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.
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.
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.
When first hiking into the Big Santa Anita Canyon along most any of the trails, one can’t help wondering about the origins of the little Chantry Flats cabins that appear alongside the paths and streams. Construction of these early dwellings dates back to the early teens and 1920′s. Back then, during the Great Hiking Era, the U.S. Forest Service was actually encouraging the building of cabins on “never before settled” suitable locations in a number of national forests throughout the United States. In the Big Santa Anita Canyon, all kinds of potential cabin “sites” were discovered and developed. Typically an Angeles National Forest ranger would hike to the potential site with the cabin builder applicant for approval of a special use permit or not. Back then, the Chantry Road to the current trailhead did not exist. The road would not be built to Chantry Flat until 1935. Therefore, you would hike all the way from Sierra Madre, thus adding about 4 miles each way to your destination. It was over 8 miles one way to Sturtevant’s Camp, versus the current 4 mile trip in! There were motivated hikers, to say the least.
When the cabin building program began, “recreational resident cabins” (U.S. Forest Service language) numbered over 220 + in the Big Santa Anita and Winter Creek canyons. Materials for these cabins was hauled in on mules and people’s backs for the numerous building projects. Pack trains travelled the narrow mountain trails seven days a week through the busy construction years. Not only cabins were being built, but trail resorts were springing up as well! Five resorts alone were in existence during this period. Hoegees, Roberts’ Camp, First Water, Fern Lodge and Sturtevant’s were enormously popular for groups of hikers seeking an overnight experience. Information about the colorful events from the camps is a separate subject entirely. Just imagine how the canyon would have sounded and looked during the evenings as lanterns flickered through the little windows amongst the trees and reflecting stream.
As for the cabins, a number of natural and man-made events pared down the initial number of structures dramatically. A great flood that took place in 1938 (the 38′Flood) washed out many cabins, not only in the Big Santa Anita, but in other front country canyons such as the Arroyo Seco and San Gabriel Canyon as well. The next sizable event for the canyon was the 1953 Monrovia Peak Fire, which started up at Spring Camp near the summit of Monrovia Peak. More cabins succumbed to this catastrophic fire which burned for weeks. In 1969, yet another flood occurred, which took out some more of the cabins. Amongst all this, occasionally cabin owners have had a part in accidentally burning down their own dwellings. Although uncommon, it has happened even into recent times. Today, there are less than 79 cabins left standing in the Winter Creek and Big Santa Anita canyons.
The cabins are privately owned and are a labor of love to say the least. To this day, supplies are hauled in by the Adams Pack Station at Chantry Flats. Items such as propane, lumber, groceries, furniture, roofing and more are taken to the trailside cabins by the pack string of mules and donkeys. Also, a frequent foot patrol takes place to ensure the security of the cabins. The cabins are unavailable for rent to the general public. If you’re interested in purchasing one, go to the Adams Pack Station website (www.adamspackstation.com) to inquire about cabins that may be up for sale. The cabins are located on public land, so cabin owners must comply with U.S. Forest Service regulations in regard to everything from paint color, type of roofing, sanitation practices and the gathering of downed wood. When you’re out hiking or backpacking, please respect the privacy of the cabins. Many people have been drawn to the Big Santa Anita Canyon due to its’ popularity as one of most scenic L.A. County waterfall hikes. These unique little cabins are a sweetly unexpected find for the eyes.
If you’re interested in ever spending the night in a cabin, there is one place where you can rent. Sturtevant Camp, located a couple of miles upstream from Sturtevant Falls, is available to individuals, couples and groups by reservation. The camp has comfortable, clean amenities and is open throughout the year. Check out the Adams Pack Station website adamspackstation.com for details on how to make this happen.