Vincent Gap trailhead is once, again, open to vehicles coming in through Wrightwood. Highway 2 continues to be gated to any driving west of the trailhead. If you’re looking to hike up to Mt. Baden Powell or drop down into the East Fork, all this is possible now and through the summer and autumn months.
Late winter through spring is a really good time to hike up to Mt. Wilson. Even as Chantry Flat in the Big Santa Anita Canyon continues to heal from the Bobcat Fire of 2020, don’t feel like there’s no good way up to Mt. Wilson. If you’ve never done it, hiking up the Old Mount Wilson Trail from scenic Sierra Madre, is not a bad way to go. The canyon you’ll travel through on your way up toward Manzanita Ridge is known as the Little Santa Anita Canyon. This is the original way up to “Wilson’s Peak”, named after Don Benito Wilson. The trail dates back to the 1860’s
Manzanita Ridge, sections of it quite true to its’ name, makes up the watershed divide between the Winter Creek (to the north) and Little Santa Anita Canyon on the south. Following the ridge line up toward the Old Mount Wilson Toll Road, views out into the High Country of the San Gabriels abound. Once up on the Toll Road, you’ll continue to walk along refrigerator-sized boulders that have dropped off the near vertical slopes of Mt. Harvard.
Once you reach Martin’s Saddle, the site of a once popular trail resort of the late 19th Century, views out toward the west are to be had. You’re now contouring the slopes of Upper Eaton Canyon, a beautifully rugged wilderness in its’ own right. Looking out across the steep and deep tributary canyons, there is from left to right, Mt. Lowe, Mt. Markham (flat-topped) and San Gabriel Peak. When the air is clear, this scene is spectacular.
Once up at the top, I found a picnic bench in the open air pavilion and soaked in the sunlight for sometime before heading back down. The Pacific reflected back at me like an amber platter just to the north of the Palos Verdes peninsula. What a beautiful place to be hiking. what a beautiful place to be alive.
Hike Mount Baldy to Wrightwood via the North Backbone Trail. This trip takes you from south to north, traversing the San Gabriel mountains eastern high country. The terrain is high and dry, passing amongst wind bent pines, colorful outcroppings of rock, and views in all directions while taking you through stunning alpine scenery.
Total Distance = Approx. 12 miles one way
Initial Elevation Gain = 3,900′ the first 4 miles to Mt Baldy. Once on the North Backbone trail, which’ll take off northward at the 10,064′ summit, there is an initial 1,300′ of steep descent down to the first saddle. Next there’s 900′ of climb to Dawson Peak followed by 400′ of drop to the next saddle. Finally there’s a brief climb of 450′ to the gentle summit of Pine Mountain. Now and finally, there’s a good 1,400′ drop down to the last little saddle before climbing up a couple hundred yards to the end of the North Backbone trail. In another 1 1/2 miles of level trail walking you’ll reach the upper end of the Acorn Trail where there will be 1,600′ of drop into Wrightwood. Over the length of this hike your total Gain will be 5,250′ and the total DROP will be 4,700′.
Map to take: Tom Harrison’s “ANGELES High Country” map, 2018. Nothing against map apps, I just happen to really like having a physical map as well as bringing an orienteering compass, too.
This last Monday, my wife and I drove around to San Antonio Canyon above Upland, from our home in Wrightwood. I’d been thinking about hiking up Mt. Baldy from the U.S. Forest Service Manker Flat campground and had been kicking this idea around for about a week. As some days went by, got to thinking that it’d be really nice to just keep on hiking from Baldy’s summit to Wrightwood via the North Backbone trail. Easy, speasy.
All of this area, including the North Backbone trail, I had hiked years earlier, meaning in some cases, some decades ago… It all seemed so easy in my head and being that it was only going to be a day hike, there wouldn’t be a heavy pack to lug up and down the ridge tops. That’s it, a cinch! I’m now pushing 59 years and still hiking, yet there’s no denying that the hikes take a wee bit longer and the recovery the day after is longer . Yeah. Well, as things turned out, we got started a bit later than planned, meaning like almost 11:00 a.m. Nonetheless, it ended up being a great day to hike! My wife was going to drop me off at the Manker Flat trailhead and we’d meet up later in Wrightwood.
I’d wanted to show Joanie San Antonio Falls, which she’d never seen before, and peer down at some of the little cabins hidden along the little creek. This meant walking the gated fire road, which is unfortunately paved, up to its’ first switchback at the base of the falls. It can be sort of hot and exposed, like it was the day we went. Still it was worth seeing the Falls. We said our goodbyes out under the bright blue sky and off I climbed up the fire road which had now become dirt. It’d be some ten hours before we’d meet up, again, on the other side of the range in Wrightwood.
The turn off for the Baldy Bowl trail came up quickly on my left. That’s where the work began. Two things that came to mind and became readily apparent in no time at all was: 1. How much steeper the trail was than I had remembered it and 2. Just how big Mt. Baldy really is, no matter which way you go up it. It’s really a tall, broad mountain, especially by Southern California standards. Throughout the climb, despite the frequent standing up rests to slow the heart down and catch my breath, it was absolutely beautiful looking out over rugged San Antonio canyon. The trail climbs quickly up through oaks, mountain mahogany, manzanita and of course, shading pines and white fir. Just before reaching the Baldy Bowl, named by early x-country skiers in the early 20th century, you pass under the Sierra Club’s ski hut. Available to overnight stays by reservation only, this place is meticulously maintained and obviously loved by the membership. No one was there that day and I just kept hiking along, grateful for the icy cold stream that lay just moments ahead. There are strips of meadow flowers hugging the stream banks both below and above the trail. Flowers and willows crowded together along the tumbling, silver thread of water. The section where the trail crosses through the bowl is a complex of boulders, many the size of small cabins. It’s slow going and requires taking your time to read the trail, watching for clues as to where to meander next. Constantly, there was this sense that I was in the Sierras, and yet, somehow this San Gabriel mountains scenery felt, looked and even had that scent of Sierra rock and pine. All too soon, the trail leaves the Bowl and begins to switchback up through Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines. Soon the lodgepole pines began to make their presence and so did someone else.
It had been years since seeing a bighorn sheep. Like always, it was never my eyes that would detect these elusive creatures. The sound of a few pebbles breaking loose from the hillside caught my attention and there she was! A few minutes later, another ewe peered at me from behind a fallen tree. She and her lamb were grazing on about a 45 degree slope on the edge of the Bowl. A double gift for sure. Occasionally I’d stop at the end of a switchback and take in the changing view of the ridge line (Devil’s Backbone) coming in from Baldy Notch. By now I’d reached the broad ridge top defining the west side of Baldy Bowl, the immense scale of the smooth talus slope dropping steeply off the south side of the summit had become apparent. The trees, pretty much all lodgepole, were twisted and sculpted by the centuries of storms blowing in off the Pacific.
One thing that really caught my eye along the whole route were the really well made and maintained trail signs. Not only are there good directional signs along the way, there are even square steel posts with reflective tape on them, often giving you a good sense of where the trail would be should it be dark or there be a mantle of snow on the ground. This trail has really been well thought out. Another detail that became subtly apparent after some time was the lack of litter. My route was especially pristine and free of trash. There’s definitely a sense of stewardship going on up here. I hadn’t brought a watch, so never did determine just when I summited. That was purposeful and there was this wonderful relief at not having to know. Probably at least several hours had elapsed before making it to the top. There were probably no more than a dozen people sharing the trail up to the top that day. Really peaceful. Found a spot near the summit marker (elev. 10,064′) to sit down on my tired haunches, looking out to the north and down into the Fish Fork.
While taking in the view, a fit 30 something man with a solid build and neatly cropped red beard approached, asking if he wasn’t spoiling my solitude. Of course not! Pull up a boulder and sit down. Pretty soon I learned where he’d been, as his IPA cracked open and quickly vanished. Sam had started out at the Heaton Flat trailhead way down in the East Fork before heading up to Iron Mountain, one of the most isolated and difficult peaks to reach. From there, he worked his way across West San Antonio Ridge to the summit of West Mt. Baldy. From here, he’d drop down to Manker Flat and find his hidden mountain bike and take that back to his car by pedaling over the Glendora Mountain Ridge Road! That’s the caliber of company you can sometimes run into on higher peaks… Soon I was off and heading down the North Backbone Trail toward Blue Ridge and Wrightwood beyond. Gotta tell you, taking trekking poles was one of my best moves of the day. The descent was extremely steep down to the first saddle north of Mt. Baldy. Spots where I definitely would have slipped just from fatigue, were pretty easily walked down with the aid of the poles. This is a trip where you’d be glad to have a set of them.
The climb up to Dawson Peak went well. There’s lots of rabbitbrush along the way. The trail weaved in and out of the thick yellow blossoms, giving the late afternoon light a feeling of autumn. Mountain mahogany and twisted rock outcroppings kept things interesting as well. There was a great view down toward the Cajon Pass with commuters making their sluggish drive back toward the desert. A freight train could be seen climbing the serpentine railroad tracks as well, tiny in comparison to the arid landscape. All this activity was silent, visible, yes, yet no sound whatsoever. To my left, grand scenes of the Fish Fork and Mount Baden Powell, continued to dominate my senses. A refreshing and constant breeze out of the west kept me cooled down. Once on top of Dawson (elev. 9,575′), I signed the summit register and continued on down a gentle descent through sun – polished plates of schist. Talus, I suppose. Beautiful stuff that sounded like ceramic dinner plates clunking together under my boots at times. There were even these beautiful, hidden, forested and shaded flats just below the trail at times, spots that would make for a perfect campsite. Untouched. Just before reaching the saddle between Dawson and Pine Mountain, I saw the old and seemingly untrammeled Fish Fork Trail coming in from my left.
There’s even an old graying wooden sign indicating the way down. I’ve always wanted to follow this trail which drops down to Fish Fork trail camp, probably one of the most isolated haunts in our range. That old feeling came back somewhat suddenly, mixed with wonder at how good things still are in the backcountry here. Pristine. And since it’s hard to get to, at least for me, nothing’s trashed. A constant truth throughout the ages. Thank God. Amen.
Soon I was climbing yet, again. This time it was up to Pine Mountain (9,648′). Weaving amongst more pines and mountain mahogany, the sun continued to drop further and further down across the mountains, casting longer and longer shadows in the gentle wind. Up on top, the summit register of nested red cans was easily found in a cairn of rocks. The desire to linger here awhile longer was resisted by the nagging feeling to at least get to Blue Ridge and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) before it got dark. So, reluctantly, off I dragged my now tired self down a gentle slope amongst a thick forest of lodgepole pine. The deepening pools of shade penetrated the forest in a way that reminded me of being a little boy, maybe six or seven, running through the giant sequoias where our family used to camp every summer in a tent cabin. I missed people that I hadn’t thought about in awhile. They all came back for a bit and I reveled in this.
After a short while, the ridge top timber all but left, becoming a sharp edged knife of rock, bathed in orange golden sunlight. Take your time here, Chris, something kept gently telling me. I was tired and starting to get sloppy, not quite so nimble as hours earlier. Eventually the ridge got easier and right before sun had set below the horizon, a beam of that gold light struck some dangling cones hanging from an ancient sugar pine. This hike kept getting more and more gorgeous, nostalgic in a way. In the graying light, I made a last little climb up to the dirt road (East Blue Ridge recreation road) to the northern terminus of the North Backbone Trail.
I scurried up the slope behind the road, following a scratch trail that led to the PCT. Turning left (west) and continuing at a pretty fast clip, I arrived at a spot just to the west of the large slide above Wrightwood. The lights of homes were now twinkling in the early evening darkness. Time to get the flashlight out. I continued on in the dark, amongst and under the tall white fir and pines. Still no one around. Perfect. Here and there you could make out the silhouette of Pine Mountain to the south. A short time later was the turn-off for the Acorn Trail, which would descend about 1,600′ feet down into upper Wrightwood. Up here, it was possible to reach Joanie by radio, and yes, you guessed it…. Without a bit of shame, I took the ride back to our home in the little red Honda while Joanie told me about her day. Why the hell not? Who wants to walk on pavement I say to myself. That ride was heaven on earth. And so there you have it, it’s possible to walk across the highest point in the San Gabriels in a day! The next day my thighs felt entirely spent while walking on the little stone paths around our yard. And yet, looking back on it all, such as all good hikes, it was definitely worth it.
Attached are two photos taken of Big Santa Anita Canyon in the aftermath of the Bobcat Fire. There’s a third photo here, too. It is of the flames dropping into the upper Big Santa Anita Canyon during the fire’s early stages of development. The first photo was taken a couple of days ago. Here you’re looking up the canyon from a point near the trailhead at Chantry Flats. The second photo was taken by Larry Webster of Mt. Wilson just a day ago. The view is from the east end of the summit looking down toward Sturtevant Camp. Note the smoke still curling up from either the camp or adjacent to it. It’s still too early to know what the damage actually was to the camp or the nearly eighty private cabins up and down the Big Santa Anita Canyon and Winter Creek. Updates to follow as they come in.
This photo was taken before the Bobcat Fire reached Mt. Wilson. Sturtevant Camp’s heliport is marked by the small red arrow. Coincidentally, the camp itself, is located at the bottom, or start, of the arrow’s shaft.
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!
source: Wikipedia, Western Fence lizards
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.