San Gabriel Mountains National Monument: The big cave-in

The Bridge to Nowhere spanning the East Fork San Gabriel River. Photo courtesy of
The Bridge to Nowhere spanning the East Fork San Gabriel River. Photo courtesy of

I”m not sure that’ll be the new monument’s official title, but the word on the street is that when President Obama is in SoCal on Friday, before or after breaking bread with Gwyneth Paltrow, he’ll be declaring part of the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument. Wait a minute — what happened to making them part of a national recreation area??

Here’s what happened: because the national recreation area designation would require congressional approval — which at the rate they’re going could take the better part of a century — Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-El Monte), who drafted the recreation area proposal, decided to take the easier route and shoot for national monument status.

Problem with the monument alternative is the mountains would remain under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service, not the National Park Service, as it would have been if it received the national recreation area designation. And any user of the Angeles National Forest knows what a bang-up job the USFS has done. Sure, the forest is strapped for dough, especially having to fork over truckloads of cash to fight fires. And a 700,000-acre forest with 3 million visitors a year isn’t easy to care for. But both the East and West Forks of the San Gabriel River are pretty disgraceful, to give just one example.

Local flyfishing group the Pasadena Casting Club has been pushing for Wild & Scenic River designation for the West Fork and its tributaries, and is against the national monument, unlike other conservation groups like Trout Unlimited. They point out that while Rep. Chu will still seek a national recreation area bill, national monument status in the meantime is an inferior alternative. Funding will be at a much lower level and would not result in new recreation services or lighten the pressure of the overused forest, since the USFS is chronically short of funds and what it does get goes to fighting fires.

Don’t get me wrong — there are many fabulous trails and vistas in the San Gabriels, especially at the western end. And hopefully the San Gabriel River will get Wild & Scenic protection at some point. It’s just unclear exactly how creating a national monument would make a lick of difference. Is the graffiti and trash in the East Fork area all of a sudden going to disappear? Truly a monumental challenge.


Mt. Baden-Powell hiking in winter? Thank you, drought.

Getting close to the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.
Getting close to the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.

One of the happy consequences of drought in the West — and there aren’t many — is being able to hike to peaks in the winter that normally would be inaccessible. Such is the case in SoCal’s Angeles National Forest, where snow and ice make peak bagging treacherous and Angeles Crest Highway is typically closed at Islip Saddle. Not this year. At least until possibly this weekend, with a mega-storm in progress.

Last Sunday, we summited Mt. Baden-Powell — at 9,399 feet, the fifth-highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. The hike is 8 miles round-trip, with 2,800 feet of elevation gain. Think nearly 3,000 feet up in 4 miles sounds insane? Imagine 42 switchbacks zigzagging to the top.

Mt. Baden-Powell map

The trailhead at Vincent Gap is right along Angeles Crest, about 53 miles from La Cañada. Past Islip Saddle, where steep mountainsides hug the road, we had to dodge a lot of rocks on the pavement. We figured there must have been either an earthquake or animals like bighorn sheep scooting around up high, setting loose the rocks. But a Forest Service info officer I later talked to thought the rockfall might have been from recent rains. Hmm. It hadn’t rained at that point for nearly two weeks…I HOPE Caltrans is clearing those roads more often than that.

At any rate, the trail on the north slope of Baden-Powell — it’s part of the PCT — starts uphill right away, and it’s a conifer lover’s dream. At first you’re surrounded by sugar pine, Jeffrey pine, white fir and incense cedar. As you gain elevation — if you can catch breath enough to take notice — the more exposed forest becomes lodgepole pine and gnarled limber pines.

Bench at about switchback 6 or 7 enroute to Mt. Baden-Powell.
Bench at about switchback 6 or 7 enroute to Mt. Baden-Powell.

If you need the bench at about the sixth of seventh switchback, you’re probably in a spot of trouble because there’s way more elevation to gain and at least 30 more switchbacks. Like Mt. Waterman, this is classic Angeles High Country, reminiscent of the Sierra. The trailhead elevation of 6,585 feet could compete with many a Sierra hike. There really aren’t any breaks in the relentless elevation gain, so flatlanders living at sea level definitely want to take it easy and guzzle plenty of water.

About 1.5 miles in is a turnoff for Lamel Spring, which is usually just a trickle in warmer months. In about another mile, the steepest switchbacks start. This is also where we started to see patches of snow and even some ice on the trail. It was mostly slushy, but there were a few spots of hard-pack ice. Which is why the dad we saw carrying his child in a pack ended up turning around before hitting the ice. Keep in mind that what goes up, may possibly slide down on the way back.

Snow on Baden-Powell trail

A quarter mile from the top, there’s a junction where the PCT continues to the right. The path to the left — still straight up — leads to the summit of Baden-Powell. A hard-to-miss landmark here is the Wally Waldron tree, a 1,500-year-old limber pine named for a Boy Scout volunteer. If the trees remind you of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, that’s because these gnarly limbers are the only trees that share those high desert slopes.

Wally Waldron limber pine tree near the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.
Wally Waldron limber pine tree near the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.

The summit is bare except for a dead tree trunk, along with a monument to Lord Baden-Powell, who founded the Boy Scouts organization in 1907, and a hikers’ register.

Approaching the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.
Approaching the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.

Once we caught our breath, it was taken away again by the amazing  views. The summit is directly across the East Fork San Gabriel River basin from, and slightly west of, Mount Baldy. We were more than a vertical mile above the canyon of the East Fork San Gabriel and the Sheep Mountain Wilderness.

From the peak of Mt. Baden-Powell, you can see more than a vertical mile below into the canyon of the East Fork San Gabriel River and Sheep Mountain Wilderness.
View from the peak of Mt. Baden-Powell.

It was a bit hazy, but to the west we could just make out Catalina Island and the coast. With storms moving through now, Baden-Powell will likely be tough to access for a while, but once the road reopens and it’s safe to hike, the views should be clearer and astounding.

One thing I’ll say about this trail that really bugs me: I’ve never seen so much evidence of hikers cutting switchbacks. People: cutting switchbacks causes erosion and trail damage. Please stop! I finally had to say something to the hikers in back of us, and the response was genuine surprise. Maybe people just don’t realize the damage they’re causing. At some point, I think the Forest Service needs to line the trail with rocks or logs at those shortcuts.

To find out if Highway 2 is open after this weekend’s storm, you can check Caltrans’ road conditions site. Even if Highway 2 is closed at Islip Saddle, Vincent Gap can be reached from the west, from the Wrightwood end of the highway. Here’s video of the summit benchmark and a glimpse of the views…enjoy, and be careful out there…