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HIKING: SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS

Finding a Cool Spot Back in the Dawson Saddle

September 03, 2000|JOHN McKINNEY

The trail to Throop Peak reveals the alpine crest of the Angeles National Forest at its best. Here is a pathway that begins among tall trees, travels among them and even ends up on a summit shaded by them.

The trail head for the climb to Throop (pronounced "Troop") is at Dawson Saddle, high point on the Angeles Crest Highway. At 7,903 feet, the saddle is positively High Sierran in altitude and offers the Throop-bound hiker a great head start into the high country.

You'll appreciate this hike on a hot summer day: It can be 30 degrees cooler at Dawson Saddle than in the San Gabriel Valley, which is visible from the top of Throop Peak. Autumn, with its clear days, great vistas and bracing mountain air, is another fine time to take the trail to Throop. (As you might imagine, Dawson Saddle and the higher parts of the Angeles Crest Highway are the first to be closed by snowfall.)

The prominent summit was once known as Dougherty Peak for prospector and big-game hunter Charles Vincent Dougherty, who lived a solitary life in these parts from 1870 to 1926. In his excellent history book, "The San Gabriel Mountains," author John Robinson tells the colorful tale of Dougherty, a.k.a. Charles Tom Vincent, who, in 1926, made a startling deathbed confession: He shot three men in Arizona in 1869 and had been a fugitive from justice ever since.

Neither "Vincent" nor "Dougherty" ever became the official name of the peak. In 1916, four Caltech students scaled the peak, claiming it and naming it for Amos G. Throop, founder of Throop University, forerunner of the California Institute of Technology. Apparently, in the matter of peaks, as in patents, federal registration is everything. Throop boosters succeeded in registering the name with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, and the Throop name remains.

While not unknown, Throop Peak is visited by far fewer hikers than other nearby summits. Eastern neighbor Mt. Baden-Powell (elevation 9,399 feet) attracts most of the troops--Boy Scouts, that is. Legions of boys and their leaders make the pilgrimage to the peak named for scouting founder Lord Robert Stevenson Smyth Baden-Powell. Southwestern neighbor Mt. Hawkins (elevation 8,850 feet) lures lots of hikers because it's accessible from two major trail heads--Little Jimmy Campground and Crystal Lake.

Throop Peak, on the Sierra Club's Hundred Peaks List (summits more than 5,000 feet), gets its share of the more compulsive, goal-oriented peak-baggers among us. Many hikers walk over the shoulder of the peak along one of the most splendid stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Southland but do not detour to the top. If you do get to the top of Throop, you'll likely have the summit and the wonderful view from the 9,138-foot peak all to yourself.

Directions to trail head: From the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) in La Canada, exit on California 2 (Angeles Crest Highway) and drive 44 miles to Dawson Saddle. In very rapid succession, the motorist will note the old trail to Throop Peak on the right, signed Dawson Saddle by a highway maintenance building on the left and Pinyon Ridge Overlook, a highway viewpoint, also on the left. Continue about 100 yards down the highway past the overlook and park in an unsigned turnout on the left side of the road.

Dawson Saddle Trail, which departs from the right (south) side of the highway, is signed, but the sign is a short distance from the beginning of the trail and difficult to see from the road. While in parts of other Southland national forests, staff attitudes toward the Adventure Pass might be termed tepid and enforcement laissez faire, the opposite is true in the Angeles National Forest high country. Angeles Crest Highway is patrolled by Forest Service true believers, who ticket Adventure Pass-less autos with missionary zeal. (Call the Angeles National Forest at [626] 574-5200 or the Chilao Visitors Center, tel. [626] 796-5541, to obtain a pass.)

The hike: Thank the Boy Scouts for their efforts as you ascend the well-graded pathway they restored in the 1980s. Savor over-the-shoulder, conifer-framed views of the Mojave Desert; watching the desert floor shimmering in the heat far below has a way of making the hiker grateful to be walking up where the air is cool and pine-scented.

In 0.25 mile, the old trail comes in from the right and joins the ascent among fine specimens of Jeffrey pine and fir. The path climbs south, then contours around the north slope of Throop Peak.

About two miles up Dawson Saddle Trail, you reach a signed junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. It's a two-mile trek northwest on the PCT to Mt. Baden-Powell. Although Baden-Powell is the second most popular high country summit in the San Gabriels (only Mt. Baldy is hiked more), few hikers visit the peak from this direction.

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