Hiking the Abandoned Burma Road of Chantry Flats

Posted on March 9, 2013 – Written by Chris Kasten

This is a short story about hiking the abandoned Burma Road of Chantry Flats.  You can see the route of this old road on the Chantry Flat – Mt. Wilson Trails Map, available on this website,  or at the Adams Pack Station General Store next to the Chantry Picnic Area. This old road was once the carved out thoroughfare of cement mixers, bulldozers, skip loaders, cranes and more during the construction era of the check dams upstream from Sturtevant Falls.  Today it rests quietly , slowly being reclaimed by the mountains.

It was warm and mild out on the front porch of the cabin.  A gentle breeze woke up the chimes hanging from the eve.  The ringing was calm and faint.  I set down my book, relaxed and yawning in the bright February sunshine.  What to do?  Maybe take a nap if I didn’t start moving or perhaps, hike up to the prominent switchback of the long-abandoned Burma Road.  Only a mile and a half in from Chantry Flats, one can suddenly transport one’s self into a chaparral-clad wilderness of upward climbing.

So, I’m doing this crawl up a gully between two of our neighbors’ cabins.  At first, like everything we don’t know the whole story of, it’s really easy.  Lush, green grasses blow lazily about my boots as I plod upward.  Shaded by blossoming bay trees, the air is sweetened by thousands of the tiny yellow flowers.  Large and stately canyon live oaks begin to make their presence as I climb further and further from the Big Santa Anita Creek.  The slope’s steepness increases and I’m constantly stopping and kicking into the moist, sandy slope.   The one thing that I packed, the one thing that I’d really need for this trip was a pair of smallish pruners, or loppers, for cutting through brush.  These became indispensable as my route began to be impinged upon by dense, dry tangles of brush.  Several times, even the little folding pack saw came out for branches that were over a couple of inches in diameter.  So, my pattern was often moving up the mountain gully a few paces, clipping and sawing, then pushing through the tiny opening to step up a few more paces……  I was soon high enough to see Mt. Harvard out across the Winter Creek Canyon.  Chamise and buckbrush began to make their presence.  This was the really hard going.  Soon I was wading hip deep in black sage, which left its’ signature scent in all my clothing.  Clutching at little twiggy limbs, I pulled myself up the final pitch to the old Burma Road and a fragrant, blossoming patch of rosemary.

Hoary Leaf Ceanothus

This same spot was visited by Richard Loe and I last spring.  However, we had walked and climbed up the decaying switchbacks of the old road near Sturtevant Falls.  That day we ran into three stout, black rattlesnakes gliding through piles of white rocks – all within a couple of minutes!  This time, I was a good month earlier in the season, so rattlesnakes were the last thing on my mind.  From the end of this switchback, I could make out the Pacific Ocean, while Catalina Island appeared to float on the hazy scene.  After drinking a little water and shaking the chaparral fragments out of my clothes, the thought of how to return slowly made its’ way in.  It was a sparkling, dazzling clear day.  All courtesy of the mild Santa Ana winds.  The startling clarity of vistas and the mild temps make Southern California’s mountains a paradise.  I just wanted to stay out in it and make the day last.  One thing for sure, the route back down the gully was doable, yet not what I really wanted to do.  I looked across and down to Sturtevant Falls emerging out a gash in the white cliffs from my unique vantage point.   It was decided,  continue up the abandoned Burma to the where it enters the North Fork and then back down to the Upper Falls Trail.  This would be a great way to make a loop out of my trip.

Close-up of blossoms, Hoary Leaf Ceanothus

There’s brush all over the Burma Road.  In case you’re wondering what this road was all about,  you can read a blog I wrote earlier on about the building of the check dams.  Entitled, “How Did All These Dams Get Here?”   The abandoned Burma Road shows up on the Big Santa Anita Canyon Trails Map.  On I hiked, weaving through sumac, sage, yuccas, non-native pines and eucalyptus (planted by the Forest Service), manzanita and more.  At one point I got mixed up and wandered off on some kind of spur road that must have dead ended.  However, before that was figured out, the sumac was chest high and the beating through the brush had become relentless.  There was a beautiful scene that just had to be photographed.  It was a hoary leaf ceanothus (Ceanothus crassifolius) also more commonly referred to as buckbrush or wild lilac.  One of the great things about the hoary leaf variety is that there are no thorns to be reckoned with!  This shrub blooms usually from January through April and emits a sweet, sugary fragrance from its’ myriad tiny flowers along the branchlets.  Right now, you can see lots of this beautiful plant blossoming on the slopes across the canyon from Chantry Flats.  Not long after this, I was once, again, wading through the brush when I heard a dull, flat hiss coming from the ground near my left boot.  It couldn’t be….  I looked down and saw an irregular opening in a boulder lodged in the ground.  Perhaps a brother or sister of the Crotalus genus had been startled by my careless wandering…  Time to back straight out and look for where the road really ran.  It had been since 1977 or 78 when Howard Casebolt and I followed this same section of the road, so now it all seemed so new and fresh!  Fortunately, I found where the road made a sharp hairpin and was soon on the right track.  There were road cuts that were so deep (25-30 feet high) and narrow that the road was cool and damp.  Gooseberry bushes even liked these spots.  Dark green, plump grasses lay down in these dark, secret places.  Eventually, I walked and scrambled along the road’s remains in the area I call the “Great White Scar,” visible not only from Chantry Flats, but much of the San Gabriel Valley below when you look up the mouth of the Big Santa Anita.  Although the sun was nearly over the ridge by now, heat radiated out from the plane surfaces of jagged, white rocks.  Thoughts of large, anxiety-ridden serpents occasionally filled my mind as I continued to hop from rock to rock and beating back more brush.  Eventually I made my way to the large pine flat just above the North Fork confluence near cabin #94.  Whew!  The one thing I didn’t bring and began to wish I had, was a flashlight.  Soon I was scrambling down the side canyon to the Upper Falls Trail in the gray and failing light in the canyon bottom.  Arriving at the cabin, I chuckled to myself just how pivotal one’s decision to take a nap or go for a “little” hike can be.

Chantry Flats Check Dams – During the Construction Years

Posted on March 28, 2012 – Written by Chris Kasten

A tractor shovel begins trenching a site for a foundation of a check dam. This spot is located just downstream from Sturtevant Camp.  Circa 1962

Here are some photos of the Chantry Flats check dams during their construction back in the early 1960′s. The U.S. Forest Service and Los Angeles County Flood Control District teamed up to engineer and construct these Lincoln Log type structures in many of the front country canyons of the Angeles National Forest.  These structures were designed to keep the stream bed’s ever-moving alluvium “in check” with hopes of reducing the accumulation of sand and rock in the Big Santa Anita’s reservoir further down canyon. Regardless of how they’ve performed, they’re here to stay for the foreseeable future.  The paved fire road that you begin your descent down into Robert’s Camp is the beginning of the construction road that was bull dozed all the way past Sturtevant Camp.  Another road was also built on up the Winter Creek and beyond Hoegee’s trail camp.  Today you can still make out the remnant switch backs of the “Burma Road” which climbed up and past Sturtevant Falls.  Look for the non-native Italian cypress, pines and even eucalyptus trees that were planted on the abandoned road bed after the dams were installed.  The Big Santa Anita Canyon Trails Map depicts the location of the abandoned Burma Road.  The map is available at Adams Pack Station or canyoncartography.com    Following the road is a hazardous proposition any time of year, so be especially careful for drop-offs, rattlesnakes, etc.  If you’ve hiked on past Cascade picnic area, you’ll strain to imagine that a road ran through here, wide enough to accomodate cement mixers, skip loaders, cranes and more.

A check dam nears completion at Cascade Picnic Area, Big Santa Anita Canyon. A gunite cap will be added next.  Circa 1963.

The destruction of pristine riparian environments would be unthinkable in our day and age.  Yet, during the late 1950′s, this type of project was considered prudent land management and protection of watersheds.  Essentially, the dams have changed the natural hydraulic grade of much of the Big Santa Anita Canyon and Winter Creek.  The dams have created a stair-step type of profile in sections of the canyon bottom.  Behind each dam are thousands of cubic yards of alluvium (sand, gravels and boulders) that are for now “stuck” in a static location.  One day nature will have her way and there will be a phenomenal movement of material that will wash downstream.  The engineers referred to this material behind each dam as a “debris cone.”  In 1969, an El Nino storm pattern brought torrential rainfall to Southern California.  One night during the ’69 Flood, a number of the smaller “sill dams” blew out.  A sill dam is the lower (smaller) dam that you’ll often see just below or downstream of the larger check dam.  The sill dam’s function is to protect the foundation of the larger check dam.  Anywhere upstream of Cascade picnic area, you’ll notice that all the check dams have their accompanying sill dams.  Anywhere below the confluence of the North Fork, you’ll notice that these sill dams are missing.  Look carefully and notice the exposed foundations of the dams.  One day they may collapse.  This all happened during one set of storms in ’69!  Slowly, nature has been healing from all this damming of the canyon.  Decades later you can see the ivy, black berry bushes, mosses, fallen trees and sharp-edged boulders softening the scene.  Canyon wrens flit back and forth into the aging rip-rap after spring floods ring through the canyons.  Stout, black rattlesnakes gently drape their coils off the edge of the walls of the dams during the warm, drowsy days of August.  The canyon is gradually claiming all the dams.  We’re just hiking and feeling all this. in one part of this long, long timeline.

November, 2015.   I recently heard from Dennis Logue, a member of the construction crew who built both the road and dams starting back in 1958.  We began corresponding.  He graciously has given permission for me to add his memories in the form of several letters to Canyon Cartography, describing the project and some of the colorful characters that were involved.   Here they are:

The first letter from Dennis. Red Shangraw & Elsie the deer

Dennis Logue is seen working on uppermost check dam in Big Santa Anita Canyon. July 1962. He’s the third man out to the left near the future spillway.

Second letter describing challenge of road building and method of applying gunite.

Third letter describing return of riparian plants and local animals. Response to 1969 Flood.

Fourth letter covering Dennis’ experience working with the crew on dams along with details on excavating for check dams.