Our epic winter continues, with Sturtevant Falls looking more beautiful than ever. Last weekend our rain gauge had overflowed from the accumulation of a couple more storms before we could hike back in and check it. The gauge holds 12″ of rain before it overflows, so this tells something about the rains this month.
Big Santa Anita Creek comes alive after recent storms. 55′ high Sturtevant Falls is back in its’ former glory as well! As we all know, years of drought have taken their toll throughout the southwest, especially in the myriad of canyons throughout the mountains of Southern California.
Joanie and I discovered 9.57″ of rain in our gauge at Fern Lodge on January 18th. Several storms, back to back, have made a huge difference in the appearance of not only the Big Santa Anita creek, but all the rest of the front country streams in the Angeles. A week later, we hiked up and past Sturtevant Falls where we took these two photos.
As of today, February 10th, a lot more rain has fallen. The stream beds have been scoured of the dark organic mat that’s built up for years. This has left bright, colorful sands and rocks under the clear waters. Beautiful.
Sturtevant Falls is flowing at it’s peak level for Spring. This photo was taken while hiking on the Upper Falls Trail this last Sunday. The rain gauge at our cabin in the Fern Lodge area recorded 2.92″ from the recent storm. The stream’s nice and full, it’s song filling the canyon from wall to wall. Many of the pools in the canyon have received a cleansing scouring. Dark organics that build up over the year on the stream bed have finally been washed clean out of the sand. This is a great time to take a hike at Chantry Flats in the Big Santa Anita Canyon! Fern beds on the steep slopes and cliffs are growing in their thick greenery. Sturtevant Falls is definitely one of the most sought after places to visit during the spring hiking season. If at all possible, try to get in a hike to the falls during the week days due to the parking congestion at the trailhead.
The hike in is less than two miles one way, rated as “easy” in John W. Robinson’s Trails of the Angeles. Begin your hike at the Gabrielino trailhead, located adjacent to the lower parking lot at Chantry Flats. Descend over 400′ to the canyon bottom in less than 3/4 of a mile. Cross the foot bridge at Roberts’ Camp, then follow the dirt road upstream, passing by the little cabins built over a hundred years ago. The road soon peters out, your route becoming single-track off and on until you reach the base of the falls. Return the way you came.
This is a great time for your Sturtevant Falls hike! The recent storms to visit Southern California have brought abundant rain and snow to the drought parched San Gabriel Mountains. 26.60″ of rain has fallen at Chantry Flats as of this writing. Measuring of the rain season begins on October 1st and concludes on September 30th of the following year, so we’re off to a good start for our winter season. All the trails radiating out of Chantry Flats lead to canyons filled with stream song. Bright green thickets of Bracken ferns grow profusely among the ledges of rocky cliffs.
Looking down from the road that drops down from Chantry into the canyon, you can make out the gray, smokey canopy of the leafless alders hugging the boisterous mountain creek. Looking straight out (east) from San Olene Canyon, about half way down to Roberts’ Camp, the Pagoda Tree welcomes you back to the canyon. This big cone spruce stretches out its’ shaggy arms from high atop Clamshell Ridge, with a backdrop of open sky.
Right now the Big Santa Anita Canyon and Winter Creek carry, too, the scent of winter. Last autumn’s leaves mulch down into the myriad of sand and soil along the stream beds. This earthy, organic loam creates an invigorating damp scent that helps to bookmark your memories of the canyon trails and where you were all those years ago. So, when you return to Chantry for your next hike, that good wintery scent brings you back to your old haunts and all those thoughts that went along for the ride.
When on the green footbridge at Roberts’ Camp, you cross the boisterous tumbling Winter Creek and its’ trout pools that were created by Lynn Roberts back around 1912 during the Great Hiking Era. This little creek flows down from Mt. Wilson, twisting and turning for miles, dropping approx. 4,000′ to the confluence of the Big Santa Anita’s main canyon. After leaving Roberts’ Camp, head up the main canyon, passing by the Lincoln Log style check dams. Big Santa Anita Canyon, like the Winter Creek, also begins at Mt. Wilson’s summit. Little cabins, many built over a century ago, are perched on small flats along your hike. The canopy of alder, canyon live oak and bay shade much of your way. Along with stream song, listen for the descending fluid notes of the canyon wren, a year-round resident of this watery place. In less than a couple of miles you arrive at the base of 55′ high Sturtevant Falls. The canyon big-leaf maples grace the open bowl around the plunge pool at the bottom of the falls. Leafless, their silent, bare branches seem to reach out over you, stretching and awaiting Spring.
Next time you’re considering spending a little time in the front-country of the Angeles National Forest, the Sturtevant Falls trail hike is a good one, especially since our recent rains earlier this month. Over 6 1/2″ of rain fell throughout the first week of the new year in Big Santa Anita Canyon. Ferns and mosses have sprung back to life, creating varied depths and textures of green across cliffy faces and hillsides. The song of the stream has come back, too. As you begin your descent down into the canyon, the gentle rush of the stream can be made out if it’s still and quiet, such as in the early evening. Owls and stream song mix with the cool, soft canyon breezes that make their way amongst the thickets of white alders and overarching oaks. The mild and sweet fragrance of flowering laurel bay is just around the next bend, most likely in just the next couple of weeks.
When you get up next to the stream, say somewhere between Roberts’ Camp and Fern Lodge, take a moment to notice how for the first time in several years, the stream finally received enough “push” to clean out some of that dark black organic mat that’s been concealing the light colored gravel and rocks. Such a great, hopeful thing. If we get into a pattern of storms with this forecasted El Nino, then watch more and more of the dark mat wash away, exposing ever more bright sand and banded rocks. Fallen limbs and tree trunks will be washed out of the way. Pools will deepen and the sounds will once, again, change; reverberating between the rocks and cliffs of not only the Big Santa Anita, but the Winter Creek, too. The canyon wrens have already begun their bright chirping songs, mixing amongst the watery spray of our tumbling mountain brook. California newts are making their eternal slow crawl up and away from the stream, often to be found along the Gabrielino and Lower Winter Creek trails. Seems like a good time for me, too, to make my slow crawl up along the streams of our beautiful canyons.
Rush Creek, Mt. Wilson, CA. On the first day of Winter, I ascended Rush Creek, a steep and deep canyon on Mt. Wilson’s north side. After spending the night at a completely unpeopled, chilly, yet peaceful DeVore Trail Camp, I went up upstream to West Fork Campground under steel gray skies. That day really felt like winter, not so much in
temps and winds, but in that flat gray light that’s such a part of our days in the canyons of the San Gabriels. Lots of alders and oaks have come down across the one and a half miles of the Gabrielino Trail that crosses and re-crosses the West Fork of the San Gabriel River between these two campgrounds. In many places, white alders seem to have broken mid way up their trunks, leaving behind shattered snags by the dozens. Oaks have laid down, too. Over and over, I kept on seeing the fresh, black carbon scars on the bases of trees from the Station fire of 2009. Dams of driftwood had piled up high across the stream here and there, yet the old West Fork meandered under and through, not seeming to care at all about these very temporary nuisances in the life of a river.
My feet were already damp from all the crossings by the time I arrived at West Fork campground. A few folks were camping here as I wandered over to the site of the first ranger station in California. Now only a 1950′s era Daughters of the American Revolution monument marks the place where Louis Newcomb hewed his ranger cabin back in 1900. You can still see the reassembled cabin at its’ relocated spot adjacent to the Chilao Visitor Center up Highway 2, not far from Newcomb’s Ranch.
Now the work was to begin…. Rush Creek joins the West Fork just to the east of the campground. Wet blackberry bushes, stinging nettles and thickets of young alders marked the beginning of the canyon. The elevation gain to the top of Mt. Wilson is close to 2,700′ in less than two miles of bouldering.
Rush Creek is true to its’ name! The stream fell rapidly over a myriad of small waterfalls and cascades, punctuated occasionally by a few yards of calm and gentle descent. The canyon bottom, like most in this part of the front country, was mostly narrow and fringed in mosses and ferns. It seemed that most of the rock surfaces were damp and slick, which added an ice-like slickness to my challenges. However, if you take your time carefully choosing your route up and around the small waterfalls and cascades, there’s no need for ropes or any climbing hardware. Just take your time, which is what I did.
A little better than half way up, I had to choose a canyon for my final route to the top of Mt. Wilson’s eastern end, not far from the 100” telescope dome. Eventually I chose a fork toward the left which turned out to work out fine. Like all x-country approaches to Mt. Wilson, the semblance of a canyon soon morphs into sandy, steep slopes pocked with rock outcrops and exposed tree roots which are great for hand holds at times. It took from about 9:40 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to make the trip between the mouth of the canyon to the top. It was both exhausting and exhilarating, with grand views out toward Twin Peaks and Mt. Waterman in the back country. The flat, gray wintery light filled me with thoughts of past Christmas-time hikes and those who I had shared them with. Here and there in the shadows, amongst the towering Big Cone Spruce, incense cedars and sugar pines, memories of my brother Nick kept following me up Rush Creek. At one point earlier in the day, along the West Fork between DeVore and West Fork Camp, I saw the spot where he and I had been hiking one autumn years ago and had stopped for a photo in the fallen maple leaves. I could still see him leaning against a scraggly tree in his relaxed lean, pack still on. Nick passed away last January 9th from complications of chronic kidney disease. He’s a couple of years younger than me, which on a number of levels has made his early passing even harder to bear. Somehow this canyon had become the place, so late in the year, with her peaceful greens and grays, which allowed me images of my brother, thoughts of him, to flow quietly through my being. A calm healing had been seeping into me throughout the ascent of Rush Creek, one like I had not experienced until now.
This thought kept tumbling through my head, “our time here on this earth is brief under the best of circumstances.” Just keep on climbing and you’ll be at the summit and so will he. So, the rest of my ascent had become a pattern of short scrambles, searching for stable footholds, letting my heartbeat slow down and starting, again.
Eventually I topped out into a forest of scrub oaks, following a gentle ridge to a lonesome picnic table along the Rim Trail. My eyes were damp. Like most of my x-country hikes, I found myself wondering where this canyon had been all my life. Soon, my soaked shirt had begun to turn to chill, so I changed into a dry top, had a little cheese and pita bread sandwich and kept on walking in the dimming light.
The return back to the little cabin in the Big Santa Anita was by way of the superbly scenic Rim Trail which parallels the ridge dividing the watersheds of the West Fork of the San Gabriel and the upper Big Santa Anita Canyon. The distance from Mt. Wilson to Newcomb Pass is a relaxing descent of 3 1/2 miles if you take this route back toward Chantry Flats. The sunset was stunning and soon I had the
flashlight out for the rest of the trip back to Fern Lodge in the Big Santa Anita Canyon. Soon I began to pick up the pace, trying to beat the impending darkness. A calm peace ran through my bones as I headed toward Newcomb Pass and then down toward Sturtevant’s Camp. You know, the fantastic way you feel when you’ve gotten in miles and miles of canyons and ridge tops, before you arrive where you can take off your boots and stay awhile. My old friend Bohdan greeted me in the dark near Falling Sign Junction and we hiked together back to Joanie and the warm, lit cabin with dinner on the stove. This day was more than good.
The Pacific storm that rolled in late last week brought much needed rain to the Big Santa Anita Canyon and the rest of the San Gabriel mountains. Along with the rain came high winds that raked canyons and ridge tops, blowing down lots of drought stressed trees. My wife and I were hiking in this last Friday evening when we stumbled across five fallen alders, all parallel to one another and completely blocking the trail. The location is the stream side wide spot of the Gabrielino Trail between Roberts’ Camp and Fern Lodge Junction, right where the dirt road ends at cabin#26.
All the hiking trails that radiate out of Chantry Flats are for the most part maintained by volunteers, with the exception of the occasional U.S. Forest Service fire crew. These trees were cut out of the way by local cabin owners and Forest Service volunteers. Hopefully, more storms are on their way. We received 2.78″ of rain at Fern Lodge, bringing the canyon up to nearly 6 inches of rain for December.
We received nearly an inch of much-needed rain on Halloween in our parched Big Santa Anita Canyon and Winter Creek. Yet, it didn’t really do much to increase the Big Santa Anita Canyon creek flow. To date, it’s been rainless for all of November, yet the autumn beauty is as good as about any year. Poison oak has been reddening for months and the Big Leaf Canyon maples have been gradually changing color. Yellows and golds abound in many of the tree canopies as well as fallen leaves on boulders, slopes and in the stream beds. The scent of leaves and damp soils is really noticeable right now, especially right along the streams. Crickets chirp throughout the day in many of the shadowy pockets to be found along the hiking trails. With the sun dropping so far to the south on these shortening days, the light is angled to the point that perpetual shade can be found along the north and east facing slopes of the canyons. The days are so short now, many of us find ourselves hiking the last couple of miles back out to the trailhead in the dark.
Another trait one might notice is the slight increase in the Big Santa Anita Canyon creek flow. Despite no real precipitation to speak of since the end of October, there’s this phenomenon that takes place throughout much of the southern and central California canyons. With the leaves falling from so many of the white alders and maples that grow along the canyon stream courses, these trees have nearly stopped transpiring moisture into the atmosphere. They’re dormancy has begun and water that would have been drawn up through the roots is continuing to stay in the streams. This really gives you an idea
of how much water it takes to sustain these deciduous trees. So, even with out the rain, there’s now just a bit more stream sound than a couple of weeks ago. What a great time to get out for a hike and take in the beauty and peace of our San Gabriel mountains.
Three years in a row of sub-normal precipitation has taken its’ toll on the Big Santa Anita Creek throughout the canyon as well as the entire Angeles National Forest. Plants and animals throughout the San Gabriels are feeling the impact. Big Santa Anita Canyon’s stream is now running underground in many places where in years past you might have seen and heard water flowing in even the hottest months. Sturtevant Falls is just a trickle. It’s magnificent plunge pool reduced to just a stagnant little puddle in the glaring mid-day sunlight. What little water that makes its’ tumbling way down the 55′ high rock face sounds little better than a half-flowing garden hose placed up at the top followed by a slap, slap, slapping broken chorus of wet. Once tumultuous, cool pools are now fringed with dead mosses and algae.
Vast stretches of white sands are mixed with the black pieces of muddy organic deposits that settled in like the bottom of a still and quiet lake. You can see this as you make your way down along the Big Santa Anita Creek on the Hermit Falls trail between Roberts’ Camp and First Water. Check out these dry, flat and pungent stream bed crossings that once had swimming fish and the flotsam of countless water striders on peaceful waters. The mexican quick weed, seemingly immune to these endless hot days of dryness, fringe these once wet spaces and in places are glade-like, blocking your view of the ground. Suddenly, the air lifts the pungent scent of dried out plant and animal life, filling your senses in a way that leave the words out of your thoughts. Our common organic connection, constant and everlasting. I’m reminded of an ancient past that was never handed down to me through the pastels of words. Haunted and somehow led back toward home – in a good and kind sort of way.
Yet, like everything we and this old earth go through, it will come to pass away. Drought is a familiar visitor in these steep, deep canyons. A new winter will come with its’ fulfilled promises of rain and life. The sound of tumbling waters and the staccato call of canyon wrens will bounce back off the ancient rocky walls of the canyons, again. Once, again, if you miss that jump across the creek, your boots and socks will be soaked. The glance between you and the hidden trout will happen once more. It will happen to you. The seasons go round and round.