Ascending Rush Creek, Mt. Wilson, CA

Posted on December 31, 2014 – Written by Chris Kasten

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

Here’s a detail of Rush Creek, which I ascended from West Fork Campground to Mt. Wilson.

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.

West Fork of the San Gabriel River. View is looking upstream toward West Fork Campground.

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.

Lower Rush Creek is slow-going. Here the stream’s choked with fallen alders and berry bushes.

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.

Water falling through a slot about half way up Rush Creek.

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.

Peering out at Twin Peaks from upper Rush Creek. Here the forest is lush, green and healthy.

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.

Rattlesnakes Have Woken Up in the Winter Creek!

Posted on May 9, 2014 – Written by Chris Kasten

While out hiking, keep your eyes open for rattlesnakes.  Rattlesnakes have woken up in the Winter Creek, as well as in other canyons around Chantry Flats.   As the spring days continue to lengthen and temperatures rise, reptiles of all kinds are coming out of their seasonal slumber. From subterranean dens to sun bathed rocky hillsides and canyon bottoms, these creatures are back among the mammals, birds, insects and fish.

I encountered this Southern Pacific rattlesnake (crotalus helleri) while out on the Lower Winter Creek Trail this last Saturday.  Rattlesnakes are naturally secretive and will avoid human encounters if given the chance.  They are good mousers, helping to keep the rodent population at a tolerable level.  Like all living creatures, they need to be respected and protected from harm.  The creature in this photo had just signaled her alarm, giving me a quick wake-up to give some distance.  This is one reason why it’s a good idea to not have ear-buds in your ears while hiking or running, drowning out nature’s communications.

November is the Month to See Autumn Splendor While Hiking at Chantry Flats

Posted on November 23, 2013 – Written by Chris Kasten

This picture was taken while crossing Big Santa Anita’s creek in the Fern Lodge area, about a mile and a half in from Chantry Flats.  It was dusk when I looked down and saw this partially submerged collage of maple and alder leaves which seemed to radiate their own light back up to me.  While very little rain has fallen in the last two years in Southern California, the streams in the front country of the San Gabriels continue to display an annual phenomenon that is often not perceived upon first glance.  The water level actually begins to come back up a little bit as the deciduous trees drop their leaves.  Sturtevant Falls seems to be flowing with a little more gusto the last couple of weeks.  Hundreds of stream-side trees have began to use less water for metabolic processes as they go into their season of dormancy.  Once the leaves have fallen, transpiration (leaf respiration) becomes just about nonexistent, leaving more surface water in the streams.  No rain is required to bring the stream level up a bit,  just the advance of autumn!

The deciduous trees in the Big Santa Anita Canyon are primarily Big Leaf Canyon Maples and White Alders, which can be seen all along the streams, gracing the canyon with their intermingling shades of green and coolness.  By late November, early December, most of the leaves have fallen.  The dark to light gray maple trunks still gently reach out and up with their bare limbs, surrounded by open light, while the alders’ straight and narrow trunks reach way up for what little light they’ll receive during these shortening days of early winter.  In fact, late in the day as you’re hiking along streams, the light colored alder trunks seem to linger the longest before finally fading into the darkening background of the canyon bottom.

Soon the much awaited rains and snows will make their arrival, fixing all the fallen leaves onto the damp ground in an earthy mosaic.  The scent of decomposing organics making new soil will be sweet and clean, somehow waking and energizing  something  deep in all of us.  Just maybe Mt. Wilson isn’t so far to go after all …

Chantry Flats Trails Lead to Sacred Places – Be Gentle On The Land…

Posted on August 10, 2012 – Written by Chris Kasten

Chances are that if you’re braving the parking up at Chantry or anywhere along the road, you’re hoping the trail that you pick will lead you to unblemished natural beauty.   Perhaps you’re even looking for some much needed solitude from the busyness that engulfs most of our lives.  The choice of natural environments that can be found on the Upper Winter Creek, Gabrielino, First Water, Upper Falls or Mt. Zion trails are close at hand.   One minute you can be in oak woodland, then out in the chaparral and only moments later be resting along a white alder tree in the riparian environment along the stream.  It seems that ever since the Station Fire of 2009, hundreds of hikers and mountain bikers who formerly spent their outdoor time in places like the Arroyo Seco, Big Tujunga, Mt. Gleason, the West Fork of the San Gabriel River or Charlton Flats to name a few – have now discovered the enchanting beauty of the Big Santa Anita Canyon.

Another source of the population increase in and around Chantry Flats is the internet.  Scores of people have discovered the YouTube video postings of people cliff jumping at Hermit Falls and on social media sites such as FaceBook and Twitter.  This, of course, does not even include some of the rating sites such as Yelp!

Plainly put, the Big Santa Anita and Winter Creek canyons are beginning to show the scars of all the different types of visitors.  Just visit Hermit Falls and you’ll see a beautiful set of  plunge pools set in polished granite.  Mixed in with this scene are piles of garbage strewn down hillsides.  Graffiti is <marring the once pristine granite surfaces of boulders and cliff faces.  Trees are carved into as well.

Just last week I was down at Hermit Falls and it seemed to me that the human impact had actually gotten worse than the previous month of July.  The garbage that’s left behind consists primarily of plastic water bottles (the new litter of our time), cigarette packs, empty cans of cheap, mass-produced beer, various items of clothing covered with shit, toilet paper, human shit… and I’m saving the best for last.  Disposable baby diapers with a gift wrapped inside….  It is beyond appalling what people will leave behind.

If you happen to be on your way to Sturtevant Falls, don’t be surprised by the recent rash of colorful dog poop bags left along side the trail.  Of course, the owners of the dogs were halfway there in doing the right thing…  Yet, they didn’t want to carry their dog’s poop to the next trash can – so they left behind the little gift for someone else to deal with.  What are they thinking?  Yes, I get it, there’s the “poop police” waiting just around the corner to deal with the transport issue.  Yeah, that’s it!  On hot days when the sun is hitting these bags, their contents begin to cook and the resultant fumes inflate these bags the way a hot air balloon would fill up.  Lovely.

Last but not least, let’s not forget the garbage that some campers have left behind at Hoegees and Spruce Grove.  If the transgressor is really shy, he or she will just wait til no one is watching and throw their garbage into one of the pit toilets.   Last week I found four 13 gallon size bags of garbage stacked alongside one of the outhouses at Hoegees Campground.  Again, the attitude seems to be that someone else will deal with my mess.  I find this so sad that these types of habits are continuing to spoil our sacred spaces.

So, to put all this into perspective, it’s essential to believe -and- know that the vast majority of people who love our mountains are not part of this irresponsible and disconnected percentage doing the damage.  People are out in the canyon much of the time picking up someone else’s trash or doing their best to eradicate graffiti.  There is so much more care than there is harm.  The glass really is half full !   The earth’s soul is our soul.  When we’re gentle on the land, we’re nurturing our own soul.  Really.

Today, may I remind myself, that there’s the possibility our urban culture will continue to become more caring of the land.  That the health of the land is an indicator of the health within ourselves, or lack of it…    That I continue to grow and model myself as a steward of these sacred places.  That I gently encourage others to love this land.  That you and I heal as these canyons return to health.  Amen.

Mule Deer on Chantry Road

Posted on August 2, 2012 – Written by Chris Kasten

The accompanying photo was snapped from our car at the second hairpin turn up from the beginning of the Chantry Road.  These are mule deer, named for their unusually large ears.  Mule deer are often quite prevalent along the lower stretches of the road and can also be a routine challenge for homeowners’ plantings in the foothill areas of the San Gabriel mountains.  Mule deer can often be seen browsing on the deliciously, delicate flowers and tender grasses in the landscaped yards of homes in the Highland Oaks area of Arcadia and, of course,  Sierra Madre.

This doe and her young occasionally travel up and down the actual drive lanes of this narrow, windy road.  So, take your time driving up to the trailhead and keep an eye out for deer darting out in front of your car, especially during the early morning and evening hours.  

California Black Bears Coming Further Downslope For Water, Big Santa Anita Canyon is Getting Dry

Posted on August 1, 2012 – Written by Chris Kasten

The San Gabriel mountains provide habitat for black bears (Ursus americanus californiensis) throughout the year.  The accompanying photo was taken through the screen door of a cabin at Fern Lodge just before dark.  These elusive animals are seldom seen along the trails that radiate out from Chantry Flats.  As a rule, bears will avoid contact with humans if given the chance.  However, in the aftermath of a light winter, streams in many of the smaller side canyons are now drying up.  This causes much wildlife, including bears, to drop down to lower elevations in search of water.  The Big Santa Anita and Winter Creek flow throughout the driest months (September-October-November), becoming the primary source of drinking water for all creatures.

Bears are omnivorous, seeking both plants, insects (grubs and ants) and occasionally small game for food.  Right now, their scat can be seen alongside the hiking trails.  One of the black bear’s mainstays is manzanita berries, which can be seen abundantly throughout their scat.

Black bears although shy, are very powerful.  They are tree climbers and can quickly scale the steepest hillsides if necessary.   On the descent, they’re a bit slower and clumsy.  As for shelter, bears den in naturally occurring voids of rock and soil.   Winter conditions in the San Gabriel mountains are quite mild in contrast to other North American mountain ranges, so deep hibernation is not a part of the local black bear’s lifecycle as it might be further north.  Therefore, it’s possible to see a bear any month of the year!

There was a time once when another species of bear roamed the San Gabriels.  This was the Grizzly, (Ursus arctos horribilis) now extinct throughout California.  Grizzly bears were known to many backcountry travelers of the 19th century as X bears, due to the hourglass shape of lighter colored fur on their backs.  When the grizzly bear was aggravated, the light colored fur would stand straight up, sort of the way that dogs do when upset.  You can read more about this time of grizzly bears roaming the San Gabriels in John W. Robinson’s “The San Gabriels, Southern California Mountain Country.”

If you are fortunate enough to see a bear in the Big Santa Anita Canyon or Winter Creek, keep your distance and calmness.  Should one approach you, stand tall and hold your ground.  Clap your hands together and yell as loud as you can to scare it off.  Chances are he or she just didn’t see you until your closing distance narrowed way down.  Although a bear’s eyesight is not terribly keen, its’ sense of smell is acute.  While camping up at Spruce Grove or Hoegees campgrounds, hang your food well out on a tree limb at night.   Generally, try to keep your food bag at least 8′ up from the ground and 8′ out from the main trunk of the tree.  A bear-proof food storage canister is really the best way to go and a lot easier than finding the perfect tree.    Keep your campsite clean and wash your dishes well.  No food should ever be stored inside your tent!  Remember, bears are afraid of humans, yet will do just about ANYTHING for food.