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 tumbling down nicely. The of scent 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.
Hike Chantry Flat to Mt. Wilson by way of the Rim Trail during these bright, crisp winter months. This last weekend, I made my way up Big Santa Anita Canyon’s Upper Falls Trail from Fern Lodge Junction. Our rain gauge has recorded nearly 12″ of rain from the two previous storms of late November through December, so lots of bracken fern beds are at their height of deep and bright greens as they perch high on their cliffy ledges above the bubbling creek. Although we’re off to a dry start to the new year, the plants are responding to the generous rains and even snow in the higher elevations. This is also a good time to still catch the deep orangy red of the Toyon berries in their showy clumps that still feel reminiscent of Christmas time.
Total roundtrip distance: 16.9 miles
Elevation gain / loss: 440′ initial loss to Roberts’ Camp. 3950′ gain to Mt. Wilson’s Echo Rock.
Take Gabrielino Trail up Big Santa Anita Canyon to junction below Sturtevant Camp. Continue on toward Newcomb Pass. From there, follow RimTrail west to Mt. Wilson’s Echo Rock. Return toChantry down Sturtevant Trail and continue back on Gabrielino to the trailhead.
So, on I went past the songs of canyon wrens, their descending, laughing tones evoking that eternal longing for Winter becoming Spring. As always, leaving behind Sturtevant Falls, the crowds dropped off, too. Save for an occasional small group of hikers, I saw few people between the top of the Falls and Spruce Grove Campground. Once on the section of the Gabrielino that heads off for Newcomb Pass, there’d be no one, with the exception of squirrels, birds and gnats until reaching the top of Mt. Wilson. Solitude.
At the trail junction just below Sturtevant Camp, I peel off for Newcomb Pass and the quietness envelopes me. The trail was a bit overgrown and more noticeably there was a fair number of trees and shrubs over the trail. No problem, just took my time climbing down or up and around on the dark, loamy soil with winter’s dampness. Once out in the chaparral, on came the sunglasses and the great joy of warm winter days that only Southern California can bestow upon the mountains. The most prominent scene that kept repeating itself was the red display of Toyon against the background of varied greens. Pretty soon the backcountry opened itself up, first Twin Peaks, then the Mt. Baldy massif. Snow, blue sky and chaparral all seemed to merge as I neared Newcomb Pass.
Once at Newcomb’s, I found a sunny picnic table and finished off my sandwich. Ever since the Station Fire of 2009, the debris of cut down trees for re- establishing a firebreak has taken away the charm of the place. Coupled with that, some hair brain scheme had taken place, erecting T-posts with orange web fencing at the bottom of the man-made swaths. Sort of like what CalTrans might do along a highway construction site. The old Newcomb Pass sign lay forlornly off to the side, a casualty of yet another oak that has fallen. I got so depressed by the memory of what once was and what was now that only a few minutes elapsed before taking off on the Rim Trail.
The first 1/2 mile along the Rim Trail was fraught with downed oaks, lots of them. The tracks of those before were clearly etched in the soft, moist soil as they worked out ways to get over, under, up and around thickets of branches tangled up with thick cords of poison oak. Aside from this, most of the going was pleasant, indeed beautiful as this area truly is. If you love being under oaks and amongst ferns and spruce, this is a good place to be. Also, you’re regaled with scenic views down into the West Fork of the San Gabriel River and out across to places as far west as Mt. Pacifico and eastward to Mt. Baldy and beyond. Fire scars from the Station Fire are still seen at the base of many big cone spruce along the trail. These are healthy scars only running a short distance up from the ground, leaving a really healthy evergreen forest. It’s peaceful country. Toward the top, you begin to encounter places where the trail is whittled out of rock. Old dry stack walls, the good work of trail builders from another century, still hold the trail into the mountainside. Eventually you make your way up and through a gentle twisting and turning through forested hillsides along the summit to the asphalt maintenance road near the Cosmic Cafe’s Pavilion. Turn left here, following signs toward the Sturtevant Trail. Pass by the Astronomical Museum, the Solar Camera and eventually the 100″ and 60″ telescope domes before dropping down to Echo Rock and the beginning of the Sturtevant Trail.
Take the time to look off of Echo Rock before your descent back into the Big Santa Anita Canyon. The view is superb and you really can get a good echo if you set your mind to it. Yell toward the cliff straight across from you!
Get ready for a steep drop down from Echo Rock. I’m big on trekking poles for preventing slips and saving your knees on descent. Years ago when my wife and I ran Sturtevant Camp, we starting using the poles when we had a winter (2005) that had washed out the Chantry Road, necessitating getting to the camp by way of this very trail. Pass by the “Halfway Rest” and on down further into the upper canyon. This is timbered and wild country between the top and Sturtevant’s Camp. Savor the views and more solitude.
When you pass by Sturtevant Camp and then walk across the check dam to the side of the camp, you’ll drop down to the junction where you were earlier in the day, having just completed your loop. Head back to Chantry the way you came.
Whichever canyon you choose, getting out on our local trails is a great way to get a good start on the new year. I’m especially fond of the trails that make their way up to Mt. Wilson. One route that I’ll be doing in the next couple of weeks will be to head on up the Gabrielino Trail from Chantry Flat to Newcomb Pass. From there, take the Rim Trail to Wilson’s summit. Return by way of the Sturtevant Trail.
This is a great trip to get some good winter sun while climbing up and through the warm chaparral before getting under the oaks and pines on the north side of the Rim Trail’s watershed divide. The stream’s flowing really nicely right now, especially with the good start to winter storms that we’ve had from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Wrightwood, alone, has received nearly an average year’s worth of snow accumulation within about a month at the end of 2019. So, get out and enjoy the flowing streams, the bright green fern beds and the scent of damp soils and leaves. A word of caution, though…
Make sure to be cautious of ice in the some of the higher elevations as you approach Mt. Wilson from Newcomb Pass. Also, while traveling back down the Sturtevant Trail, watch for an ice chute within a half mile of the summit. This time of year, it’s a good idea to at least carry a pair of MicroSpikes or a similar traction device that you can add to your shoes. Take your time and savor the front country of the San Gabriels in the winter.
Hike Chantry’s Gabrielino for wildflowers when you get a chance. Try to do this sooner than later! This well trod trail is also known by many Boy Scouts as the Silver Moccasin up until you arrive at Shortcut Canyon in the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, where the two trails go their separate ways.
Look at hiking this trail section these last days of April and the next couple of weeks in May. Recently my wife and I did the Falling Sign Loop, starting out from Fern Lodge Junction, heading up the Gabrielino (aka Stock Trail) to Falling Sign Junction. We returned back down the Upper Falls Trail to Fern Lodge. The loop’s only a couple of miles in length, yet that one mile section of the Gabrielino between Fern Lodge and Falling Sign Junction will offer you not only wildflowers, but vibrant green fern beds, lush green grasses and the ever-present views over the Big Santa Anita and its’ countless little side canyons.
Distance and elevation gain / loss: Approximately one mile (one way) with 400′ of elevation gain.
Follow the gated dirt road that runs atop levee on north side of Heath Creek stream bed.
Hike begins on Thrush Rd, just east of the tee intersection with Victorville St. Walk up the dirt road just west of Heath Creek bridge. There’s a silver colored pipe gate just a short distance above Thrush.
One of the major canyons dropping into Wrightwood’s Swarthout Valley is Heath Creek. It’s the canyon that begins as the large, conspicuous slide on Wright Mountain’s north side. The slide, dropping straight down from the summit is especially prominent from downtown Wrightwood. If you’re outside the post office or Mountain Hardware and looking southward, there’s a really good view of the slide, with Wright Mountain’s pine covered summit just to the left of it (elev. 8,505′). The canyon is named after Harry Heath who homesteaded the east end of the Swarthout Valley, near present day Pacific Crest Estates, back in 1886. Back then, Heath Ranch (circa 1900-1919) had a dairy, as well as boasting an orchard of apple and pear trees irrigated with water conveyed from a stream intake in the watercourse that today bears his name.
Pat Krig, a long-time Wrightwood pioneer and historian, wrote down some notes about the Heath Ranch which she visited on horseback as a young girl. The Wrightwood Historical Society generously provided me a copy of her notes from 2006 which portrays what little is known of Harry Heath’s ranch. Unfortunately, there were no photos of either Heath or his ranch. One paragraph in Pat’s reminiscences that in particular stood out to me, was this: “A few of the gnarled apple trees still stand, bearing fruit and bringing memories of hot apple pies for tired travelers, and offers of a pitcher of fresh milk, thick cream for coffee, and butter to spread on warm, fragrant bread then slathered with pumpkin butter.” Pat wrote this back in 2006. Sadly, Pat passed away just this last year, taking with her memories of an earlier time in the mountains that we can only faintly imagine.
Pearl Comfort Fisher, who wrote “The Mountaineers” back in 1972, provides a brief glimpse into a cowboy’s visit to the Heath Ranch back in 1907. The cowboy was Harvey Cheesman, hired to round up stray cattle from the nearby Lovejoy Springs Ranch. “So it happened that as I came over the divide from Lone Pine Canyon one cold February late afternoon I found the ranch or homestead of Harry Heath at the head of Sheep Creek. Upon knocking at the door I was met by a lady with a small baby in her arms. It was Mrs. Heath. She said, “‘My, am I glad to see some one. A mountain lion has been prowling around here for three nights and my husband is away working, and I am afraid the lion will get some of our pigs and chickens. “No lion showed up that night and I had to go on my way the next day.”
Today, it’s hard to imagine Wrightwood as wild and isolated as it must have been 112 years ago. The upper half of this hike will give you a taste of a quieter more forested Swarthout Valley.
This walk is a great one if you just have a little time, say less than an hour and you’d like to get some hill climbing in, too. You’re walking on a flood control levee road. The beginning of your trip is a bit exposed to the sun and completely devoid of trees, much of the landscape down in the wash to your left has a sterile, bleak look due to constant grading from county bulldozers. Not that great at first. . . Hang in there, the bleakness soon ends. Your route soon encounters black oaks, Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines on both sides of the levee road. An enticing flat makes its’ presence across the stream on your left. On your right is a gentle, expansive alluvial slope covered in a healthy pine forest. Mostly private, undeveloped land, this terrain gives you a sense of what Wrightwood must have been like in the 19th century. On a warm day, the air is fragrant with pine and amazingly quiet, save the occasional song bird or acorn woodpecker tapping high above the forest floor.
After a mile, you’ll encounter another silver painted pipe gate. This is your turnaround point. If you have the time, continue further up along the road to a set of four wooden benches set in a square configuration. Walk on past this gathering area, bearing left and staying with the canyon bottom. Follow a deeply eroded trace of a former jeep road. Essentially now a trail, continue on up the canyon for another 400′ feet of elevation to the trail’s end on a rocky berm above the stream bed. You will also see a little frame structure made from lashed together cedar trunks and limbs.
Joanie and I got out for a great afternoon of snowshoeing up on Wrightwood’s Table Mountain about a week and a half ago. Since then, more storms have dropped even more of the precious powder on our local mountains. Whether you like to cross-country ski or snowshoe, it’s a fantastic time to be out amongst our high country peaks, canyons and forests!
Table Mountain is 7,516′ high and super easy to get to from Wrightwood. Just drive. You’re only looking at four miles from our village center. Make sure to turn off to the right on Table Mountain Road when you arrive at the three way split in the roads at Big Pines. Table Mountain Campground is where we did our snowshoeing on a quiet Friday, where we seemed to have the place to ourselves. The wind had sculpted the snow into pristine dunes along the gently sloping ridge top that the extensive campground straddles.
All the campsites were, of course, hidden under the snowy mantle, with just the picnic tabletops presenting themselves as a bit of a depth gauge. Most of the time, snow depth was around 24″ and in places well over three feet. The windward sides of the mammoth white fir and Ponderosas were coated in sparkling icicles that fell like shards of glass in the wind gusts that came out of the southwest. Mt. Baden-Powell kept constant watch over us from across the great gulf of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. The Mojave Desert off to the north was a mosaic of tans, yellow sands and the right-angled patchwork of green winter crops scattered here and there. It looked and felt warmer down there. And high up on Table Mountain, that day was to be one of cobalt blue skies, bright white snows, wind and evergreens.
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.