The Palmer family suspected that their neighbors at Big Oak campground in Angeles National Forest were dealing drugs when they saw visitors exchanging money for small packages.
Their irritation increased when their 4-year-old son hurt his hand opening a broken restroom door.
To top it off, they didn't even want to be at Big Oak. The San Diego family of five had driven four hours to pitch their tents at a more scenic campground straddling a brook that tumbles down a staircase of boulders.
But an iron gate blocked their way at that campsite. It was closed. So were several other campsites scattered along the forest's winding roads.
"We are a little disgusted," Rick Palmer said.
The Palmers aren't alone. More and more campers are discovering that the wilderness experience in Angeles National Forest isn't as picturesque and relaxing as it once was.
Rangers say there has been a sharp increase in damage to the national forest within the Saugus and Tujunga districts, which spread across 335,000 acres of rugged mountains north of the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys.
Desecration of the forest "has just gone crazy," said Jim McGauley, an assistant recreation and resource officer at the Saugus district.
Unable to financially combat the relentless destruction of park property, rangers are closing campgrounds. In the Saugus district, six of the 20 campgrounds, one picnic area and about 80 miles of the 200-mile network of hiking trails have been placed off-limits to the public in the last two years.
More closures are contemplated if the vandalism continues at its current pace.
"In some cases, we've obliterated campgrounds, torn them out," said Mike Wickman, a Saugus forest ranger.
Other sites in the Tujunga and Saugus forests have been restricted to day use to discourage vandals, many of them teen-agers, from terrorizing campers and damaging the campgrounds when they party after dark.
Rangers recite a litany of woes about the disfigurement of the forest.
The life expectancy of newly installed wooden signs in the forest varies from five days to three weeks. The signs--the more elaborate cost $800--are regularly used for target practice by visitors who take arsenals of machine guns, rifles, pistols and armor-piercing bullets.
The canyons where gunfire is permitted are littered with abandoned cars, water heaters, TV sets and other debris that shooters have illegally taken in to use as targets. The garbage has prompted forest employees to rename these areas the "national dump."
Cars Erode Trails
Off-road-vehicle enthusiasts have eroded trails set aside for hikers and horseback riders. Graffiti abound, and, in one case, vandals broke into a cave that contained ancient Indian drawings. At a nature area for the handicapped, vandals destroyed Braille signs identifying trees. The signs, thrown in a duck pond, have never been replaced.
Volunteer hosts, who live at the camp sites, say they see children being harassed by bikers, drug dealing and physical assaults. Rangers say families are often hesitant to pitch a tent in a vacant campground out of fear that no one will hear them if they need help.
Forest rangers are not sure what compels the minority of forest users to splinter a picnic table with a hatchet or throw a bomb in a toilet. But they do have some theories.
"We're the green space for Los Angeles. People like to release their urban pressures when they get to the forest," said Chris Rose, a Tujunga ranger. "That kind of attitude is a problem. If everybody did what they wanted to, it would be destroyed."
Vandalism has increased as the forest's popularity has blossomed. Angeles, which extends east across the San Gabriel Valley, attracts more visitors than any other national forest in the United States.
Last year, 27 million people visited Angeles, including 9 million who went to the part of the forest in the Tujunga and Saugus districts.
Gates are erected only when park employees have failed to keep vandals at bay after four or five years of trying, and closing a campground is a last resort, rangers say.
That fate befell the Zuni campground, just a short drive from the northern reaches of the Santa Clarita Valley suburbs. After sunset, the campground became a magnet for teen-agers who took along beer, drugs and radios, rangers say. The teen-agers set bonfires on picnic tables, using wooden roof shingles and window frames from the restrooms for fuel.
They scratched obscenities in the wet concrete when the road through the campsite was paved. Someone chopped down a 30-foot ash. The campground is nestled in a grove of mainly sycamores, oaks and cottonwoods.
One Sign Spared
The only sign the vandals did not immediately destroy reads, "Zuni campground closed due to vandalism done by youths."