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GETAWAYS : Turning Back the Season : Although the calendar says it's summer, trails on Waterman Mountain take hikers back to the spring.

July 02, 1993|WALTER HOUK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Walter Houk writes frequently about recreation for Valley Life

You get a sense of beating the system when you can select your season by altitude. Right now, spring is the season. Though gone from the calendar and from the lowlands, it lingers above 6,000 feet or so in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.

A trail on the sunny south flank of Waterman Mountain gets you there. Serious mountain country, it has slopes so precipitous you wonder how winter snow could cling. Its slopes of rock and gravel are so young, in geological terms, that there is little soil. Along the way, great granite outcrops suggest colossal sculpture or the Inca fortress architecture of Machu Picchu in the Andes.

Yet the land supports an open, park-like forest of tall pines and incense cedar over mats of pine needles cluttered with cones. Flowers enliven dry slopes with spots of color, and others flourish beside shady rivulets and on damp green swales. Springs and streams still flow and a few glades remain green and dotted with lacy ferns. In such spots, the show's climax is the lemon lily. Sometimes as tall as you are, it will be conspicuous with big yellow blossoms in three weeks or so.

When fall is approaching on the calendar, summer dryness turns grass and bracken crisp, and creeks dwindle, a process hastened this year by early heat waves. Yet with luck and cool high-country weather, you will see enough patches of green and flower color to sustain the vernal mood.

The Waterman route offers hiking goals in well-defined increments, with stiff climbs at either end but a gentler gradient in the middle.

City folk can enjoy the area's delights in a half-day, three- or four-mile walk before turning back. At five miles, trail junction signs offer a choice of another mile down to Twin Peaks Saddle or two miles up to the Waterman Mountain summit. The round trip then is 12 miles to the saddle or 14 to the peak, and either requires most of a day. For fanatics, there is also an arduous ascent without a trail beyond the saddle to the eastern peak of the Twin Peaks. That adds three miles to the round trip and 1,200 feet of elevation gain.

You start from a trail head parking lot on Sulphur Springs Road, an hour up from La Canada Flintridge on Angeles Crest Highway.

Then you climb. The first two miles rise from a 5,900-foot elevation up a western shoulder of the long Waterman crest. You enter the San Gabriel Wilderness through high chaparral, oaks, Coulter pine and the beginning of yellow-pine forest. To the north, you glimpse the Mojave Desert; to the south you look into the deep gash of lower Devils Canyon.

Around a bend begins the two-mile second section. It follows two major indentations eroded by creek systems into the mountain that would be coves if the sea rose to the trail's altitude. In their deepest recesses, both have broad, slanting meadows kept fresh by creeks and springs. Luxuriant with young conifers, flowers, grass and ferns, these little oases are the springtime you came to see.

In the mile-long third phase, the rugged Twin Peaks get ever closer in view across upper Devils Canyon. The trail climbs to 7,200 feet along the steep face of Waterman, then drops abruptly to a trail junction.

Downward from that junction, the major event is a creek, alder-shaded and singing in cascades among mossy rock and plant arrangements that any Japanese landscape architect would envy. On down through oaks and chaparral and past another creek, you reach Twin Peaks Saddle at 6,550 feet. This low divide between Bear Canyon to the east and Devils Canyon to the west is all rock and spreading manzanita thickets in mounds pressed low by winter snow. Beside the creek that plunges down Devils Canyon is an idyllic place for lunch before the return.

Upward from the trail junction, you scale unrelenting the mountainside to the top of Waterman. A mile-long ridge with three peaks at about 8,000 feet, it forms a semicircle beside a rolling upland above the Waterman ski lift, up from the highway on the mountain's north side. Looking out over Bear Canyon to the high eastern range, down over Twin Peaks and Devils Canyon and the plain beyond to the sea, this is the day's high point.

WHERE TO GO

Getting there: From Angeles Crest Highway, turn onto Sulphur Springs Road (also marked Santa Clara Divide Road) and into a parking lot for hikers. Shown as Three Points on maps but not on signs, the intersection is 29.1 miles from La Canada Flintridge. At the south edge of the lot are a restroom, drinking fountain and the trail head. Take the trail downhill, turn left where it joins the Pacific Crest Trail and follow it across the highway. Then after a brief climb, turn right at a junction where a sign marks the Mt. Waterman Trail. You're on your way. Take lunch, at least a quart of water per person and insect repellent--for springtime also brings out deer flies and gnats.

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