Wrightwood’s Blue Ridge Trail hike, located just three miles west of this scenic mountain village, is a good place to get some shade and maybe even a little cooler weather, this time of year. The trail runs between Big Pines and Blue Ridge Campground, traversing richly forested mountainsides. Total elevation gain is only 1,100′ in the two miles spent under the canopy of expansive white fir, black oaks, Jeffrey, ponderosa and sugar pine. Starting at 6,800′ , the trailhead is located just across Highway 2 from the old Big Pines Lodge. There’s also a U.S. Forest Service information station here, which incidentally, is closed for the meantime due to Covid cutbacks throughout the Forest Service. Park in the paved lot adjacent to the restrooms. Walk down a worn trail through the brush that’ll cross the Mountain High West parking lot’s exit road. Look for the brown painted trail sign.
Halfway up the trail is, true to its’ name, the Half Way rest. It’s a nice log bench indicating that you’re only a mile from Blue Ridge Campground and a mile from where you began. You’ll pass by some gentle draws along the mountainside where glades of gentle green squaw currant, dogwood and willow grow lushly. There’s the smell of moist plants and earth dropping down from these quiet places. The terrain is gentle, especially for the San Gabriel mountains. Take the time to breathe all this beauty in. Return the way you came.
Hike the Dawson Saddle Trail for cooler temps and beautiful views of canyons and desert. A few days ago, Joanie and I drove up to Dawson Saddle for a late afternoon hike. Located approximately 13 miles west of Wrightwood, Dawson Saddle is the highest spot along the Angeles Crest Highway. At an elevation of 7,901′ , this trailhead starts you out at about the coolest temps possible this time of year. While the Front Country of the San Gabriel mountains smolders during the occasional heat waves of summer, high country hikes, or walks, are well worth considering for a refreshing getaway.
About a mile up the trail, while heading toward Throop Peak, we caught this scene of smoke and cumulus clouds out over San Gabriel Canyon. The Ranch Fire II was still out of control a short distance up Highway 39 near Azusa. Up above 8,000′ , the breeze coming in from the Pacific was cooling, yet tinged with the acrid scent of burning chaparral from miles away. Our light was beginning to fade and we turned back around for the trailhead. While driving back home, we stopped at a spot alongside the highway, where an unnamed stream flowed down the north slope of Mt. Burnham and then under the road. Clusters of Crimson Monkey Flower and Columbine graced the stream bed. Scooping up the icy water and splashing our faces and arms under a darkening summer sky revived us for the twilight drive back.
The Arroyo Seco’s Royal Gorge is a beautifully rugged, wild and trail less portion of the well-known canyon whose headwaters begin way up at Red Box and eventually emerges from the mountains near JPL in Altadena. This hike samples a variety of landscapes. The route requires hours and hours to complete, best done during the warmer months when days are their longest. We actually spent 14 hours doing this trip, allowing enough time to take it all in. If you’re looking to experience a bit of the old San Gabriels, a time before trails and roads left their imprint on the mountains, this deep canyon’s tranquil light and scenic pools will delight.
Total length, one way = approx. 7 miles
Elevation loss and gain = 1,180′ initial loss from CCC Ridge to Arroyo Seco via Dark Canyon. 1,500′ of gain from confluence of Dark Canyon and Arroyo Seco at the site of Oakwilde to Switzer’s picnic area.
It’s highly recommended that you bring water shoes for the long slog up the stream bed of the Royal Gorge. Also, I was glad to have brought trekking poles to help with balance in the gorge. The rocks, even the ones underwater, often have a slime coat that’s slick as ice. Take a dry pair of boots / shoes for the trail sections.
WARNING: Your only real obstacle is a low waterfall in the Gorge. There’s a slime coating on polished granite next to handholds and footholds. This spot is technically class #3 bouldering, however, with the slime coat, you may want to consider carrying rope and bringing a hiking partner.
Start your hike by walking around the white pipe gate located where the CCC fire road comes out at the Angeles Crest Highway. The hot, exposed road soon peters out and turns to single track as soon as you leave the ridge top. The trail soon reaches the green canopy and watered bottom of Dark Canyon. You’ll pass by some old cabin ruins with some really nice rock work that still stands.
Passing by black berry bushes and under a canopy of white alder, the trail stays with the little side canyon until reaching the broad sandy wash of the Arroyo Seco’s main canyon. While here, it’s worth poking around the site of a former U.S. Forest Service campground – Oakwilde. Once a thriving resort from the “Great Hiking Era,” the site became a backpacking campground, which I first spent the night at back when I was twelve years old. Not much remains now, especially after the Station Fire of 2009 and subsequent flooding and debris flows.
From here, cross over the stream, picking up the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail. Continue up canyon, the trail following the stream amongst willows and mammoth overhanging canyon live oaks. You’ll find a solitary pipe frame from a picnic table that burned back in 2009. This is the little site of Red Shangraw’s Rest Area. Red was a U.S. Forest Service fire patrol officer who roamed much of the Angeles front country back in the late 1940’s to early 1970’s. In a little while the Gabrielino will make a stream crossing. It’s here where you’ll stay with the stream, allowing the Gabrielino to do it’s climb up and through the hot chaparral cloaked slopes, detouring around the Royal Gorge.
Stay with the stream. As of this writing, the water’s nice and high. In most cases, you’ll find it easiest to just stick to wading up the stream bed itself, avoiding the inevitable thrashing through willows and brush. Cliffs, many a couple of hundred feet high, drop dramatically down to the twisting narrow stream. Once you’re in, this section of the canyon has you until emerging at the sight of the Bear Canyon Trail which’ll be off to your right after miles of wading and bouldering.
Bohdan and I actually ran out of light in the Royal Gorge, having to use our headlamps for nearly the last hour before tying in with the trail. Stick with trail which’ll now take you up and along the pools of the Arroyo. Eventually, you’ll come to the junction where folks head up to the base of Switzer Falls. This turnoff is well signed, directing you up to the Gabrielino Trail and onto Switzer’s campground above the Falls. At the spot where you finally meet back up with the Gabrielino, it’s a dry and exposed, quite high above the Arroyo. Now you’re only a couple miles back up to your car. It’s amazing how steep and cliffy the terrain downslope from the trail really is. One misstep in a number of spots and that would be it. Take your time, since you’ll most likely be a little tired by now. Pass by Switzer’s C.G., continuing upstream as the canyon takes on a gentler nature. You’ll walk along long gone stretches of a single lane road and retaining walls that nature’s reclaimed to herself as a hiking trail. You’ll finally come to the end of your time with the Arroyo as you cross a substantial wooden footbridge at Switzer’s picnic area. Since we’re still experiencing much of the Angeles N.F. camps and picnic areas closed due to the Corona virus pandemic, walk steeply up the paved, switchbacking road past the empty parking lots to the Angeles Crest Highway.
After this hike, you’ll always know another part of the Arroyo Seco that many will never see.
Hike Circle Mountain without having to leave Wrightwood! If you live in or near Wrightwood, this local mountain is in just about everyone’s skyline on any given day. The view along the way, not to mention at the summit, is a superb 360 degree panorama. In less than a mile, you’ll climb about 800′ to the top. Some parts of the trail are hard-packed sand and super steep. It’s easy to slip, especially on the descent, so I highly recommend bringing trekking poles.
The route starts at a shiny white, heavy duty Forest Service fire road gate, at the crest of Lone Pine Canyon. If you live in Wrightwood, it’s that gate on your right hand side when you reach the very top of Lone Pine Canyon Road before coming back into the village from the freeway. You might even know the area at the fire road gate as “Helicopter Hill.”
Just walk around the gate and follow the fire road eastward for a few minutes before reaching a barricade of boulders, marking the drivable end of the world’s shortest fire road. From here, the little sandy path drops down a little and continues along the exposed the ridge top before your climb begins in earnest. After the initial steep climb, the trail levels out a bit before you begin the second pitch. The Blue Cut Fire really burned off a lot of brush, including scrub oak and a number of pines. Despite this, plants are coming back. There are hardly any places to duck out of the bright sun, so bring a good sun hat and plenty of water. You’ll pass by clumps of Poodle Dog Bush, recognized by its’ ragged leaf margins and pungent scent. Also, look for Fremontia (flannel bush), chamise, yuccas and buckwheat. The chaparral that grows here is subjected to day after day of intense sunlight.
Here and there, as you climb, you’ll spot Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines with fire scars at their bases, yet their crowns blaze deeply green against the cobalt blue sky that only the high elevation can provide.
Something to know about Circle Mountain, is that its listed on the Sierra Club’s Hundred Peaks Section “peak list.” The list was created by Weldon Heald back in 1941. Throughout the decades, those attempting to bag all 100 summits, make a visit to our backyard mountain.
After reaching the summit, Joanie and had our lunch in a little glade of grasses amongst a grouping of tall pines on the north side of the mountain. From there we looked off into the hazy distance of the Mojave. The gentle summery breeze combed through the green boughs above. A little bit of heaven just minutes from the start. As we descended, the treat of one of the most unique views of Wrightwood and its’ Swarthout Valley was laid out before us. This little hike, though steep, is one worth making the time for.
A beautiful fence lizard basks in the gentle warmth of early Spring at Tin Can Point. See inset of the Chantry Flat – Mt. Wilson Trails map, below, to see where this point is. As of this writing, a cold wet pacific storm is dropping nearly six days of chilly rain and snow in much of the San Gabriel mountains. Big Santa Anita Canyon dam has received over 5 1/2″ of rain in the last week. Something I just learned recently about these Western Fence lizards is that their populations have the effect of reducing the incidence of Lyme’s disease in the ticks that live in the chaparral, such as found covering much of the slopes of the Big Santa Anita Canyon! Apparently, a protein in the lizard’s blood kills the bacterium in the tick’s gut, which is good news for hikers and even their dogs during the spring and autumn months.
Like most reptiles, Western Fence lizards hibernate, at least for a little while each winter throughout their habitats which are wide-spread throughout California. As for food, these lizards eat spiders and various insects such as mosquitos, beetles and grasshoppers. The females lay several small clutches of eggs (3-17) in the spring, the young emerging in the summer.
On your next hike out from Chantry Flats, watch for for lizards flitting about on the trails and sunning themselves on the myriad stretches of rock. As for the various types of reptiles to be found in the Big Santa Anita, Western Fence lizards are abundant and deserve a place in the sun!
Here’s a Douglas Wallflower alongside the Upper Falls Trail as seen this last Monday while hiking up the Big Santa Anita Canyon under cloudy skies. Our series of much-needed rain storms have brought back thick green grasses and the start to what’ll most likely be a colorful Spring of other wildflowers as well. Joanie and I hiked the two mile Falling Sign Loop that originates out of Fern Lodge.
Sturtevant Falls was tumbling down nicely. The scent of white sage peppered the cool air and the background surf-like sound of the stream followed us the whole way. We brought along an old shovel, cleaning off small slides here and there. Wild lilacs (buck brush) are still sending their mild lavender scent into the canyon breezes while the bright red orange of Indian paintbrush pokes up from the damp earth near Hoegee’s Drop-Off. And overarching along most of the route, the Laurel bay blossoms still cling to the dark green canopies. Look for the tender dark reddish purple leaves of the canyon big-leaf maples as their foliage begins to fill back in for a new season. Even the white alders are pushing out a myriad of their bright green leaflets, replacing that smokey look of dormancy with new life.
Hike Chantry Flat to Mt. Wilson by way of the Rim Trail during these bright, crisp winter months. This last weekend, I made my way up Big Santa Anita Canyon’s Upper Falls Trail from Fern Lodge Junction. Our rain gauge has recorded nearly 12″ of rain from the two previous storms of late November through December, so lots of bracken fern beds are at their height of deep and bright greens as they perch high on their cliffy ledges above the bubbling creek. Although we’re off to a dry start to the new year, the plants are responding to the generous rains and even snow in the higher elevations. This is also a good time to still catch the deep orangy red of the Toyon berries in their showy clumps that still feel reminiscent of Christmas time.
Total roundtrip distance: 16.9 miles
Elevation gain / loss: 440′ initial loss to Roberts’ Camp. 3950′ gain to Mt. Wilson’s Echo Rock.
Take Gabrielino Trail up Big Santa Anita Canyon to junction below Sturtevant Camp. Continue on toward Newcomb Pass. From there, follow RimTrail west to Mt. Wilson’s Echo Rock. Return toChantry down Sturtevant Trail and continue back on Gabrielino to the trailhead.
So, on I went past the songs of canyon wrens, their descending, laughing tones evoking that eternal longing for Winter becoming Spring. As always, leaving behind Sturtevant Falls, the crowds dropped off, too. Save for an occasional small group of hikers, I saw few people between the top of the Falls and Spruce Grove Campground. Once on the section of the Gabrielino that heads off for Newcomb Pass, there’d be no one, with the exception of squirrels, birds and gnats until reaching the top of Mt. Wilson. Solitude.
At the trail junction just below Sturtevant Camp, I peel off for Newcomb Pass and the quietness envelopes me. The trail was a bit overgrown and more noticeably there was a fair number of trees and shrubs over the trail. No problem, just took my time climbing down or up and around on the dark, loamy soil with winter’s dampness. Once out in the chaparral, on came the sunglasses and the great joy of warm winter days that only Southern California can bestow upon the mountains. The most prominent scene that kept repeating itself was the red display of Toyon against the background of varied greens. Pretty soon the backcountry opened itself up, first Twin Peaks, then the Mt. Baldy massif. Snow, blue sky and chaparral all seemed to merge as I neared Newcomb Pass.
Once at Newcomb’s, I found a sunny picnic table and finished off my sandwich. Ever since the Station Fire of 2009, the debris of cut down trees for re- establishing a firebreak has taken away the charm of the place. Coupled with that, some hair brain scheme had taken place, erecting T-posts with orange web fencing at the bottom of the man-made swaths. Sort of like what CalTrans might do along a highway construction site. The old Newcomb Pass sign lay forlornly off to the side, a casualty of yet another oak that has fallen. I got so depressed by the memory of what once was and what was now that only a few minutes elapsed before taking off on the Rim Trail.
The first 1/2 mile along the Rim Trail was fraught with downed oaks, lots of them. The tracks of those before were clearly etched in the soft, moist soil as they worked out ways to get over, under, up and around thickets of branches tangled up with thick cords of poison oak. Aside from this, most of the going was pleasant, indeed beautiful as this area truly is. If you love being under oaks and amongst ferns and spruce, this is a good place to be. Also, you’re regaled with scenic views down into the West Fork of the San Gabriel River and out across to places as far west as Mt. Pacifico and eastward to Mt. Baldy and beyond. Fire scars from the Station Fire are still seen at the base of many big cone spruce along the trail. These are healthy scars only running a short distance up from the ground, leaving a really healthy evergreen forest. It’s peaceful country. Toward the top, you begin to encounter places where the trail is whittled out of rock. Old dry stack walls, the good work of trail builders from another century, still hold the trail into the mountainside. Eventually you make your way up and through a gentle twisting and turning through forested hillsides along the summit to the asphalt maintenance road near the Cosmic Cafe’s Pavilion. Turn left here, following signs toward the Sturtevant Trail. Pass by the Astronomical Museum, the Solar Camera and eventually the 100″ and 60″ telescope domes before dropping down to Echo Rock and the beginning of the Sturtevant Trail.
Take the time to look off of Echo Rock before your descent back into the Big Santa Anita Canyon. The view is superb and you really can get a good echo if you set your mind to it. Yell toward the cliff straight across from you!
Get ready for a steep drop down from Echo Rock. I’m big on trekking poles for preventing slips and saving your knees on descent. Years ago when my wife and I ran Sturtevant Camp, we starting using the poles when we had a winter (2005) that had washed out the Chantry Road, necessitating getting to the camp by way of this very trail. Pass by the “Halfway Rest” and on down further into the upper canyon. This is timbered and wild country between the top and Sturtevant’s Camp. Savor the views and more solitude.
When you pass by Sturtevant Camp and then walk across the check dam to the side of the camp, you’ll drop down to the junction where you were earlier in the day, having just completed your loop. Head back to Chantry the way you came.
Whichever canyon you choose, getting out on our local trails is a great way to get a good start on the new year. I’m especially fond of the trails that make their way up to Mt. Wilson. One route that I’ll be doing in the next couple of weeks will be to head on up the Gabrielino Trail from Chantry Flat to Newcomb Pass. From there, take the Rim Trail to Wilson’s summit. Return by way of the Sturtevant Trail.
This is a great trip to get some good winter sun while climbing up and through the warm chaparral before getting under the oaks and pines on the north side of the Rim Trail’s watershed divide. The stream’s flowing really nicely right now, especially with the good start to winter storms that we’ve had from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Wrightwood, alone, has received nearly an average year’s worth of snow accumulation within about a month at the end of 2019. So, get out and enjoy the flowing streams, the bright green fern beds and the scent of damp soils and leaves. A word of caution, though…
Make sure to be cautious of ice in the some of the higher elevations as you approach Mt. Wilson from Newcomb Pass. Also, while traveling back down the Sturtevant Trail, watch for an ice chute within a half mile of the summit. This time of year, it’s a good idea to at least carry a pair of MicroSpikes or a similar traction device that you can add to your shoes. Take your time and savor the front country of the San Gabriels in the winter.
Hike Chantry’s Gabrielino for wildflowers when you get a chance. Try to do this sooner than later! This well trod trail is also known by many Boy Scouts as the Silver Moccasin up until you arrive at Shortcut Canyon in the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, where the two trails go their separate ways.
Look at hiking this trail section these last days of April and the next couple of weeks in May. Recently my wife and I did the Falling Sign Loop, starting out from Fern Lodge Junction, heading up the Gabrielino (aka Stock Trail) to Falling Sign Junction. We returned back down the Upper Falls Trail to Fern Lodge. The loop’s only a couple of miles in length, yet that one mile section of the Gabrielino between Fern Lodge and Falling Sign Junction will offer you not only wildflowers, but vibrant green fern beds, lush green grasses and the ever-present views over the Big Santa Anita and its’ countless little side canyons.