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HAPPY TRAILS : Resort Camps in Big Santa Anita Canyon Still Provide Refuge From Urban Stress

July 24, 1986|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Back in 1893, Sierra Madre resident Wilbur Sturtevant, having tried his hand at gold prospecting and running a pack train, set up a cluster of tents in a clearing deep within Big Santa Anita Canyon.

Sturtevant advertised his modest digs as a "hiking resort," a place where Los Angeles residents could escape the hectic pace of city life.

The camp operator's gamble that people would hike a half-dozen miles to relax in the shade of his spruce trees paid off.

Sturtevant soon built a lodge and a few cabins, establishing the first of several hiking resorts that thrived in the San Gabriel Mountains during the early decades of this century.

Hardy Survivor

The resort boom spawned by Sturtevant has long since withered, but the camp he built has clung tenaciously to its canyon crevice, weathering fires, floods, changes in ownership and severe fluctuations in the hiking resort business.

Owned and operated by the United Methodist Church since 1943, Sturtevant Camp offers hikers essentially the same thing it did at the turn of the century: a refuge from urban noise and stress but with amenities not available to backpackers.

Today, more hikers are taking advantage of Sturtevant's attractions than at any time since the camp's heyday.

During the first six months of this year, 670 people stayed at Sturtevant, a 34% increase from the same period in 1985. Five years ago, the camp averaged about 400 guests for the entire year.

"We've seen an increase in people and also a change in the type of users," said Gary Keene, a Methodist minister who worked at the camp from 1979 to July 1 of this year, managing it since 1984.

After years of being primarily a church retreat, he said, Sturtevant--which is available to anyone, regardless of religious affiliation--is becoming a popular recreation spot.

"Previously, the bulk of the use was kids--Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, church groups and school groups," Keene said.

"The last couple years, we've been seeing a lot more singles groups, couples and families who just want to come up and hang out," he said.

In Search of Seclusion

The adult visitors come to Sturtevant Camp for the same quality that lured thousands during the canyon's resort boom: seclusion.

"The adults really know how to enjoy it--there are no phones up there, no way for them to be bugged," Keene said.

The trail to the camp, now only four miles long since the completion of Santa Anita Canyon Road, begins near the Chantry Flats ranger station.

Guests not wishing to lug their personal effects to the camp can rent the services of the Chantry Flats pack station, whose train of horses, mules and burros has hauled supplies into the canyon since the turn of the century.

Roughing It

The camp, with its hot showers and meal service, may not be rugged enough for some backpackers.

But while long-distance runners routinely jog the Sturtevant trail as part of an 18-mile round trip to Mt. Wilson, some camp patrons still are not prepared for the Spartan stroll to Sturtevant.

"A lot of folks have no conception of it, they have nothing to compare it to," Keene said. "They show up with big Samsonite luggage. It doesn't fit on the burros very well."

Despite the rigors of getting to the camp, even the most citified visitor usually is won over by its pastoral beauty, Keene said.

"They sweat and . . . moan on the way up, but once they get up there, they love it because there's no place like it," Keene said.

Even though the numbers of people visiting Sturtevant Camp are beginning to approach those of its glory days, when it would host as many as 100 hikers on busy weekends, the camp is a far cry from the resorts of the turn of the century.

Auld Lang Syne

"It's nothing like it was then," said Kenyon De Vore, an information officer with the U. S. Forest Service station at Chantry Flats.

"Back then, it was more like a hotel," De Vore said. "There were 20 or 30 resorts in the mountains, five in the Big Santa Anita Canyon alone, and people would hike from one to another."

De Vore, 74, is the canyon's resident expert on the hiking resort era. His parents, Ernest and Cherie De Vore, built Camp West Fork just beyond the canyon's northern ridge in 1913. They opened Valley Forge Lodge, a second, more modern resort five miles east of Mt. Wilson, in 1922.

Camp West Fork closed in 1925 and Valley Forge Lodge was destroyed by the flood of 1938. Today, their former locations are marked only by the De Vore and Valley Forge trail campgrounds.

Historical Lore

However, they left a deep and detailed imprint in the memory of De Vore, who entertains canyon visitors with tales of such resorts as Hoegee's Camp, Fern Lodge and, of course, Sturtevant.

After its start in 1893, the hiking boom hit full stride in 1906 when the Pacific Electric Rail Car line was extended to Sierra Madre. A terminus was located near what is now the corner of Highland and Montecito avenues.

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