Arroyo Seco’s Royal Gorge

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.

A portion of Tom Harrison’s Angeles Front Country map depicting the hike up the Royal Gorge portion of the Arroyo Seco. Park along the Angeles Crest Highway at elevation 2,980 near the gated fire road that goes out along CCC Ridge. This is your starting point. Leave a vehicle to return to on the highway at the entrance to Switzer’s picnic area. The Royal Gorge is that super squiggly blue line. You can see where the Gabrielino Trail departs the stream (near the letter “G” in Gabrieleno. The x-country portion of the Gorge draws to a close when you intersect the Bear Canyon Trail as both it and its’ canyon namesake enter the Arroyo Seco.

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.

All that we found at the former Oakwilde C.G. site. Silt from storms that followed the Station Fire of 2009 have covered much of a remaining picnic table and Klamath stove.

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.

The instigator! Bohdan Porendowsky leads us up the Gabrielino Trail. Here we’re just upstream from Oakwilde C.G. (site).

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.

A narrow slot pool fringed with willows. Pristine and quiet.

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.

Here I am sporting Salomon water shoes. Much of the trip, especially with the good winter behind us, looks like this. Lots of wading under the high cliffs in 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.

Here’s the most prominent obstacle throughout the Royal Gorge. Climb up and around to the right hand side. Be very cautious of the dark slime patches exuding from cracks in the polished granite!

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.

Photo looking back on pool below the Royal Gorge Falls. Note the large pile of driftwood on far end of pool. A testimony of our recent big winter.

After this hike, you’ll always know another part of the Arroyo Seco that many will never see.

This little frog blends in with the surrounding rock above a pool in the Royal Gorge. Quite often as we moved amongst the smooth boulders, frogs would jump off and away at the last moment.



Hike Circle Mountain, Wrightwood, CA

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.

Excerpt of U.S.G.S. 7.5′ quadrangle showing the terrain from the east end of Wrightwood up to Circle Mountain. The ranger district boundary line from Lone Pine Canyon Road (BM 6,078) to the summit (6,875) is the hiking route to the top.

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.”

Joanie stops to wait for me on the steep, sandy path. The summit is still a ways off.

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.

Chris pauses by a trail cairn of “balancing rocks” on the way up Circle Mountain. The burnt thickets of branches are from the Blue Cut Fire. Scrub oaks are slowly making a come back in the scorching sun.

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.

This view toward the southwest highlights some of the highest peaks in the eastern San Gabriels. From right to left: Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mount San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) obscured by the pine trees. That’s Lone Pine Canyon Road in the right hand foreground.
Looking back up the Swarthout Valley toward Big Pines. The eastern portion of Wrightwood is in the immediate foreground. The main road heading straight through the pine forested landscape is Highway 2, the Angeles Crest Highway.

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.

Joanie Kasten signs in at the summit register. Look for a U.S. Forest Service pre-attack marker and this little cairn of rocks while up on the broad summit.


Western Fence lizards are out at Tin Can Point


This turquoise colored fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) was seen out in the warmth of early Spring at Tin Can Point. Tin Can Point is just up from Fern Lodge Junction on the Gabrielino Trail. It’s the first switchback you’d encounter after the trail passes through the canyon live oak forest and then enters the chaparral, just a few minutes up from the trail junction.

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.

Detail of Gabrielino Trail section, Chantry Flat – Mt. Wilson Trails map.

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!

source:  Wikipedia, Western Fence lizards

Douglas Wallflowers in Blossom

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.

These Douglas Wallflowers (Erysimum capitatum) popped out at us just downstream from the double slot pools on the Upper Falls Trail. There’s also a nice grouping of wallflowers near the second bench up the road from Roberts’ Camp in San Olene Canyon.

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.

View looking east up into the East Fork of Big Santa Anita Canyon from Gabrielino Trail. Note the Toyon in the foreground, still hanging onto some of its’ red berries. That’s Rankin and Monrovia peaks in the most distant background. Clamshell Peak is barely captured on the right hand side of photo.

Hike Chantry Flat to Mt. Wilson by way of the Rim Trail

Looking east from the Rim Trail just before reaching Mt. Wilson. On the horizon, far left, can be seen Twin Peaks. Mt. Baldy is in the center distance. Big Santa Anita Canyon is below and off to the right.

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.

Trip Details:  

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.

Mt. Wilson as seen from the Newcomb Pass Trail (Gabrielino) about a mile and a half up from Sturtevant Camp. Some healthy looking toyon is seen here in the foreground.

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.

A curious tree squirrel peers down at Newcomb Pass.

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.

Bracken ferns along the Gabrielino Trail. Photo just up canyon from Falling Sign Junction, Big Santa Anita Canyon.

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.

A gentle stretch of the Rim Trail about a mile west of Newcomb Pass.

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.

Here was one of the first trees that I encountered on the way up to Newcomb Pass. This spot is about a quarter mile up from Sturtevant Camp. Most of the downed trees along my hike were canyon live oaks.

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.

Here’s the sign you’ll find halfway between Sturtevant Camp and Mt. Wilson’s Echo Rock. There’s 2,500′ of elevation difference between the places in only 2.8 miles!

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.



Mt. Wilson – A great place to hike the Front Country in Winter

A friend of ours gave us this vintage postcard a number of years ago. The artwork depicts a scene that may have been intended as having taken place on the east end of the summit, perhaps near Echo Rock. The image somehow seems timeless, evoking that magical pull that the San Gabriels have had on generations past and those to come.

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.

Here’s a trail scene taken just below the “Halfway Rest” The forest is healthy and vibrant here in the upper Big Santa Anita Canyon.

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…

The bubbling Big Santa Anita Creek near Bear Trap Canyon on the Gabrielino Trail.

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.

A lady bug rests here in the sun on a white sage leaf. This photo was taken on the Upper Falls Trail, Big Santa Anita Canyon.


West Fork!

This photo was taken this last week, June 20th, looking downstream in the West Fork of the San Gabriel River at DeVore Trail Camp. We had such an amazing winter throughout the mountains of the western U.S. The San Gabriels were no exception! Right now the West Fork is flowing full and clear.
This little waterfall is seen here dropping into the West Fork of the San Gabriel River. The location is about midway between West Fork Campground and DeVore Trail Camp.

Hike Chantry’s Gabrielino for Wildflowers

Joanie hiking up the Gabrielino just prior to Hoegee’s Drop Off. That’s Indian paintbrush popping through the green. This spot is between Fern Lodge Junction and Falling Sign Junction.

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.

Detail of Gabrielino Trail section, Chantry Flat – Mt. Wilson Trails map.

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.

Springtime in the front country of the San Gabriel mountains wouldn’t be complete without Baby Blue Eyes. These delicate, low-lying beauties can be found during the Spring Easter season.
Close up of Bracken Fern taken along the Gabrielino Trail. Shady slopes and cliff faces are covered with the fresh, deep green fern beds.
Edible Miner’s lettuce grows in clumps along the moister sections of the front country canyons.


Chantry Flats Stream Flow

This photo was taken of Big Santa Anita’s Creek just upstream from Roberts’ Camp. This spot is close to cabin #23, on an outside turn of the creek. As of this writing, Chantry Flats’ rain total is at 42 1/2″ for season. Good flow and good sound throughout the canyon!

Wrightwood’s Heath Creek – Quiet Portal into Forest Trees

Hike Details for   –    WRIGHTWOOD’S HEATH CREEK

Distance and elevation gain / loss:  Approximately one mile (one way) with 400′ of elevation gain.

Follow the gated dirt road that runs atop levee on north side of Heath Creek stream bed.

Hike begins on Thrush Rd, just east of the tee intersection with Victorville St.  Walk up the dirt road  just west of Heath Creek bridge.  There’s a silver colored pipe gate just a short distance above Thrush.

Looking toward the desert on the levee road. This spot is about half-way between the lower and upper pipe gates.

One of the major canyons dropping into Wrightwood’s Swarthout Valley is Heath Creek.  It’s the canyon that begins as the large, conspicuous slide on Wright Mountain’s north side.  The slide, dropping straight down from the summit is especially prominent from downtown Wrightwood.  If you’re outside the post office or Mountain Hardware and looking southward, there’s a really good view of the slide, with Wright Mountain’s pine covered summit just to the left of it (elev. 8,505′).  The canyon is named after Harry Heath who homesteaded the east end of the Swarthout Valley, near present day Pacific Crest Estates,  back in 1886.   Back then, Heath Ranch (circa 1900-1919) had a dairy, as well as boasting an orchard of apple and pear trees irrigated with water conveyed from a stream intake in the watercourse that today bears his name.

Outline of the former Heath Ranch. Purchased from Sumner Wright in 1902, Harry Heath received his deed for the land in 1910. You can see that some of Heath’s most suitable ranch land was in the area now known as Pacific Crest Estates. Oddly, his 160 acres do not extend to the watershed that bears his name. Map image courtesy of Wrightwood Historical Society.

Pat Krig, a long-time Wrightwood pioneer and historian, wrote down some notes about the Heath Ranch which she visited on horseback as a young girl.  The Wrightwood Historical Society generously provided me a copy of her notes from 2006 which portrays what little is known of Harry Heath’s ranch.  Unfortunately, there were no photos of either Heath or his ranch.   One paragraph in Pat’s reminiscences that in particular stood out to me, was this: “A few of the gnarled apple trees still stand, bearing fruit and bringing memories of hot apple pies for tired travelers, and offers of a pitcher of fresh milk, thick cream for coffee, and butter to spread on warm, fragrant bread then slathered with pumpkin butter.”  Pat wrote this back in 2006.  Sadly, Pat passed away just this last year, taking with her memories of an earlier time in the mountains that we can only faintly imagine.

Last year’s dried flower stalks still draw your attention to clumps of buckwheat growing along Heath Creek.

Pearl Comfort Fisher, who wrote “The Mountaineers” back in 1972, provides a brief glimpse into a cowboy’s visit to the Heath Ranch back in 1907.  The cowboy was Harvey Cheesman, hired to round up stray cattle from the nearby Lovejoy Springs Ranch.  “So it happened that as I came over the divide from Lone Pine Canyon one cold February late afternoon I found the ranch or homestead of Harry Heath at the head of Sheep Creek.  Upon knocking at the door I was met by a lady with a small baby in her arms.  It was Mrs. Heath.  She said, “‘My, am I glad to see some one.  A mountain lion has been prowling around here for three nights and my husband is away working, and I am afraid the lion will get some of our pigs and chickens.  “No lion showed up that night and I had to go on my way the next day.”

Today, it’s hard to imagine Wrightwood as wild and isolated as it must have been 112 years ago.   The upper half of this hike will give you a taste of a quieter more forested Swarthout Valley.

Here’s a small section of the Wrightwood – Big Pines map depicting part of Heath Creek. Access this hike by taking the dirt road that departs south, climbing upslope from Thrush Rd. between Victorville Street and Heath Creek Rd.

This walk is a great one if you just have a little time, say less than an hour and you’d like to get some hill climbing in, too.   You’re walking on a flood control levee road.  The beginning of your trip is a bit exposed to the sun and completely devoid of trees, much of the landscape down in the wash to your left has a sterile, bleak look due to constant grading from county bulldozers.   Not that great at first. . .   Hang in there,  the bleakness soon ends.  Your route soon encounters black oaks, Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines on both sides of the levee road.  An enticing flat makes its’ presence across the stream on your left.  On your right is a gentle, expansive alluvial slope covered in a healthy pine forest.  Mostly private, undeveloped land, this terrain gives you a sense of what Wrightwood must have been like in the 19th century.   On a warm day, the air is fragrant with pine and amazingly quiet, save the occasional song bird or acorn woodpecker tapping high above the forest floor.

Trailhead for the Heath Creek hike is where Thrush crosses Heath Canyon.  Thrush is the straight, east-west trending road just above (north) the “n” in Canyon.  Notice that this U.S.G.S. topographic map section still shows Lone Pine Canyon Road crossing Heath Canyon, as it once did prior to the 1969 flood.

After a mile, you’ll encounter another silver painted pipe gate.  This is your turnaround point.  If you have the time, continue further up along the road to a set of four wooden benches set in a square configuration.  Walk on past this gathering area, bearing left and staying with the canyon bottom.  Follow a deeply eroded trace of a former jeep road.  Essentially now a trail, continue on up the canyon for another 400′ feet of elevation to the trail’s end on a rocky berm above the stream bed.  You will also see a little frame structure made from lashed together cedar trunks and limbs.