after a fire. 

“It’s a beautiful plant. It has this really nice, beautiful purple stalk with purple flowers that come up, and I’ve seen people picking it in the forest before,” Rodarte said. “Poison oak may give you a rash for a couple of weeks. Poodle-dog bush may give you that same kind of rash all over for a couple of months. So, avoid both of those if you can.”

Poison oak vines with their clusters of three green leaves that turn orange over the summer also have flourished on overgrown trails. Like the poodle-dog bush, the oils from this plant ignite a nasty rash and can linger on clothing and hiking gear.

Avoid touching either of these plants, and if that’s not possible, wear protective clothing like long-sleeved shirts and long pants. After coming in contact with these plants, wash skin as quickly as possible with soap and water or rinse off the oils with whatever is available on the trail.