The Gabrielino Trail runs almost 30 miles from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Chantry Flats, winding its way through the turn-of-the-19th Century human ruins that litter the front range of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. A kind of “hiking boom” in the 1890s had gentleman wood-walkers rambling about these hills with their fancy moustaches and OG L.L. Bean gear, building huts, cabins, bridges and dams.
Most spectacular among these intrusions into the wilderness is the work of Professor Thaddeus Lowe. An entrepreneur and self-trained scientist, Lowe spent the Civil War years doing aerial reconnaissance of Confederate positions from a balloon. He moved to Pasadena, CA in 1887, started a bank and in 1893 opened a railway that scaled up 3,250-foot high Echo Mountain, where he’d constructed a chalet. Several years later he opened another hotel and tavern on the mountain. By 1905 the mountains had rejected all of these structures, destroying them by way of fire and flood. All that remains are a few cement foundations and an abandoned train tunnel, along with the decaying roadways and stone walls that are peppered throughout this wilderness that abuts the affluent suburbs that spread east along the foothills.
I returned to seek the Royal Gorge on a hot Saturday afternoon, the first weekend of July. The Gabrielino Trail is an easy walk for the first few miles as its an old road. Bridges with truck-weight specifications span the lively creek, thick glades shade the trail and stonemasonry juts out of the hillsides: terraced gardens of agaves that mark old campgrounds and graffiti-marked foundations of what look to be houses. Occasionally the trees are scarred with more graffiti, the older it is the higher it lies on the trunk.
The midway point of the hike is a short climb, a series of switchbacks that pass over an old dam that sends a trickle of water down through the shade. I stand on top of the apex of this pass and listen to kids frolicking hundreds of feet down below in the sparkling splatter of mountain water.
The trail is dry from here until the Oakwilde campground. The rocks of the creekbed are shockingly white with calcified minerals bleaching in the sun. It’s easily in the 90s and I’m stumbling a bit. I set out from the trailhead at 12:15 pm, bound and determined to make my way to the Royal Gorge during the heat of the day so as to fully appreciate the cool pleasures of its depths.
I take a short break and nibble on an energy bar in the Oakwilde campground. It too is a relic of the glory days of woodland walking culture. These days are long gone though, and the campground is in a state of eerie disrepair, all rusting stoves and splintered picnic tables. There’s nothing like human relics left to rot in the wilderness to show the true endurance of the trees, dirt and rocks. The metals rust, the straight lines of the stone staircases are overrun with weeds and the dead boards of the tables warp in a climate where the living wood of the trees thrives and even the unstable geology of this crumbling mountain range has millennia to go before it reaches such a state.
After another mile the Gabrielino Trail heads up a hill toward the crowded — relatively speaking — Switzer Falls area of the San Gabriels. The path to the Royal Gorge breaks off here and heads up Long Canyon. It’s five miles to this fork, and two more miles up the canyon. The very fact that this is a daunting hike for me marks me as a pretender to the “mountain man” moniker that people sometime lay upon my shoulders. True mountain men — and women — from Appalachian Trail through-hikers to the lice-infested — and seemingly psychotic — trailblazers that lead white settlers in their genocidal conquest of these lands 200 some years ago — would scoff at such a classification. I’m more like Huell Howser minus the Tennessee twang. This is to say that I’m going wandering up this canyon toward a swimming hole out of dumb curiosity than anything else.
The two miles traveling up Long Canyon is slow going. There’s not any climbing to do — outside of the occasional task of boosting myself up over particularly large boulders. But since there’s no trail I must be conscious of every step. Rocks roll under my feet, my boots slip and my knees twist. And considering this is where I had an encounter with an angry rattlesnake last month, I’m waving my walking stick in front of me like a blind man, rustling through piles of dried leaves and clacking around in dark crevices in order to warn my serpentine friends that I’m heading their way. No snakes this time, but I can tell this is a rough stretch of canyon: lots of the lizards that scramble out of my path are missing parts of their tails.
The water is lower now — there has been no rain since my last trip in early June. Weather forecasters predict that the Southland will remain dry until at least the fall. NPR reports that some climatologists are suggesting the current drought may be “permanent.” This means, of course, that Los Angeles has a grim future — see Ocatvia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, anything by Mike Davis or Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert for more on this fun topic. And right now it means that I’m worried about heatstroke, and the lack of running water to purify with my filter to replenish the dwindling supply in my bottles. It’s painfully obvious out here in the wilderness that this part of the country wasn’t made to support the 17 million or so thirsty human creatures that have decided to take up residence here.
My stomach really is rumbling as I hit the mile and a half mark up the canyon, and I stop in the shade of a tree to rest. I wonder if I’m going to puke. I’m hot, dressed in long pants and a linen shirt. Most of the trip up Long Canyon is stumbling across rocks, but occasionally I come close enough to the poison oak-infested scrub brush the climbs up the walls that I want to bare as little skin as possible. It’s with a clear picture in my mind of what poison oak looks like that I begin to gather leaves from the tree that shades my resting place. I’m coming to terms with the fact — rather reluctantly — that I’m going to have to make like the proverbial bear in the woods. Something about my morning peanut-butter banana smoothie isn’t sitting well with me.
Shitting in the woods is something that anybody who goes backpacking has to come to terms with. Not true, actually, now that I think about it: I recall on my first long-haul backpacking trip in 1995 that one of my companions — one of three sorority girls among a busload of crunchy marijuana-blazing hippies from Indiana University — held her load for a full week traveling through the Gila National Forest of southern New Mexico. The point being though that it’s nice to be prepared for such an adventure — though of course you gotta pack any toilet paper out that you pack in. And if you don’t have toilet paper, you need to make sure that you know the difference between poison oak and all the other leaves.
It’s about 45 minutes after this pit-stop that I come to the place where I’d abandoned the trail before. The pool that was previously knee-deep with mucky water is now easily traversed. The water is shallow, but trout swim for cover at the splash of my boots so at least I know it’s been standing for some time.
Long Canyon twists and curves in such a way that I find the Royal Gorge simply by turning a corner. I stand, drenched in sweat, dumbfounded and relieved at the sight of a deep pool that looks to be 50 feet or so in diameter. I drag my clingy, sweat-soaked clothes off my body and slowly slide from the slippery rock into the cold green water. I gasp, overwhelmed at the blessed feeling of immersion and breast-stroke toward the tiny, slick trickle of water that feeds the bowl. Algae-encrusted branches of a submerged tree trunk brush my calves and I thrash about, slightly freaked out at the fact that I’m swimming alone in the mountains with 15 feet of murky water beneath my feet.
There are a few signs of other visitors: A makeshift raft wrecked on the edge of the pool, little more than a collection of sticks held together with ragged, torn clothes. The remains of some sort of Styrofoam flotation device. But there’s nobody to be seen or heard today. I am alone, floating on my back, listening to the woods reverberate through the water that fills my ear canals.
It’s taken me longer than I expected to reach the gorge. The sun disappears over the canyon wall about 5:30pm, and the air quickly turns cool. I dry off on the edge of the bowl and re-pack my gear. I’m low on water, so I filter some of the water in the bowl. It’s best to pull from a running stream, but I’m thirsty now. The water smells a bit green, but it’s clear and my filter was expensive (thanks Nate!) so I’m not worried.
The walk back down the canyon is full of light as the sun sets. It’ll be gone completely shortly after 8pm, but this secluded stretch of forest is in shadow by 6:30. I reach the pass over the dam, and descend back down to the old roadbed by dusk. Though I was elated to reach the gorge, it’s only here as I recognize the home stretch that the full realization of what a great walk this has been hits me full on. Bats flit overhead, the sky is purple and pink and the forest is filled with a chorus of tree frog songs. It’s an easy walk from here back to my car.
By the time I reach the trailhead I’m out of water and am disturbed by my body’s intense craving for Gatorade. I drive down the 2 to La Canada and stop at a gas station. My feet are blistered, by hair is tangled and matted into gross proto-whiteboy-dreads and the shirt I pulled out of the back seat of my car to replace the ripped linen garb I’d been wearing is buttoned unevenly across my chest. The gas station doors are locked, so I’m forced to holler through bullet-proof glass at the attendant that I want “big … Gatorade … biggest … RED … Gatorade!” I guzzle fruit punch — it’s got the electrolytes that plants crave! — in the parking lot.
I drive home happy but slightly stunned, unable to focus on anything other than the events of the day at hand, pleased with myself that the trail I just walked is longer than the drive from my house in Atwater to the trailhead. Eight hours — plus an hour or so for napping, snacking and the other — walking almost 14 miles of trail in order to swim around in a murky cold mountain swimming hole for 30 minutes.
When I get home I scarf down some brie and eat some cherries, then smoke a joint and drink a cold beer while sitting in a hot bath. In a moment of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski-esque bliss, I lean my head back in the water to listen to War’s “H2 Overture” vibrating through the sides of the tub.
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