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.
Yesterday, I headed up Heath Creek and got a quick snowshoe in to the upper gate. Only went about a mile up from Thrush Rd. However, it’s about 460′ of gain. It’s been so long since we’ve had this kind of snow. Forgot how much of a chug it would be with snowshoes on – ha! Good times.
Elevation Gain / Loss:
From the lower gate (just above Thrush Rd.) to upper gate = 460′. The elevation on Thrush Rd. at spot where you walk up the beginning of levee road is 5,840′. This gain takes place in approximately one mile along the levee road located on west side of Heath Creek. Elevation of upper gate is 6,300′.
If you have time, keep on going past the upper gate. Soon you’ll encounter some sawn log benches placed in a square configuration. Keep going further up along the stream bed on the old, steeply rutted jeep road which is in places barely a trace. It’s steeper going now than it was on the levee road between the two gates.
From upper gate to top end of old jeep road (abandoned) =400′. The top end of old road is where two canyons come together. There’s a forested canyon on the left side and small stream running between jagged walls on the right. The elevation here is 6,700′. Look for the little framework of limbs that have been lashed to some upright hand-hewn cedar poles.
Last Wednesday, my wife Joanie and I headed west for 33 miles on Highway 2 from our home in Wrightwood to Chilao. Also known as Chilao Flat, this gently rolling terrain of forest trees is located about midway between La Canada and Wrightwood on the scenic and diverse Angeles Crest Highway 2. Chilao has a U.S. Forest Service fire station that is home to the Chilao Hot Shot firefighters. There is a beautiful visitor center staffed by volunteers (usually open on the weekends) along with the carefully relocated and restored West Fork Guard Station built by the turn-of-the-century ranger Louis Newcomb in 1900. There are scores of places to car camp, both for groups as well as individual campsites available on a “first come – first serve” basis. Many of the campsites, such as those of the Little Pines Loop, have piped water as well. If you’re looking for a place to have a meal, a cold beer or just to rub elbows with lots, and I mean lots of motorcycle riders and sports cars owners, make sure to stop at Newcomb’s Ranch Inn, just a few hundred yards up Highway 2 from the upper Chilao entrance. The experience is the opposite of hiking, yet worth experiencing if you have the time.
Joanie and I had come to Chilao to hike a small section of the Silver Moccasin Trail. We parked about 3/4 of a mile down the quiet paved lane from the visitor center at a point where the trail crosses the road. In the sun, it was pretty hot, yet under the canopies of the tall incense cedars, Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, a gentle breeze kept us cool and comfortable. We decided to head south, toward the Little Pines Campground Loop about a mile away. Our friend Kevin, the ranger at Chantry Flats had written us the good news that there was still water at Little Pines, a fact that would make things extremely convenient for a backpack trip I was about to go on with a couple of friends in mid September. We’re going to be hiking from Sierra Madre to Wrightwood, with much of the route on the Silver Moccasin (established in 1942 by the Boy Scouts of America) and also the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) over the course of six days. Little Pines will be the second night out on the trail. This time of year, there are days on the hike where you can expect up to ten miles between any water at all. Joanie and I wanted to see how the trail approached and left the campground. Also, it was just a great excuse for hiking through the gently sloping and forested terrain of Chilao Flat in the middle of the
San Gabriel mountains.
We immediately crossed the sandy wash of Chilao Creek wading our way through wild grasses, following the trail through glades of pine, cedar and sage. Eventually, we climbed up a small draw in the hillside, passing under Big Cone Spruce and alongside remnant burned trees from the 2009 Station Fire. We made our way up and over a ridge top that was baking out in the sun. Hills in the distance still held onto the upright skeletons of burned out pines and spruce from that enormous conflagration from nine years ago. In the distance it still looked bleak. Poodle dog bush and other chaparral plants filled in the rest of the scenery under the relentless August sunshine. Soon we made our way down another draw and into the pine covered coolness just outside Little Pines Campground. We found a spigot out in the hot sun, still attached to a burned post at one of the campsites. I turned the handle and the blessed liquid gold poured forth. Beyond good.
Shade was the thing we needed right now! After a quick look at some of the campsites, we found a spot out from the sun, eating and drinking while sitting on wood chip covered ground. We walked back the way we had come. The air was quiet and peppered with the scent of pines, cedar and sage. Peace and tranquility reigned. Once, again, the mountains had delivered.
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.
Now that it’s May and the days have started to warm up and lengthen, consider walking the Lightning Ridge Nature Trail. It’s up 7,300′ on the spine of the San Gabriel mountains. This is high country with fabulous views in all directions. A short drive west of Wrightwood, approximately 5 miles, takes you to the trailhead just across Hwy. 2 (Angeles Crest Highway) from Inspiration Point.
The trailhead is on the north side of Hwy. 2 in a wide turnout next to a backdrop of willows and shrubs. There’s a red metal picnic table there as well. Find your way through the little brushy opening and you’ll see a PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) signpost marking the trail to your left. You’ll take the trail directly in front of you, contouring the gentle slope. Sometimes you’ll find leaflets in the covered metal box at the trail’s beginning that describe the flora along the way. Whether you find them or not, there’s plenty to ponder and take in without knowing the names of all the plants along the way. This loop trail is only a bit over half a mile in length, climbs about a hundred feet from the start and perfect for all ages and abilities. The Lightning Ridge Nature Trail travels underneath mature Jeffrey pines and black oaks, at times switchbacking amongst whitethorn chaparral (buckthorn) and even ascending the slope by means of steps made of landscape timbers. Over the years, our family has often used these steps as little seats to look out over the nearby desert with its’ ever-changing palette of color and shadow. One of the unique qualities of this loop trail is the constant grand views of the Mojave Desert to the north, Mount Baden-Powell toward the west, the open canyon country of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River to the south and, of course, Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Old Baldy to the east.
As the trail circles back in on itself and joins the PCT for the return, take a little time to rest on the overlook bench, taking in the fine views of canyons and peaks. Much of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness area is directly out front of you from this ridge top perch. One of the range’s most isolated and challenging peaks, Iron Mountain (elevation 8,008′), can be seen straight out to the south at the end of lonesome West San Antonio Ridge, which comes off of Mt. Baldy to it’s right (west). Iron Mountain’s nipple shaped summit is easy to identify from this vantage point. When you’re ready, return back to the beginning by way of the PCT. You’ll pass by fallen giant tree trunks, bleached smooth by the high elevation sun and wind. A great trail to experience at sunset!
Just went up to the Big Pines Nature Trail last week. It was late in the day and thick, gold light was drifting down through the pines and slopes. Located just three miles west of Wrightwood, this is a convenient spot to walk a gentle, half-mile loop up amongst some
really large pines along with fine views of thickly forested Blue Ridge. The trail starts next to the old Big Pines Lodge. Look for a little parking lot on the north side of Highway 2, just before passing the old Big Pines Lodge. You start your loop hike by walking up a flight of beautiful stone stairs built back when Big Pines was developed as the jewel of the Los Angeles County parks. These stairs were tread upon by visitors to this mountain wonderland of four seasons. Not only was there a lodge here for dances, movies, plays and replete with fireplaces, but there were housekeeping cabins, a place to dine, sled runs, ice skating, camping, swimming and even a little zoo. Back then, the Angeles Crest Highway had not yet been finished, so one drove here from
the desert side on County Route
N4 or up from Cajon Canyon by way of Lone Pine Canyon Road through Wrightwood. No freeways. The San Gabriel Mountains have always held an allure for people seeking beauty and peace. It’s no different today, and although the times and works of man pass slowly by, the beauty of these mountains remains. An easy walk for all ages, this self-guided nature trail does about a hundred feet of gain in just over a half mile before returning back down to its’ beginning. There are signs along the path that point out the native plants along the way. The slope you travel is south-facing and receives good light
and even in the winter and early spring can still be comfortably warm while snow still clings to the north slopes of Blue Ridge. Because of this slope’s southerly aspect, you’ll find sun loving plants such as Yerba Santa, Parry’s Manzanita and Fremontia (flannel bush) to name a few. Yet, you’ll still enjoy the welcome shade of Ponderosa, Jeffrey pine and leafy black oaks (Kellogg). There are some good spots to sit down and rest awhile and think about nothing. Upon your return, don’t forget to poke your head into the door of the visitor center, located on far right side of the porch of the old Big Pines Lodge. Presently, the center is staffed by the U.S. Forest Service Friday through Tuesday, providing information on local places to visit and hike.
It’s already far enough into the Spring to do the Blue Ridge Trail hike in Wrightwood, CA. Yesterday, Joanie and I worked our way up the Blue Ridge Trail, which begins across the street from the old Big Pines Lodge just a few miles west of Wrightwood. The air was fresh (mid 40′s) as shredded white clouds blew fast to the north over Blue Ridge. The Blue Ridge Trail is 2 miles in length and climbs about 1,100′ between Big Pines and Blue Ridge Campground. This trail hike is a pleasant climb, in many places contouring shaded slopes and occasionally poking into quiet little side canyons filled with willows. Much of the view is of the Swarthout Valley which cradles the little mountain village of Wrightwood.
Half way up the mountainside is a wooden bench that performs double-duty as both a place to sit as well as a trail sign. The recessed lettering indicates that Blue Ridge Campground is one mile up and Big Pines one mile down. The trail continues on, contouring and climbing the mountainside above Sawmill Canyon. Eventually, the trail switchbacks just prior to reaching Blue Ridge Campground, a pretty little spot with eight campsites straddling piney Blue Ridge. The Pacific Crest Trail, spanning from the
Mexico border all the way to Canada passes through the campground.
You can return back down the mountainside, the same way you came up, or make a loop out of it by taking the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) toward Inspiration Point and then cutting off onto a dirt access road which descends back toward Mountain High West ski area. This route can be seen on both the Trails of Wrightwood – Big Pines map or Tom Harrison’s Angeles High Country map.
Regardless of which way you do your return trip, you’re sure to enjoy passing through healthy and mature stands of black oak, jeffrey pine, ponderosa pine, sugar pine and white fir.
The Good Mountains of John Steinbeck were referred to in the timeless novel “Grapes of Wrath”, written back in 1939. For some
years I occasionally connected Steinbeck with this observation of the San Gabriel Mountains, as observed along Route 66, the “Mother Road”, traveled by thousands and thousands of migrants migrating to California from Oklahoma’s 1930′s dust bowl. Had I really read that?
Well, this morning, I found the passage just after finishing breakfast on this last day of March. Here’s an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath, page 152 (Penguin Books, reprinted 1987). Imagine yourself driving that asphalt two-lane heading for California and the unknown.
“Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that’s the end of Arizona. There’s California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there’s the desert. And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.”
Steinbeck is, of course, describing the southward view from what we now know as the I – 15 freeway, probably near Lenwood. His “good mountains” are the San Gabriels and the pass happens to be the Cajon Pass. The San Gabriel Mountains seem to have always held an allure as the “good mountains” to head towards and be in. I wonder what John Steinbeck’s connection to the San Gabriels happened to be… More to follow.
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.