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Day Hike

Nature's Wonder Lies Near Downtown L.A.

October 31, 1987|JOHN McKINNEY

Los Angeles residents, while inching along on some crowded interchange, may be comforted by knowing that no other metropolis in America has a Wilderness Area so close. When you hike through the primeval canyons of the San Gabriel Wilderness Area, you won't believe you're only 18 as-the-crow-flies miles from downtown Los Angeles. The 36,000-acre wilderness is rough and rugged country, the bulk of which is contained in two canyons, Devil's and Bear.

The Wilderness Area is bordered on three sides by roads: on the north and west by California 2, on the east by California 39. Picnickers and campers crowd its edges, skiers peer down at it from nearby ridges. But despite its accessibility, most people only look at this wilderness. The view down from the brink of Devil's Canyon, the sharp descent, and the thought of the walk back up, scare off casual walkers.

Devil's Canyon Trail, from the Chilao Visitor Center on Angeles Crest Highway to the trail camp, is one of the most majestic of the five maintained trails that cross the wilderness. It takes you through the middle third of the canyon, along the willow-shaded creek to spots that make the big city seem hundreds of miles away.

Forest History

Located just off the Angeles Crest Highway near the trailhead, is the Angeles National Forest Chilao Visitor Center. Exhibits interpret flora, fauna, and forest history. Behind the station is a short nature trail. For the latest trail, road or weather conditions, drop by the station 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily or call: (818) 796-5541.

One tiny exhibit at the visitor center answers a trivia question that perplexes all day hikers who depart from Chilao area trailheads: What exactly does Chilao mean? As the story goes, one of highwayman Vasquez's men, Jose Gonzales, lived in a log cabin in the area near where the visitor center now stands. Gonzales guarded the hide-out and horses. His battle with a huge bear, which he killed using only a knife, earned him the name Chillia --roughly translated as "hot stuff." The name over the last century of use evolved into Chilao.

Directions to trailhead: From the Foothill Freeway 210 in La Canada, exit on California 2 (Angeles Crest Highway) and proceed 28 miles to the trailhead. There's ample parking across the highway from the trailhead. A short distance before the trailhead is a highway overlook, which offers a grand view of Devil's Canyon and an information display about the San Gabriel Wilderness.

The Hike: Remind yourself, as you leave the trailhead and begin descending steeply into the canyon, that the tough part of this trip comes last. Pace yourself accordingly. The trail steps back and forth from pine and spruce on the shady slopes to thick chaparral on sunny slopes.

After two miles, the trail meets a (mostly dry) creek and descends with the creek down into the canyon. At trail's end is Devil's Canyon Trail Camp, a primitive creek-side retreat, where the only sound you hear is the rustle of alder leaves. From the trail camp, you can return the same way or do some more exploring downstream.

Below the trail camp, a path follows Devil's Creek for a short distance, but soon ends. At this time of year, there's not much water in Devil's Creek, so it's easy to continue following the creek. You pick your way across rock islands in the creek. The walls of Devil's Canyon close in on you and you find yourself in trackless boulder-hopping country; pleasant but slow going.

Skilled hikers will enjoy exploring the lower reaches of Devil's Canyon, particularly after autumn and winter rains swell the creek. When the creek is full, your journey will involve many crossings, improvisation around many deep pools and a careful descent over misty boulders. The canyon narrows, its steep rock walls pinching Devil's Creek into a series of cascades. As the canyon narrows more and drops steeper, the cascades grow more spectacular and waterfalls occur.

Devil's Canyon Trail

Chilao to Devil's Canyon Trail Camp: Seven miles round trip; 1,500-foot elevation loss.

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