Exploring the Angeles National Forest
“In the mountains of San Gabriel, overlooking the lowland vines and fruit groves, Mother Nature is most ruggedly, thornily savage.” – John Muir
A failed rock star first made me really think about them. Until then, they’d just been there, a looming wall of jagged green blocking off the skyline to the north. Silent and a little foreboding, preventing the city’s careless sprawl from creeping any further. They were in fact, as I subsequently discovered, the San Gabriel Mountains.
‘See that one,’ the musician said, pointing to a wide, flattened peak which bristled with masts. ‘That’s Mount Wilson, and it’s brilliant.’
I love mountains. I am at my happiest when on them. For many years, I’d headed to the Scottish Highlands come summer, slogging up and down hills – for they are not called mountains there – at times drenched by rain, occasionally by sun, always by sweat. But I hadn’t really understood, before I moved, that there were mountains right next to LA. That actually, there are mountains in LA. I was yet to discover that the city’s proximity to the Gabriels is a little like having a huge chunk of the Highlands directly outside London. Only with more wildfires. And I was yet to learn of the possibilities created by having a 1,000-square-mile wilderness beside one of the largest cities on Earth.
About a month after I arrived in the city, the musician became the first person to tell me something about them, and he did so at exactly the sort of event that would make the San Gabriels all the more precious: a quintessentially LA professional, social gathering. We were standing on a rooftop, 30 or so people from the music industry, drinking and talking cautiously – networking – in an atmosphere of unacknowledged tension. I’d found my way to the edge of the roof, and was looking down on Echo Park’s hodge-podge of Spanish churches, apartment blocks, palm trees, cypresses and scruffy strip malls – happy, mad dabs of colour splashed about the hilly ground. Directly below, on Sunset, a determined homeless man in a filthy vest was pushing a giant female companion along in a shopping trolley. The almost-rock star wandered over. He told me that he’d never want to raise kids in LA. I nodded at his tall, stick-thin girlfriend – an American Apparel model standing a little way from us in a tiny skirt and furry white jacket.
‘So, you’re not planning to have kids with her?’ I asked.
‘Dude, are you kidding?” he replied. ‘She has the mental age of a 12-year-old.’
‘Well, how old is she?’ I asked.
‘I’ve no idea,’ he grinned.
Immediately on moving, I loved the physicality of LA. I loved the space and the wildness. I loved the wildlife – the skunks, coyotes, raccoons and hawks that play on lawns, menace accessory-sized dogs or haunt the skies. I loved the food, the ocean and the brightness. The blue skies, white walls, green palms and scarlet bougainvillea. I loved Griffith Park, with its huge, cliff-clinging wilderness, its lonely, now dead mountain lion and its Art Deco observatory. I liked the people that wished me good morning as they walked their dogs or watered their lawns.
I was less keen on the steely-eyed, work-based socialising. It’s far beyond networking. I had moved for work. Many of the people I met had also moved for work. Most of them wanted to make movies, and movies are, it seems, virtually impossible to actually make. The people that wish to get anywhere near doing so require a supercharged level of ambition, and it seemed that that mindset had infected the music industry (in which I work), too.
In LA, social life is working life. Barbecues, drinks, dinners and lunches: all are opportunities that must not be squandered. For me, barbecues were things you did with friends, occasions at which you could drink heavily without fearing the consequences. Here, the very notion of friendship was different, a concept closer to what I thought of as acquaintance. So, as soon as I discovered the mountains, I bought two hiking guides and an Adventure Pass – required for parking – and started to drive out to them most weekends.
I found my favourite freeway, the 2, immediately. It’s beautiful – a long, wide ramp that fires you out of the city. It’s impossible to feel the gradient change under the car, to see the mountains swelling in the windscreen, without feeling excited, and feeling better. By the time it turns into the winding, vertiginous Angeles Crest Highway, you’re in another world. After 45 minutes, you’re at 5,000 feet. There are alpine forests vaulting above. In winter months, snow. And either side of the Crest are those thousand square miles – enough space to hike for a day without seeing another soul.
Within the canyons and forests are bears, snakes, cougars and bighorn sheep. Once there were grizzlies, condors and a bandit named Vasquez. They are all dead now, but there are places named after them. There are off-roaders, fishermen, campsites, rock climbers and cyclists. But the wilderness also appeals to people with something to hide. There are many, many corpses here. One law enforcement officer was memorably quoted as saying, ‘it would be interesting if all the bodies could stand up at once, so we could acknowledge them, and do a head count.’
The Angeles National Forest is also a magnet for suicides and arsonists, and the latter are its biggest problem. In 2009, the so-called Station Fire was started deliberately, near the foothill town of La Canada. It burned for over a month, and across 250 square miles – one quarter of the forest. The fire even threatened the peak of Mt Wilson, where the looping Video Road and Audio Road’s masts broadcast much of Los Angeles’ television and radio, and which is home to an observatory from which it was discovered that the universe is expanding.
Occasionally, nature appears to get its revenge. In 2010, heavy rains caused mudslides, and the forest spat out a biblically proportioned, 10-ton boulder, which blocked an important drain. A 35-mile-per-hour tide of rocks, earth and trees poured down from the mountains, damaging 43 homes and 23 cars in long-suffering La Canada.
The beleaguered, overstretched law enforcement officers also contend with Satan worshippers and followers of the Santeria faith sacrificing animals, with camping gangbangers, meth labs, marijuana farms and men who’ve abducted women. There are gold prospectors ripping up riverbeds.
The Crest Angeles Highway was blasted out of the mountains by 1930s convicts, and is rumoured to be haunted. It’s a dangerous road at the best of times, but in winter, it is regularly lethal. Motorbikes are locally nicknamed ‘donor cycles’ because their owners die on it so frequently. In December of 1995, a family of four who’d been missing for two weeks was finally found. Their SUV had skidded on ice, and crashed off the highway into deep snow. Injured, and unable to get a mobile signal, the mother of the family had crawled out of the truck and been killed by mountain lions.
But all this is largely the stuff of news items and macabre rumours. Its quick-fix salaciousness pales in comparison to the deep satisfaction of even an average trip to the mountains. If you visit the Angeles Forest, you are unlikely to experience anything other than its beauty, seclusion and magic. Hikes that draw you back time after time. Weirdness, yes – this is LA, after all – but likely no real darkness.
You’ll drive up the Crest, pull into a turnout, climb out of the car and find yourself suddenly standing on a mountainside. On one side of you will be a steep, sandy, scrubby bank of rock, and on the other a long, airy drop. Chaparral – the ubiquitous, tough, woody shrub that grows all over the Gabriels – will be clinging to the cliff faces. There’ll be the spiced scent of pine trees, and heat rising through undergrowth. Paths that may not be paths. Power lines and tiny, gleaming aeroplanes far overhead. Lizards flicking underfoot. Black ravens drifting and croaking all around. Silence beneath it all. A jagged green distance stretching ahead, breathtakingly empty of human life. Expect the heightened alertness and raised pulse caused by being in a place where you’re not really in charge.
The first hike I fell in love with was the trail to Fall Creek Falls. Like many of the Angeles Forest’s paths, the hike begins at the head of a fire road. The locked gate at the Fall Creek trailhead is peppered with holes from shotgun blasts, or small calibre bullets. This is unusual and menacing, and might be something to do with its being one of the few places you can park without an Adventure Pass. The fire road winds down the eastern side of a deep canyon, weaving around the crags and crevices of its wall. The path down to Fall Creek is gentle, the drop from its western edge never becoming frightening. The rock is chalky and off-white, the scrub dark green. Those colours define the bleak, beautiful Gabriels, and set them apart from the cartoon curves and ruddy sandstone glow of their west LA neighbours, the Santa Monicas. To the south is the higher ground of Josephine Peak, and to the west, the sloping bulk of Mount Gleason – a straining shoulder atop a muscular back.
A long way below, in the canyon floor, the creek’s pools gleam a retina-burning white in the sun. There’s a brief, fleeting glimpse of Fall Creek Falls, just before the two-mile mark, at one of two overlooks on the hike. The grey, granitic rock of the waterfall is veined with paler quartz, raised and shiny like the scars on a self-harmer’s wrists. At the bottom, you bushwhack your way through the undergrowth to the base of the waterfall. The pool there is cold and translucent. The first time I stood before it, at the bottom of a vast trench, wondering what might be living in the thick bush around me, I felt a sudden unease.
Further up the Crest, on the western flank of Mt Wilson, are the higher trails that start at eyrie-like Eaton Saddle. Here, I tend to favour the short, strenuous hike to the summit of San Gabriel Peak itself. As you zigzag up, the mountain the range is named for rises into the sky as a sharp-sided bank of rock to your right. To the left as you climb is Mt Disappointment, which was flattened to make way for a Nike Missile launch site in 1955. The peak’s name comes from its once having been thought the highest in the area, until it was discovered that San Gabriel was taller.
The softer curve of Mt Lowe lies across a canyon, below and to the south, named after a man who built a sky-straddling railway to a 70-room Victorian hotel on its summit. Fires and floods eventually destroyed this early attempt to tame the San Gabriels for tourists. A few twisted, rusting pieces of metal remain here and there, as warning signs. Just when the heat, the steepness and thin, dusty air are threatening to become overwhelming, the path to San Gabriel’s pyramidal summit becomes a shady, sylvan trail through pine trees. At the top, there’s a makeshift bench amid bright wildflowers. The first time I slumped there, the summit was covered in yellow and black Anise Swallowtail butterflies. As I walked the last few yards across it, a California Striped Racer snake silently crossed my path. Mt Wilson, usually seen looming over the city, is now below. The experience of looking down on its masts and observatory is strange and giddying.
Walking on mountains is the best way I’ve ever found to make my thinking purposeful. Arriving in LA, a thirty-something with ruptures behind me and uncertainty ahead, there seemed much to think through. From the peaks of the San Gabriels, I found I could look down on my troubles like the haze over the city, and perceive them more clearly. And when I have bad days in the city beneath, I know I can look up at those peaks, conjure the sense of being enfolded in their paths, and never once fail to feel that electric thrill.
Photograph by Jamie Collinson