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Activities | ROAD TRIP / Angeles Crest Highway

Angeles Crest Is High Heaven for Riders Seeking Solace and Spectacular Views

October 01, 1998|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Total time: Three hours, round trip, not including stops

Distance: About 120 miles

Level of difficulty: Moderate to high

****

Imagine a ribbon of two-lane highway that offers spectacular mountain vistas, with nary a trace of civilization in sight.

You wind your way through dense forests and wildflower-dotted brushland at the beginning of the route, which leads ever upward to a nearly 8,000-foot elevation, where the air is sparkling clear and sparse trees soar upward like spires amid sheer rock cliffs.

There are no billboards along this 59-mile route and no fast-food chains--just a few rustic cafes, forest ranger outposts and graceful bridges.

This is truly motorcycle heaven.

And it's only about half an hour from Hollywood--even closer to Pasadena and other San Gabriel Mountain locales.

The route is Angeles Crest Highway, stretching north and eastward through Angeles National Forest from La Canada Flintridge to a juncture with California 138, just over the line into San Bernardino County.

This highway is no secret in local and even national motorcycle circles. Angeles Crest--a.k.a. California 2--is a revered route that offers, in addition to its spectacular setting, enough winding curves to challenge any level of rider.

On a summer weekend, hundreds of motorcyclists head for the highway, sometimes in packs but most often spread out to ride solo or in groups of two or three. You can spot a wide range of bikes, including laid-back Harleys and touring cycles. But for the most part, Angeles Crest is the domain of lean-and-nimble sports bikes that in the hands of skilled riders can smoothly streak around curves as if bending the highway up to meet them.

One main caveat before heading for the route: During winter there are often patches of highly treacherous snow and ice on the highway, even if temperatures are moderate in the city. Storms and dense banks of fog can descend quickly.

Indeed, during the height of winter, some eastern sections of the highway are closed by the U.S. Forest Service to all traffic.

Check weather reports when temperatures drop, and you can get a general description of the road conditions on Angeles Crest (or on any other state highway) on the California Department of Transportation's Web site: http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo.

The traditional day-ride starting point on Angeles Crest is its intersection with Foothill Boulevard in La Canada Flintridge. There are several nearby gas stations where you can fill your tank (if you ride the highway straight through, there will not be another gas station for about 59 miles).

Heading north, you pass through a residential neighborhood, but by Mile 2 you are already deep in the San Gabriel Mountains. In spring months, the displays of wildflowers at the lower elevations can be awesome, but you have to slow down or stop to get a truly good look.

Almost from the start, this route is chock-full of twisting turns that demand your full attention. Around any bend there can be opposing traffic--more than a few times, I've seen cars and even some motorcycles (for shame!) wander over the dividing line because of misjudgment or excessive speed.

And did I mention that on much of the route, there are no guardrails between you and sheer drop-offs? Daydreaming can be hazardous.

Angeles Crest is a marvel of engineering that took 42 years to complete, from the first survey in 1919 to the dedication of the final link in 1961, according to "Los Angeles A to Z" by Leonard and Dale Pitt.

You can pick up a detailed road and trail map of Angeles National Forest (so designated in 1892, the first in the state), at Forest Service headquarters at 701 N. Santa Anita Ave. in Arcadia. The cost is $4.

By about Mile 12 on Angeles Crest, you're already at 4,000 feet. At Mile 14 is the turnoff to Mt. Wilson and its world-famous observatory--certainly worth a visit, especially if time doesn't allow you to do the rest of Angeles Crest.

At Mile 19, you're at 5,000 feet and the views are getting truly memorable, especially on early-morning rides with mist coming off the mountains ahead. Mile 26 brings you to Newcomb Ranch, a restaurant that is a fabled stopover for motorcyclists.

On Sundays (Newcomb's is open only Fridays through Mondays in the non-summer months), you'll see dozens of cycles out front if the weather is good for riding. The popular drinks at the bar are iced tea and lemonade--only a fool would have a beer and then get back on a motorcycle--best savored while wandering among parked bikes and talking shop. It's not unusual to find serious racers and other well-known sports bike aficionados here, including one of the most respected of celebrity riders, singer Lyle Lovett.

Before you leave, drop a buck in the jar that goes toward providing Forest Service patrols with medical supplies.

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