Tunes, trails and blooms at Joshua Tree

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Namesake trees in Joshua Tree National Park, on the Barker Dam Trail

A little late with this post, so maybe file away the info for next spring, because before long it’ll be baking in Joshua Tree National Park — a wonderland of boulders, namesake J-trees and wildlife in the transition zone of the Mojave and Colorado deserts about 140 miles east of Los Angeles and 50 miles beyond Palm Springs. And keep in mind, if you do decide to go this summer and want to camp, some campgrounds at the park are closed until October.

Pappy sign

A show at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown was all the excuse we needed to visit the desert in mid-April — lucky for us also the start of wildflower season. Jenny Lewis put on a fabulous show under the stars at Pappy’s — for SoCal music fans, this is a must-visit destination — and we combined that with some R&R at Rimrock Ranch and hiking and photography at J-Tree.

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The entrance to Rimrock Ranch.

If you’re a music fan, a bit of a desert rat AND love funky, eclectic places to hang your hat, Rimrock Ranch is the place for you. We rented one of the dog-friendly cabins and had the place pretty much to ourselves for a couple days. The owner, Jim, is an accomplished bass player and occasionally holds impromptu concerts with some pretty big names at the ranch. He’s also a big-time repurposer of found objects, and nothing seems to go to waste:

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A wall of old bottles.
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A barbed wire heart at the entrance.
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The swimming pool!

Built in 1947, Rimrock Ranch once housed actors filming westerns at nearby Pioneertown. Jim Austin, who co-owned a surfwear company, eventually bought the rundown 10-acre property and has been renovating it ever since. There are several small cabins, and he also rents out Hatch House, an eco-friendly modern structure he built with recycled materials.

License plate wall in Hatch House.
License plate wall in Hatch House.
Ocotillo outside Hatch House.
Ocotillo outside Hatch House.

Oh, and for those on a budget, there’s a funky Airstream trailer (the purple-fur-lined interior is a must-see) that rents for about $62 a night:

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Larger groups can rent The Lodge for about $230 a night:

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But back to the real reason we were there (other than music): the desert, hiking and wildflowers. It’s only about a 15-minute drive to Joshua Tree from Rimrock and we entered at the park’s West Entrance, off Highway 62.

With not a lot of time, and a dog in tow (they’re not allowed on park trails and have to stay within 100 feet of picnic areas, roads and campgrounds), we kept the hiking to a minimum for this trip, but still managed to stretch our legs and take in some of the desert beauty that J-Tree is known for:

The view from Keys View.
The, um, view from Keys View.

Climbers love Joshua Tree, and for good reason. Ever wonder why the boulders there are so fractured and blocky? Chalk that one up to volcanic activity. A form of magma called monzo-granite (yup) rose from deep within the Earth, and as it cooled, horizontal and vertical cracks formed. Voila — a climber’s paradise:

Joshua Tree National Park
See the climber?

 

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Joshua Tree National Park
A perfect climber cubbiehole.

It was cool enough to leave our pooch Blue in the car, so we decided on the one-mile Barker Dam loop trail, which passes through classic J-Tree habitat and is a perfect quick and easy hike. There’s usually a reservoir about halfway through the loop, but it’s completely dried up — thanks a LOT, drought.

Barker Dam Trail

Along the way, we passed numerous beavertail cactus in full fluorescent-pink bloom:

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We saw some rock art, but I have a feeling it was of recent vintage:

Joshua Tree pictographs

After our not-so-grueling hike, it was time for lunch, and we ate at the Hidden Valley picnic area, one of the only spots where dogs are allowed:

Blue, Joshua Tree

On our way out of town, we finally stopped at Pioneertown, the old movie set where westerns were filmed back in the day. There’s not much to it, but it’s fun to poke around the old buildings…

Pioneertown

…and try the camera’s sepia filter…yikes, not sure that works:

Pioneertown sepia

And, being the land of found objects (things do seem to preserve well in the desert’s dry heat), we came across some funky art installations:

Pioneertown typewriters

And with that, we rode into the sunset…

Pioneertown sign

 

Why did another mountain lion cross the road….?

P-32 in mid-February captured by a remote camera in the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains.
P-32 in mid-February captured by a remote camera at the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains.              Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Why, to join his sister, of course. In March, I wrote about P-33’s risky crossing of Highway 101 from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Camarillo area in Ventura County. And now brother P-32 has made it, crossing on April 3 about one mile east of where P-33 traveled.

Both of the 17-month-old big cats are tagged and monitored by the National Park Service, which oversees the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and has been tracking mountain lions there since 2002 in order to study how they manage to survive in such a fragmented habitat.

There’s no evidence that P-32 has actually reunited with his sister. In fact, he’s ventured further into the Simi Hills, crossing State Route 23 and coming close to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Who knows, maybe he’s a Republican. Sister P-33 meanwhile turned around at Route 23 and is believed to be ranging close to where she crossed the freeway, said the NPS.

The recent journeys of these two big cats into the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains is a critical step in the lion’s long-term genetic survival in SoCal, says the NPS. Providing a safe crossing of the major barrier that is the 101 may come in the form of a proposed wildlife crossing over the freeway at Liberty Canyon north of Malibu Creek State Park.

There’s been quite a bit of mountain lion news in the L.A. area recently, between the two cats crossing the 101 freeway, and another lion dubbed P-22 (even has his own Facebook page) who lives in Griffith Park and in mid-April was found holed up under a house in Los Feliz. He was eventually hazed out by wildlife officials and is being GPS-monitored once again in the nether reaches of Griffith Park.

P-22’s the famous cat whose photos were featured in National Geographic. He’s also on the second or third of nine lives, having survived a bout of mange contracted from ingesting rat poison. I had the dubious pleasure of researching an infographic on that topic:

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Trans-Topanga trek

Hikers heading away from Parker Mesa, back to the East Topanga Fire Road.
Hikers heading back to East Topanga Fire Road from Parker Mesa.

Well, this hike doesn’t exactly traverse Topanga State Park in its entirety, so “trans-Topanga” is a bit of a stretch. But stretch it does — between Topanga Canyon and a trailhead close to the Pacific Ocean.

Most L.A. hikers know of or have been to popular Parker Mesa, an overlook atop a bluff in Topanga State Park with sweeping views of Santa Monica Bay. Many make the 3.2-mile trek from the park’s headquarters at Trippet Ranch in Topanga Canyon, and probably an equal number slog up the much steeper 4.3 miles from the Los Liones trailhead a few blocks up from Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades.

My pal L. and I decided on a slightly different alternative: start at Los Liones, hike to Parker Mesa, and then instead of turning around, continue on to Trippet, for a total of 6.8 miles. Of course, this requires two cars and shuttling between the trailheads. As eco-unfriendly as that may sound, it’s something I’ve been wanting to try since listing it as an option in “Take A Hike Los Angeles,” and the always-game L. was up for the shlep. And hey, at least I drive a hybrid.

Here’s the perfectly awful map I cobbled together, since my MotionX iPhone app failed to record the trek. The blue squiggle is our route, with Trippet Ranch at the top of the image and Los Liones somewhere near the bottom. “End” is Parker Mesa:

Parker Mesa

We met at the Vons on PCH at Sunset Blvd. and made the short drive to Los Liones. If you haven’t been there, it’s easy to miss — if you get to Paseo Miramar, you’ve gone too far. A little under a half-mile up Los Liones Drive, there are several parking areas on the right side. We parked L.’s car there and I drove us the 15 minutes to Topanga. Being the cheapskates that we are, we opted to skip the $10 fee at Trippet and parked on a nearby street.

We walked into the park and headed the short distance to Trippet Ranch. For those who might not realize it, 11,500-acre Topanga State Park is located entirely within L.A. city limits and, according to the park, “is considered the world’s largest wildland within the boundaries of a major city.” So guess what that means? You’ll have plenty of company.

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It had been a number of years since I’d been to Trippet Ranch, and finding East Topanga Fire Road —  the route that would take us to Parker Mesa and beyond — was not easy. Here’s one of the information signs to nowhere:

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After a bit of confusion we tracked down a ranger, who pointed the way to a junction where we could pick up the trail. Now, that’s better:

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Starting at Trippet makes for a gentler climb than coming from Los Liones. It’s a mere 330 feet of elevation gain to the Parker Mesa turnoff from this direction, compared to a whopping 1,300 feet of gain coming from the ocean side of the trail at Los Liones.

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There are lush canyon views from Trippet all the way to Parker Mesa. In mid-spring, hillsides were emerald green. About 2.5 miles in, a sign on the right marks the spur trail to Parker Mesa. Turn right onto the spur, and it’s 0.5-mile to the mesa, which, at an elevation of 1,525 feet, offers stunning views toward Santa Monica on a clear day, and not half-bad ones even on a less-than-clear one:

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There’s a bench and plenty of room to spread out at the overlook, where there are 360-degree views of Santa Monica Bay, stretching from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Malibu. It was a bit hazy the day we were there, but Catalina Island is visible on clear days.

After soaking in the views, we headed back on the spur trail to the fire road and took a left to the Los Liones Trailhead. White canopies of big-pod ceanothus umbrellas the trail this time of year:

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About two miles from Parker Mesa, we kept our eyes peeled for the Los Liones Trail sign. There, we took a right and headed another two miles to the trailhead. It’s a fairly steep downhill, making us glad we took the way-easier climb in from Topanga. All in all, a successful traverse.

Los Liones trail sign vert

 

Why did the mountain lion cross the road?

Female lion P-33 at kill site in the western Santa Monica Mountains, where she fed by herself on a deer for about an hour before her mom and brother showed up.   Courtesy of National Park Service
Female lion P-33 at kill site in the western Santa Monica Mountains, where she fed by herself on a deer for about an hour before her mom and brother showed up.
Courtesy of National Park Service

Well, to get to the other side, of course. The “road” being the 101 Freeway, and the big cat being P-33, a 16-month-old who recently left her mother and was the star of some stunning photos from the National Park Service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. (Beware viewing if you’re squeamish: there are images of a dismembered deer.) The NPS has been tracking her and her two siblings since they were four weeks old.

And now big sis has miraculously made it across the Ventura Freeway. She crossed on the Conejo Grade from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Camarillo area on March 9 sometime between midnight and 2 a.m.

This is hugely significant for mountain lions and the people who research them because a successful crossing of such a huge barrier like the 101 is a sign that there’s hope for maintaining the long-term genetic health of the population.

P33_Crossing_March2015

It’s all about connectivity of habitat for these SoCal mountain lions — being stuck south of the 101 leads to inbreeding and lower genetic diversity. A number of big cats have been killed trying to cross the freeway, including one recently at Liberty Canyon, north of Malibu Creek State Park. This is also where the only other known successful crossing by a lion occurred since the NPS started started studying them in 2002, and it’s where NPS is proposing to build a wildlife crossing over the freeway.

Some Angelenos may recall the famous mountain lion in Griffith Park known as P-22, who was made famous in National Geographic photos in 2013, and was thought to have crossed the 101 and 405 Freeways heading east. He wasn’t wearing a tracking collar and he’s likely not to reproduce because he’s believed to be the only lion there and is hemmed in by so many freeways on the eastern end of the Santa Monicas.

As a hiker in these mountains, it’s always in the back of mind that cougars are in the vicinity, so I’m vigilant the trail. The area where P-33 ended is pretty agricultural but I’m guessing she’s in the mountains north of the freeway just west of Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks. That park, by the way, has some great hiking, including a nice loop hike to Paradise Falls. It seemed like lion territory when I was there, so I’m not surprised P-33 was attracted to it. Here’s hoping she’s not too hemmed in by suburbia (aren’t we all?), avoids cars and people, and lives a long, fruitful life.

Early SoCal springin’

Wild sweet pea
Wild sweet pea along the Sam Merrill Trail in the San Gabriels foothills.

Spring in February. A strange concept for us Midwestern transplants to Southern California, but hey, we’ll take it.

Despite several years of drought, hillsides still green up in late winter and wildflowers somehow persevere. But it seems way too early and dry for any flower displays, so the blooms I encountered during a late-February hike on the Sam Merrill Trail to Echo Mountain were totally unexpected.

Grassy hillsides line the trail to Echo Mountain.
Grassy hillsides line the trail to Echo Mountain.

More a conditioning hike than wilderness adventure, this trek in the hills above Altadena gets the blood moving with 1,400 feet of elevation gain over 2.2 miles to the top of Echo. Not even a mile in, I came across a single Wild Canterbury Bells plant. Not exactly a showstopping display, but a pleasant purple surprise:

Canterbury bell

This kept me on the lookout and I soon came across clumps of Indian Paintbrush seemingly growing out of the rock lining the trail:

Paintbrush

Glancing down into the canyon, I noticed bushes of lupine:

Lupine

A single clump of California Poppies clung to a hillside:

Poppies

Although it was cool day, a certain canine wearing a backpack (empty) was glad to make it to the top:

Blue:top of Echo

For those who haven’t been on this hike, all that rusted cable, machinery and concrete foundation are ruins from the old Mount Lowe Railway, which operated from 1898 to 1936 and transported visitors to a resort at the top of Echo. Here’s an older photo from the site, looking toward the L.A. Basin on a moody day:

Top of Echo

Along the way on my recent hike, I unfortunately also noticed a more unpleasant sight: lots and lots of graffiti on the rocks along the trail, a sad reminder of how close this trail is to civilization. I’ve seen this here in the past, but not to this extent. An attempt to cover the tagging resulted in big blue blotches on the rocks. I didn’t bother taking photos, not wanting to glorify the boneheads who feel the need to desecrate nature.

At any rate, with wildflower season developing, it’s still a pleasant time to experience the SoCal foothills. You can keep track of local wildflower blooms through native plant nursery Theodore Payne’s Wildflower Hotline, an online update which starts up again this month and is posted every Friday from March through May. A great way to find our what flower it is you’re looking at is through the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area’s Wildflower Finder, an online search tool that IDs flowers by time of year, size, color, etc.

 

Brian Head…that other Utah ski resort

Brian Head slope

It always seems odd seeing billboards for Brian Head Resort along Interstate 395 on the way to Mammoth Mountain. Why on earth would someone detour to a dinky no-name ski area in southern Utah en route to a place that truly lives up to its name: Mammoth is more than five times the size of Brian Head, and the number of express lifts alone outnumber the total number at the Utah resort.

Brian Head condo view
The snowy view from our condo near the base of Navajo Mountain.

Um, well a couple reasons, first and foremost: price. It’s $35 for a weekday lift ticket at Brian Head, while costing a whopping three times more to ski at Mammoth. That’s for a regular season, single day ticket; both resorts offer a bit of a break for multiday tickets. We also got a great deal on a condo at Brian Head, a comfy ski in/ski out place right near the base of Navajo Mountain.

We viewed some amazing sunsets from our condo’s balcony:

Sunset from condo

Reasons 2, 3 and 4: We pretty much had the place to ourselves and rarely waited in lift lines. It was snowing when we arrived and conditions were optimal, with about six inches of fresh powder. Our only complaint was the visibility on our first day, or more like invisibility, due to fog and snow.

Fog:Brian Head

But the next few days we encountered cloudless bluebird days and, I’d have to say the grooming at Brian Head rivals Wasatch uber-resort Deer Valley. Ahhh, corduroy, how I love you so.

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Brian Head consists of two mountains: the beginner-friendly Navajo Mountain and the adjacent and more challenging slopes of Brian Head Peak. We did laps on the Giant Steps Express lift to an elevation of 10,920 feet, just below 11,307-foot Brian Head Peak, which is accessed only through backcountry gates. We stuck to the inbounds runs, which were nicely pitched and loads of fun.

That’s another thing about Brian Head: at 9,600 feet, the base elevation is the highest of any Utah ski resort. Take that, Park City (elevation 6,900 feet)! This keeps things nice and cold, perfect ingredients for powdery snow.

View of Brian Head Peak from run on Navajo Mountain.
View of Brian Head Peak from a run on Navajo Mountain.

I will say that navigating between the two mountains takes a bit of strategy in order to avoid having to take the free shuttles. But the trails are well-marked and we figured it out fairly quickly. We did lots of laps on Bear Paw from the Giant Steps chair and Ute was a favorite run from Chair 1 on the Navajo Mountain side.

On our day off from skiing, we planned to snowshoe at Cedar Breaks National Monument, just two miles south of Brian Head. A snowshoe malfunction nixed that activity, so we made it a photo outing instead. With snow piled high, access to the monument isn’t easy, but there’s a pullout along Highway 143 with a small parking lot and short trail to the North View Overlook.

Cedar Breaks view
View of Cedar Breaks Amphitheater from North View Overlook.

Gazing into the 2,000-foot deep Cedar Breaks Amphitheater is awe-inspiring. The three-mile-diameter canyon was created by erosion from rain, ice and wind, the same forces that created Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon and Bryce Amphitheater. You’ll see alot of dead trees in this part of Dixie National Forest. These are Engelmann spruce that have been decimated in recent years by spruce bark beetles.

We went back to the overlook to catch another amazing sunset:

Cedar Breaks sunset

It’s true that for most SoCalers, it takes a few more hours of driving to get to Brian Head compared to Mammoth, but I think it’s worth the drive. You can even hit Vegas (not sure that’s a good thing) and Zion National Park on the way. Just be sure to stock up on groceries in St. George or Cedar City on the way there. There’s no town to speak of once you get there, except for what locals call “the Mall,” a small strip mall near the ski resort that consists of a cafe and general store. We were glad to find Pizanos Pizzeria, a surprisingly good pie in the middle of nowhere.

Which is precisely the point: good, cheap skiing and pizza in a scenic spot in the middle of nowhere.

Paddling Alamitos Bay

Alamitos Bay pelican

Living in Southern California, you’d think finding a decent place to kayak would be a no-brainer. Ah, but not necessarily so, grasshopper!

Water, water everywhere, but oh so little safe and easy access. We usually paddle at Newport Beach’s Back Bay, which has an ecological reserve and is no slouch. But the subdivision views and near-constant traffic from John Wayne Airport get a bit tiresome.

So, we recently decided to take a chance on paddling Alamitos Bay in Long Beach. What a pleasant surprise. Even with the nearby ports — the busiest and most polluted on the West Coast — Alamitos Bay is something of a gem.

Pulling up to park near the intersection of Ocean Blvd. and Bayshore Ave., we were stunned that there was a nearly-empty parking lot and free street parking… and best of all, the put-in was mere feet from the car. Even on MLK Day (albeit in the middle of winter, such is life in sunny SoCal).

Steve kayak:canal

After finding a map online, we decided to make a loop through the canal around Naples Island, which was directly across from our put-in. It’s a pleasant paddle next to picturesque homes along the canal, but our loop ended abruptly when we were blocked by yellow construction floats.

Canal deadend

Unbeknownst to us, the seawalls that line the canal were getting a facelift. The city of Long Beach declared six years ago that the walls “were found to be in a significant state of disrepair” and after studying, and more studying, construction finally began in November and will continue until June.

So we headed back out to the bay’s main channel and paddled north, passing several restaurants and even a Ralphs supermarket along the way. There were other kayakers, some SUPers, and even people on some kind of bicycle-paddling contraptions.:

Bikes on bay

Thanks to that online map, we knew there’d be a waterski-only canal to avoid, and it was pretty obvious when we saw someone skiing donuts at full speed. We stayed far away and continued on to the “wetlands,” a generous term given to an area adjacent to field upon field of oil rigs. The array of seabirds was impressive — gulls, pelicans, cormorants, surf scoters, terns and egrets. But all that wildlife amidst the oil-industrial complex was jarring, to say the least.

Alamitos-egret

After snapping a bunch of photos, we headed back to our starting point. Next time we’ll check out the moon jellies in Spinnaker Bay Canal, which is where the Long Beach Aquarium apparently gets its supply for its touch tanks. We’ll definitely pack the fly rods and hope for some halibut. And complete our Naples Canal loop, with its nifty new seawalls.

 

Bishop Peak: Green slopes in SLO

View of Cerro San Luis from Bishop Peak Trail.
View of Cerro San Luis from Bishop Peak Trail.

After many trips to the Central Coast over the years, in early December we finally hiked to the top of Bishop Peak — one of the Nine Sisters, the scenic volcanic morros spread out between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Recent rains (finally!) have left the hillsides carpeted in green, foreshadowing a (hopefully) early spring, and contributing to stunning  views from the trail.

At 1,559 feet, Bishop Peak is the highest of the morros, the lowest being Morro Rock at 576 feet. These are volcanic plugs that haven’t been active for 20 million years. The hike is 3.5 miles round-trip, with 950 feet of gain.

The trailhead is right in the middle of San Luis Obispo, but finding it was a bit of a challenge — every hiking site I checked seemed to have different directions. We took the route that starts at Highland Drive (see the end of this post for our trailhead directions).

The trail at first passes through a lush oak woodland. A little less than a mile in, we shimmied through a gate that points the way to Bishop Peak. One way to add miles (about 2.5) is to go right and do the Felsman Loop Trail.

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Continuing on to Bishop Peak, the trail eventually opens up to widespread views. Along the way, we encountered rock climbers roped to Bishop’s rocky flanks.

Bishop Peak climber

The trail ascends gradually, with clear views of SLO, and rising just beyond town, green Cerro San Luis (1,292 feet), another of the Nine Sisters.

Blue:Bishop Peak trail

A series of switchbacks leads to two benches just  below the summit, which is basically several piles of rocks which can be scrambled over to get even better views.

Bishop Peak trail view

If Blue misbehaved — even tho she’s female and not human — we threatened to take her to the California Men’s Colony, which was prominent in the landscape below:

View of Calif. Men's Colony

The trail is pretty exposed, so I wouldn’t want to hike it in summer. Even in early December, the sun was warm and Blue took a nap once we got to the summit.

Blue/Bishop Peak summit

To the west were pastoral views of Los Osos Valley, where turkey vultures soared.

Birds/Bishop Peak

We hung around the summit, then retraced our steps, enjoying views of SLO 1,500 feet below us, and encountering a lot of hikers, undoubtedly heading up to enjoy an early-winter sunset.

SLO view/Bishop peak

To find out more about the Central Coast’s Nine Sisters and hiking them, check out the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter’s site. The way we got to the trailhead was to take Highland Drive from Highway 1, and follow Highland until it ends in a cul-de-sac. Park on the street and pick up the trail on the left side of the street, along a fence. Our trail track from the MotionX GPS  app is below.

Bishop Peak track

Angeles hike near Station Fire origin

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What better way to spend Turkey Day than hiking through habitat burned by one of the largest wildfires in California? No. 12 on the list, to be exact.

We’ve hiked this fire road (ahem) in the Angeles National Forest several times now, and can count on one hand the number of people on the trail. The trailhead is at the Angeles Crest Station, for which the fire was named. And today — more than five years after the fire consumed 161,000 acres — blackened trees still remain.

Five years after the Station Fire, dead trees remain along the trail.
Five years after the Station Fire, dead trees remain along the trail.

Google Earth calls this Mt. Lukens Truck Trail. I’ve never seen this hike listed in any trail guide. It isn’t one of the premier hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains — the trail sign at the start lists destination trails rather than the name of the trail you’re on — but it does lead (seven miles in) to Grizzly Flats and eventually Mt. Lukens, at 5,074 feet the highest point in the city of L.A.

Simply put, this is an easy trail only a few miles up Angeles Crest Highway from La Cañada, and a great hike to do on a clear day, with views stretching to the Pacific. We hiked only about 2.5 miles in and were treated to some great views on T-Day.

Some pix from the hike:

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Fall color AND wildflowers on the same hike. You gotta love winter in SoCal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA One of the brief, rare moments Blue was off-leash:

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Love this old sign at the trailhead:

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Whaddya mean I have to stay on-leash?

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More dead trees. Thankfully, no dreaded poodledog bush on this trail:

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The path we took, minus a section where I forgot to restart my MotionX app, oops:

Angeles Crest track

A more modern (but not much) sign at the trailhead:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWant to know more about the Station Fire? It was “human-caused” BTW, and the arsonist was never caught. The GAO did a report here, and the interactive map on p. 10 is worth checking out.

 

Last of the SoCal fall color….and a great wildlife sighting

Blue Ridge trail leaves

Better late than never. After skipping our annual fall color trip to the Eastern Sierra, we instead squeaked in a short trek in the Angeles National Forest in late October. Fall color in the San Gabriel Mountains is a sad substitute for blazing aspens in the Sierra, but you gotta take what you can get. And for all you non-SoCal doubters: yes, there are trees with leaves that change color here.

We headed into the Angeles High Country to hike the Blue Ridge Trail, an easy 4.4-mile roundtrip right near Mountain High Ski Resort (doubters: yes, there are ski resorts in Southern California. See the runs in the Google Earth image below?) that provides some of the best views in the San Gabriels. And, for those who think SoCal’s only wildlife is black bears lounging in suburban swimming pools, keep reading.

Blue Ridge trail

Sandwiched between Mountain High East and West, the trailhead is across the Angeles Crest Highway from the forest’s Big Pines Visitor Center — which is usually closed due to budget constraints.

The path winds along a slope covered with oaks and Jeffrey pines, which transitions to white fir and lodgepole pine as you climb higher. It’s an easy hike, but you’ll notice the 7,000-foot elevation.

A bench marks the halfway point of the trail:

Blue/Blue Ridge bench

The ground was littered with leaves that had already fallen, but some shrubs and oaks still held color. Two miles and 950 feet of gain later, the trail ends at a campground where it bisects the Pacific Crest Trail. A stroll along the fire road leads to one of Mountain High’s lifts, and you’re treated to glorious views of Mt. Baldy and Mt. Baden-Powell.

Top of Blue Ridge Trail
View towards Mt. Baldy, from the top of the Blue Ridge Trail.
Blue/Blue Ridge summit
The view toward Mt. Baden-Powell, at the top of the Blue Ridge Trail.
Blue/Mt. High lift
Some of us can’t wait to get a paw on the chairlift at Mountain High.

But the best part of our day in the Angeles happened on the way home. We’ve always wondered why so many rocks litter Angeles Crest Highway at this far eastern end of the forest, and now we know. As we passed Dawson Saddle, we were treated to two bighorn sheep skittering down a near-vertical slope, which rained loose rock onto the road.

We’d heard there’s a good chance of seeing these guys in that area, but had never seen them until then. At one time, the San Gabriel population of desert bighorn numbered 740, the largest in California. They took a big hit from mountain lion predation, along with other stresses, and now number about 400. The two we saw appeared to be a male and female, who trotted back up the slope when they saw us, then back down over a ridge, across Highway 2, over the guard rail and onto the next canyon.

A nice sunset with fog moving in completed our happy fall day in the Angeles:

Angeles fog