Growing crowds of day-trippers are overwhelming Angeles National Forest, using the massive wilderness in ways that stand backcountry tradition on its head and forcing officials to barricade major roadways into the area on many weekends and holidays.
Narrow strips of greenery along the main roadways of the forest have been turned into a new form of urban park, leaving the vast interior virtually untouched.
The sweltering summer heat brings thousands of mostly Latino families to the forest, where their cars line the twisting roadways for miles and disgorge a cargo of barbecues, ice chests, playpens and lawn chairs.
San Gabriel Canyon, once home of a nationally recognized trout fishery, is now known among rangers as "Barbecue Alley," where the aroma of charcoal smoke and rhythmic salsa music overwhelm the scent of pine and the babble of a cool mountain creek.
This weekend could provide the ultimate test of patience for forest officials and picnickers alike as they face the Labor Day Weekend crush, one of the busiest periods of the year. Forest officials say they expect most of the primary mountain roads to be closed at some point on all three days of the long holiday weekend.
Federal officials routinely barricade key roadways into the forest--including California 39 north of Azusa, Big Tujunga Canyon above Sunland and Lytle Creek Road near Cajon Pass--because there are too many people and not enough room for all their vehicles. On hot Sundays and holidays, the roads can close as early as 11 a.m. and remain closed for hours as officials wait for the throngs to thin out.
The big crowds have created a diverse set of environmental, social and traffic challenges for forestry officials and spawned some innovative responses that may provide a road map for national forests around the country that may soon be wrestling with the problems of creeping urbanization, officials say.
"We don't see this anywhere else" in a national forest, said Sam Ham, a professor of forestry at the University of Idaho who has studied the Angeles Forest situation. "But this is the near future for a lot of the United States."
"What we see here, we'll see in Salt Lake City, Denver and Seattle in four years," said Ranger Julie Molzahn of the Tujunga District of the U.S. Forest Service.
Forestry experts, sociologists and environmentalists say that overcrowding is caused by a need to escape packed city parks, leave crime behind and find cheap family entertainment.
"It's close, it's accessible, it's inexpensive, it's a nice time for the family," said Alex Gonzales of the California Highway Patrol, which monitors the mountain roads.
Jim Park, chief of planning for the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department, said the overcrowding is part of the natural development of Southern California. "It is the constant influx of newcomers . . . looking for places less crowded," he said.
The families come in large parties, increasingly early in the day and staying till dusk. Sundays and national holidays are the busiest, but Saturdays are increasingly crowded, rangers report.
Forest Service surveys show that the average group visiting the Angeles Forest consists of nine to 10 people, about double the national average of four to five people per party. Groups of 20 and 25 are not unusual in the local forest, according to some surveys.
Few of these new visitors venture more than a few hundred feet beyond the road, rangers say.
This marks a tremendous difference from what park planners call the "Ozzie and Harriet model" of the small, nuclear family going to the woods to hike and contemplate nature. Most national parks and forests and, for that matter, city and county parks were designed with that traditional model in mind.
The new wave of forest visitors seeks out areas with running streams, making San Gabriel and Big Tujunga canyons with their year-round water resources among the most popular. But the Lytle Creek, Little Rock and San Antonio Canyon areas are also routinely experiencing crushing traffic.
The forest has limited picnic, parking and camping areas, able to handle just a few hundred of the thousands of weekend picnickers. So most just pull over and park where they can along the narrow roadways.
The weekend canyon visitors say the forest is a good place to cool off, get away and enjoy family and friends.
Tomas Velasquez is typical of the new breed of canyon picnickers. He moved to the United States from El Salvador in 1988. His friends brought him to San Gabriel Canyon during his first year in this country and it reminded him of home. And even though nature may appear overrun, it does not bother Velasquez. "There's nothing wrong with the crowds here. It's crowded in the city, isn't it?" he said.
"It's beautiful here," agreed Juan Alcarez of Bell Gardens. "It's worth the pain [of traffic]. . . . This is a nice change of pace from going to the beach."