We in Glendale are fortunate to live within a short drive to Angeles National Forest in the heart of the San Gabriel Mountains, which offers a first-class backcountry experience. These beautiful mountains are a serene refuge from the hectic, crowded, and overpopulated greater Los Angeles.
From the Glendale College campus, one can drive north on Freeway 2, then east on the Foothill Freeway (210) to Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2) in La Canada Flintridge.
You will find yourself on a small winding road climbing up into the mountains with a substantial elevation gain (from around 1,500 feet at one end in La Canada, to 7,901 feet at its highest point at Dawson Saddle). As you wind up the road, dramatic scenery opens before your eyes, from wide-ranging mountain views to deep canyons.
Several vista points along the way reveal expanses of the San Gabriel mountains and valley. This romantic mountain landscape hides many trails, which are at their best this time of the year because of the lush spring greenery and gushing streams. One of the ways to enjoy this outdoor panorama is to take one of the following easy hikes.
The trip to Switzer Falls is a lovely hike down the Arroyo Seco Canyon. The trailhead is about 14 miles from La Canada. Follow the sign for the Switzer’s picnic area and you will arrive at a parking lot at the mouth of the canyon. The trailhead is right next to the parking lot.
The Gabrielino Trail parallels a stream, which is to be crossed several times, so good shoes are a must; however, you do not need waterproof shoes because the rocks provide stepping stones.
In the spring the water in the stream is high and crystal clear. You will see various wildflowers and blooming brush. The canyon is shaded by mature oaks and alders, which makes the hike pleasant even on hot days. This trail is attractive for adventurous kids because it involves boulder hopping and fallen-log walking (optional).
Unfortunately, one cannot walk to the foot of the waterfall because it is surrounded by high and steep rocky walls on both sides. But you can sit at a rocky pool right above the waterfall and look down into the deep dark-blue swimming hole. You can also continue on the Gabrielino Trail as it edges along the west (right-hand) canyon wall.
You’ll get a glimpse of the falls, and a dark pit below them. The distance is about 2´ miles to the waterfall and back. Upon returning to the parking lot you might want to enjoy the picnic area and barbecue pits.
Those who are in good shape and want to challenge themselves a little more can continue down the Gabrielino Trail south to the Gould Mesa Trail campground and then another 2 miles to Pasadena, where the trail emerges from the Arroyo Seco at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Much of the lower portion of the hike follows a sparkling, gurgling stream past groves of live oak, sycamore, Douglas fir and maple trees. Except for the last half mile, the path is almost entirely in the shade. The distance is about 7 miles. Unless you plan on the strenuous hike back up the mountain, you will want to have a second car waiting for you at trail’s end.
About half a mile further into Angeles National Forest on Highway 2, there is a dirt parking area on the left and a trailhead to the Colby Canyon. In spring, streams rushing down the canyon create several waterfalls (up to 15 feet high) and cascades, and the sides of the canyon are endowed with lush greenery. You can follow the trail or, when the trail departs from the stream, you can abandon the trail and explore the canyon upstream while boulder hopping and criss-crossing the stream. This would make a nice canyoneering-for-beginners experience. If you stay on the trail, you will climb up to the Josephine Saddle. You should probably turn back from there.
It is possible to continue on the trail toward the Colby Camp along Big Tujunga Creek. You can also make a side trip and climb the Strawberry Peak. However, this part of the trail is difficult and strenuous
and, is recommended for experienced
Charlton Flats and Vetter Mountain
After about a 40-minute drive on Highway 2 from from La Canada Flintridge, you arrive at Charlton Flats, a picnic area in the forest. Due to extensive overuse and soil erosion, Charlton Flats’ picnic area has been closed to motor vehicles, so use a dirt parking area along the highway.
Charlton Flats, at around 5,500 feet elevation, is where the real forest begins. Several species of pine trees grow here and the air smells of resin. Huge bizarre pinecones, which at a close look resemble claws and are no less sharp, make a great aromatic souvenir. The forest is mostly open, with trees spaced apart, so it is easy to walk out of the trail among the trees. In the spring, the floor is covered with fresh green grass. There are many fallen logs, so one can practice his or her balance through the art of log walking.
A trail toward Vetter Mountain starts by the closed-off portion of the paved road. Later it continues onto a dirt road that rises to 5,908 feet and reaches the historic Vetter Mountain Fire Lookout Tower. From the gallery of the tower, you can enjoy panoramic views of the Angeles Crest and a couple of nearby peaks.
The distance from Charlton Flats to Vetter Mountain and back is 3 miles, and it is an easy hike on a well-maintained trail. After the walk, it might be a good idea to take advantage of one of the many stoves and tables and enjoy a barbecue.
Those who will not be preparing lunch can check out the nature trail, a half-mile self-guided hike. During the spring and early summer, look for the exotic snow plant, which resembles a large, red spear of asparagus. It is rare, so please do not touch. The paved roads, which are closed to motor vehicles, are ideal for children to practice their bicycling skills.
The Chilao visitor center is located on Highway 2, 1 mile past Charlton Flats, about 27 miles north of La Canada. Two short self-guided nature trails lead from the building, and many indoor exhibits offer visitors a wealth of information about the history of the San Gabriel Mountains, forest wildlife, and recreational opportunities. As a bonus, this center is an internationally renowned bird-watching site.
Behind the visitor center sits a solitary drab cabin. More than 100 years old, it was the first Forest Service ranger station in the San Gabriel Mountains and only the second in the United States.
There is also a piece of desperado history tied to this part of the forest where a bandit gang would hide between heists in the 19th century. According to one story, Chilao Flats was named for the bandit who guarded the horses while the rest of the band was out doing its nefarious business. One day a grizzly bear attacked the horses and he is said to have killed it with his knife, saving the horses and living to tell about it.
Close to the Visitor Center begins the upper Chilao Campground Road, which takes you to the Chilao campground where you can stay overnight or take a 6-mile hike to Mount Hillyer via Horse Flats. However, this trail does not offer good aerial views. It is exposed to the sun, so take along water and use lots of sunscreen.
Should you decide to hike some of these trails, remember that you are in the backcountry. Bear in mind that good hiking shoes are necessary because most of the ground is composed of soft, highly eroded rock, making the surface unstable and slippery. For this reason, a hiking pole might be a good idea. Also, the temperature falls as the elevation rises, so a light parka is recommended. Higher elevation also means exposure to a higher intensity of UV rays, so one should use sunscreen routinely. Finally, bring enough water to keep yourself hydrated and a light snack to boost your energy.
Even though Angeles Crest Highway runs for 55 miles from La Canada Flintridge to Highway 138 northeast of Wrightwood near the Cajon Pass (the major route to Las Vegas,) at the present time one can drive only 39 miles from La Canada Flintridge and then must turn back. Due to numerous flashfloods and landslides, which had caused structural damage, Highway 2 was closed from Islip Saddle to Vincent Gap in 2004, which made trails within this section inaccessible. The far end of Highway 2 can be accessed via I-210, I-15, and Highway 138 to Wrightwood.
Vehicles parked in the parking areas or the campgrounds in the Angeles National Forest are required to display a Forest Adventure Pass. The cost is $5 for a one-day pass or $30 for an annual pass. It can be purchased at major sporting goods outlets (such as Sport Chalet) or at any Forest Service facility. Passes are usually sold on weekends at the Clear Creek Ranger Station, about 14 miles into Angeles National Forest
Angeles Crest Highway has been designated a “special enforcement zone” by the California Highway Patrol. Daylight headlights are required on the road from just above La Canada all the way to the Clear Creek Ranger Station. This requirement and the speed limits are strictly enforced.
Angeles Crest Highway proves to be a fatal attraction to motor bikers. They flock to it in large numbers on weekends and love to see how fast they can take the twisting curves of the road. They are also involved in many traffic accidents here. So if you want to play it safe, do not speed and imagine a biker crossing the dividing line at every curve.
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