San Gabriel Mountains our local treasure

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If you’re from anywhere but the Southland, there is one thing you associate Los Angeles with: Beaches! While they are popular, they aren’t our only significant geographic feature. Thanks to the San Andreas Fault and its friends, we have mountains! Lots of them.

The most seemingly well known is Mount Hollywood, if only by name. People see the sign and assume it shares the namesake, when in actuality it resides on Mount Lee. Mt Hollywood is actually to the east.

These mountains are part of the Santa Monica Mountain range which divides the San Fernando Valley from West Los Angeles and extend almost fifty miles out to Oxnard. Thousands of people pass through the Cahuenga and Sepulveda pass everyday as well as the many smaller arterials, like Topanga Canyon and Las Virgenes. These hills are well-known to Southern Californians.

View from Mount Wilson looking down to the City of Angels. (Zachary Rynew)
View from Mount Wilson looking down to the City of Angels.
(Zachary Rynew)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the San Gabriel Mountains. Although you stare straight out at them from Dodger games, most locals have limited knowledge of what lies within. Even with President Obama’s recent designation as a National Monument, the San Gabriels still have a long way to becoming familiar to most Angelenos.

This northern range is large enough that it takes days to explore. It covers an area equal to four San Fernando Valleys. Obviously, there are many opportunities to explore it. The internet is a good guide, but there’s a lot of information to sort through. Here’s a short(ish) guide to give you a feel:

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The main arterial that cuts through the mountains is the Angeles Crest Highway, a 66-mile road starting in La Canada Flintridge and ending in Wrightwood. Starting from the west, there are many sights to see as you climb in elevation. In just a few miles, you look back to an expansive view of the basin including downtown LA. On a clear day, you can make out Long Beach, Palos Verde and Catalina as well.

Fourteen miles up, there is a turnoff that takes you to the Mount Wilson Observatory. Before you enter the parking lot, you’ll pass the radio towers, which are the most visible structures across Los Angeles County. The Observatory itself is open to visitors from April 1st to November 30th and is a nexus for many hiking trails.

Cloudburst Summit. LA's highest road. (Zachary Rynew)
Cloudburst Summit. LA’s highest road.
(Zachary Rynew)

Further along the highway, pine trees become a prominent feature as we reach above mile high status. Newcomb’s Ranch is nestled there as a popular roadhouse where you’ll find many sport cars, cyclists and motorcycles stopping for a snack.

Six miles past, you’ll reach a point called Cloudburst Summit. At 7,018 feet, it is the highest public road in all of Los Angeles County. Within view, you’ll see the Mount Waterman ski lifts, the closest winter recreation option to downtown Los Angeles (when open). Also you’ll see a hiking sign indicating the crossing of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,663 mile trail that spans from the bottom of California up to British Columbia.

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While the Angeles Crest Highway has plenty to offer, there is much more to see as you move across the San Gabriel Valley. In fact, Los Angeles’ first big tourist attraction was a set of perilous railways born in 1893. After taking a train ride into Rubio Canyon, people would connect to a dramatic funicular that would ascend 1,300 feet up to Echo Mountain, which featured a resort and observatory. From there, you could connect to another train that took travelers precariously up to a second resort called Alpine Tavern.

Newcomb's Ranch: Serving the Crest since 1939 (Zachary Rynew)
Newcomb’s Ranch: Serving the Crest since 1939
(Zachary Rynew)

The Mount Lowe Railway was dismantled in the 1930’s, but there are many remnants accessible by hiking or mountain biking. Starting from Altadena, a six-mile trail winds you through Echo Mountain, where many of the foundations remain. The most fascinating is the segment to Alpine Tavern with photos posted of what the railway looked like from that particular vantage point.

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Another popular destination is heading up Santa Anita Avenue up to Chantry Flats. It is a hikers mecca that many use as a starting point to the many trailheads. One unique feature is Adams Pack Station, a general store of sorts that also services pack animals to bring supplies into the many cabins deep in the canyon. These rentals are part of Sturtevant’s Camp, which have existed since the late 19th century.

Further east, Highway 39 and Glendora Mountain Road form a 30-mile loop where you can find some of the mountain’s greatest enigmas. First, is the famous Bridge to Nowhere, consisting of a six-mile hike to the only surviving component of the never completed East Fork Road that was completely washed out by flood in 1938.  Equally confounding is Shoemaker Canyon, a Cold War relic that was supposed to be an escape route for nuclear attack, but work abruptly ended in the 1950’s. Less of a mystery, this area also offers gold panning and one of the few off road vehicle courses in Southern California.

Mount Baldy Lodge: Open late for a small town (Zachary Rynew)
Mount Baldy Lodge: Open late for a small town
(Zachary Rynew)

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Lastly, you cannot mention the San Gabriel Mountains without speaking about one landmark: Mount Baldy. As the highest point in Los Angeles County (10,068 feet), planning to get to the peak should be a day long activity. Few dare to climb the entire length, as most choose to drive up Mt. Baldy Road where the road terminates.

Along the way, you’ll come across a few pockets of homes, as development in the canyon predates the Civil War. While floods and fires have erased most of its history, it still has a quaint, Alpine feel as you make the ascent. At the midpoint, you come across Mount Baldy Village, a small town with a population around 300. You’ll find a post office along with a couple of lodges and is a good stopping point before you feel the effects of the altitude.

There are various trailheads where you can start your climb to the top, but most continue to the parking lot at the end of the road where you still have two-thirds of a mile worth of vertical left. During winter, it is normally filled with skiers when the snowfall cooperates. To make the complete climb to the peak (also known as Mt. San Antonio), you’ll have a five-mile hike that’ll take you a couple of hours in each direction.

Mount Baldy ski lifts as seen by this handsome cyclist. (Zachary Rynew)
Mount Baldy ski lifts as seen by this handsome cyclist.
(Zachary Rynew)

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Trying to write a complete guide to the San Gabriels is an endeavor that could last a lifetime. Even though I’ve touched on a lot, there are many other parts, like Wrightwood, Little Tujunga, Mount Gleason and Devil’s Punchbowl, that are equally worthy of reaching.

If you enjoy making the trip out to the Sierras, the San Gabriels can adequately quench your thirst for the mountains without committing a day’s worth of driving. In Los Angeles, we have a number of diversions that make it easy to overlook this outdoor playground right in our backyard. Once you experience it, you’ll never have that disregard again.