Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries immigrants new to the Los Angeles Basin colonized the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountain Range with cabins, lodges and tourist camps. Floods in the 1930s washed most of these structures away, but stone staircases, river-rock walls and exploded gardens of Agave americana gone 80 years feral remain.
The Arroyo Seco runs through these ruins for most of the year: Perhaps the most idyllic effect of that era of human habitation is the modest waterfall formed by the 50-foot tall debris dam found at the end of a faded trail that runs north from the Paul Little Picnic Area.
Though it tapers off as it flows down toward Pasadena and the grounds of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the creek cuts a riparian canyon lush with mosses, oaks and sycamores through these hills — hills that are just the beginning of the vast wilderness of the Angeles National Forest — north of the Gould Mesa campground.
The first time I walked up Mt. Islip — an 8,000 foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, about 50 miles from my house in Northeast Los Angeles — I came down by moonlight sort of by accident. I tend to get a late start on a lot of my hikes, mostly because I enjoy weekend mornings zoning out on my porch listening to Francoise Hardy, drinking a cherry-walnut smoothie and watching my cat Spider run around in the yard.
The trail is an easy three or four miles one way, and I arrived at the top just as the sun was starting to set, barely making out the towers of downtown Los Angels through the orange haze. I hung around on the peak — bald rock with four chunks of cinder block, the foundation of a long-gone fire watchtower from the 1930s — until the light was mostly gone. It wasn’t until I was making my way down in the dusk when it occurred to me that the woods were still crawling with hunters. It was the heart of deer season, November 5, 2006, and the Islip Saddle parking lot had been full of pickup trucks and camo-sporting Latino dudes hanging out with their freshly-killed deer carcasses rather than the usual crowd of white granola-types and their Subaru Outbacks.
The moon came up over the mountains about an hour after dark, illuminating every crooked branch of the trees on the fire-scarred ridgeline above me. It glowed and sparkled silver on the rock that sloped up from the fire road I was walking, and it shined in the arc of pee that I sent running down the closed, two-lane blacktop highway that I’d followed to the trailhead. (The Angeles Crest Highway has been closed with a heavy gate at mile 64.1 for months now, I think because of some rockslides further east.) I was singing a jolly country song about a guy who killed a woman in Tennessee and was now running for the Mexico border when I realized that two hunters, sitting by the side of the road, had been watching me from a distance as I ambled along, dancing and urinating gratuitously in the middle of the road. Yeesh. “Buenas noches, cazadores,” I said, remembering the word for “hunters” from a tequila bottle. “Uh-huh,” they replied, understandably unimpressed. They asked me if I’d seen their friend, who was long overdue at the parking lot. I told them I hadn’t seen anyone, and walked on.
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.
Another classic from On The Natural:
My first attempt at the Royal Gorge, a swimming hole in the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, ended with me squealing like a pig and scrambling like a goat over the rocks, logs and boulders of Long Canyon. I’d failed to reach the gorge itself; I decided to turn back while suspended on a rock wall over a murky pool of algae-choked water. I’d just hurled my walking stick over the pool and was unbuckling my pack to throw that as well, intending to leap after these accessories and continue the quest. I paused for a minute and watched a California Newt paddling in the muck below. Read More