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HIKING: SAN RAFAEL HILLS

La Canada Flintridge Keeps Its Focus on Trails

November 05, 2000|JOHN McKINNEY

In the early 1900s, outdoors enthusiast and real estate developer Frank Flint created and marketed a woodsy suburb laced with riding and hiking trails in the San Rafael Hills in L.A. County. Flintridge, as the community was dubbed, has been attractive to resident ramblers and visiting hikers ever since. The area's trail system and still-undeveloped hillsides have long been considered community assets and are fiercely defended by conservation-minded citizens.

Every community should be as hiker-friendly. Footpaths and fire roads link La Canada Flintridge with the Arroyo Seco and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the extensive trail system of the San Gabriel Mountains.

An ambitious LaCF (as locals abbreviate it) resident could conceivably hike on trails from the 'burbs to the top of Mt. Baldy. A sister range to the nearby Verdugo Mountains, the San Rafael Hills make a natural border between the busy San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. The hills are similar in composition (highly fractured metamorphic rocks) to the Verdugos, but lower (Flint Peak is tops at 1,889 feet) and more extensively weathered and eroded.

The lower reaches of the San Rafaels have been settled--"mansionized," as some residents grouse--while the upper ramparts are untouched. During the 1990s, local conservationists thwarted developers intent on building dozens of huge haciendas atop the crest of the hills.

Travelers get a bird's-eye view of the San Rafael Hills while motoring along the Glendale Freeway between Glendale and La Canada Flintridge.

Cherry Canyon is a good place to begin a short hike into the San Rafael Hills. The trail system here is in good shape and features first-rate signage, thanks to the efforts of the city and the La Canada Flintridge Trails Council.

Some blackened slopes bear witness to a December 1999 brush fire that raced across the hills. The fire's flash point was a faulty transformer on a power pole very near the Cherry Canyon trail head. Sometimes nature's rapid regeneration is remarkable; the tenacious chaparral has already grown phoenix-like from the ashes to repopulate the hillsides.

My only complaint about roaming these hills was getting hoodwinked (by a trail map and trail signs) into hiking to Descanso Gardens. I figured I'd trek a couple of miles across the hills to Descanso, saunter through the rose gardens, enjoy lunch there, then stroll La Canada Flintridge's handsome tree-lined streets back to the trail head at Cherry Canyon.

I figured wrong.

When I neared the gardens, my first thought was that I had missed a critical junction and somehow ended up at the perimeter of a penitentiary. A towering chain-link fence topped by barbed wire stopped me in my tracks. From the way the barbed wire was positioned, I deduced such security measures were devised not to keep camellias from escaping the gardens but to prevent hikers from entering Descanso without paying the entrance fee.

Given the community's century-long trails advocacy, I have no doubt La Canada Flintridge will one day fill in the gaps in its trail system, construct a few connector trails and create an even better network of pathways that encourages longer hikes.

Directions to trail head: From the Glendale Freeway (California 2), just south of its junction with the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) in La Canada Flintridge, exit on Verdugo Boulevard. Turn right (east) and drive 0.3 mile to Descanso Drive. Turn right and proceed 0.7 mile to Chevy Chase Drive. Turn right, then soon make another right onto Hampstead Road, which you'll follow on a 0.5-mile ascent to the signed turnoff for Cherry Canyon Open Space. Park alongside the preserve's access road near the signed Owl Trail.

The hike: Owl Trail meanders up oak- and sycamore-shaded Cherry Canyon. You'll soon encounter a short (200-foot) connector trail with a sign that directs you to Cerro Negro Trail. Ignore this trail and continue on Owl Trail, which all too soon leaves the cool recesses of the canyon and ascends onto brushy and still-fire-blackened slopes.

About 0.3 mile from the trail head, you'll reach a signed junction with Cerro Negro Trail, which contours south over to Lookout Tower. For a more direct route to the top, continue straight on Owl Trail on a steep 0.2-mile ascent to the main dirt fire road on the ridge crest.

You'll spot a fire lookout tower; bear left and hike south toward it. The faded green tower, perched on steel framing, must have given fire lookouts of yesteryear quite a good view of the San Rafael Hills, Verdugo Mountains, San Gabriel Mountains, San Gabriel Valley and more. At 1,887 feet, the unnamed peak where the now-retired tower rests is only 2 feet shorter than Flint Peak, high point of the hills.

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