At 8:25 a.m. on a crisp and sunny weekday, I'm whizzing up Highway 2 toward Angeles National Forest in a fleece shirt and dirty hiking boots. Just a median away is a mess of morning gridlock: people in pressed pants and spotless office footwear inching south to the city. Clearly everyone but me is going the wrong way.
Everyone, that is, but Trent Sanders and his buddy Don Doyle, a pair of veteran backpackers who've offered to take me down the north side of antenna-crowned Mt. Wilson where an old set of canyon trails still eludes the usual foot traffic that crowds the mountain's more popular south face.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 31, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Trail rating -- An article in the Dec. 14 Outdoors section about hiking on Mt. Wilson said a hike starting at Mt. Wilson along the Kenyon DeVore and Silver Moccasin trails gained about 4,300 feet in elevation. The route has a total elevation gain and loss of 4,360 feet.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 04, 2005 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Trail rating -- An article on hiking from Mt. Wilson in the Dec. 14 Outdoors section said a hike from Mt. Wilson along the Kenyon DeVore and Silver Moccasin trails gained about 4,300 feet in elevation. The route has a gain and loss of 4,360 feet.
Sanders, 64, a retired sheriff's deputy who's also logged years with the U.S. Forest Service, knows the route down Kenyon DeVore Trail (formerly known as Rattlesnake Trail) to West Fork Campground via the Gabrielino Trail and back up to Angeles Crest Highway along the Silver Moccasin Trail (where we've left a second car). But it's been a while.
"The last time I hiked this was at least 25 years ago," says Sanders, zigzagging us down the snow- and pinecone-crusted backside of Mt. Wilson in jeans and tennis shoes with the easy gait of someone who has logged serious time in the outdoors.
Sanders helped rebuild these trails back in his Forest Service days -- 30 or 40 years ago. "Yeah, it was fun," he reflects. "But hot. Lots of rattlesnakes too. Somewhere down there is this great pool where we'd all just throw off our clothes and jump in to cool off."
But there will be no rattlesnakes or bathing in the buff in early December. Today we can see our breath, not to mention slicks of black ice during several stream crossings on the way to the valley floor.
Any slicker, I'm thinking, and this lovely but narrow trail pinned against a steep slope could quickly turn into a bad day.
But today it's a beautiful one. Canopies of Douglas fir and old oaks give way to beech trees and then maples painting the ground in beds of hand-sized, fiery leaves. Shortly before our first fern appears, we realize the key for our second car is in the trunk of our first car -- back at the top of the trail. Fortunately, no one's sweating the small stuff. Doyle hikes back out to retrieve it, and we wait for him.
A gargantuan manzanita marks the east turnoff on the Gabrielino Trail to West Fork Campground, where all that's left of the old ranger station Sanders was expecting to see is a plaque -- "First Ranger Station in California" -- and an empty foundation.
A few yards away is an old access road (closed) and a picnic table that probably hasn't seen a picnic since Sanders worked on these trails about three decades back.
We have lunch on the rougher Silver Moccasin Trail in Shortcut Canyon where the slope turns upward, first slightly and then significantly, for the remainder of the hike. It's a good place to procrastinate and talk.
Soon we're easing across a short, blown-out section of trail high above the streambed that forces us to do a few seconds of wall hugging (and, in my case, hesitating). A reroute here, I've since been told by a ranger, is "in progress." Meanwhile, improvising your own short detour lower down may be the safest bet.
Several picturesque stream-crossings later (with an uphill grind of a few thousand switchbacks through sunbaked chaparral to the highway yet to complete), we come to our moment of Zen: a glistening pool with a little waterfall.
Sanders has a seat on a rock beside the pool. The place looks familiar.
"If you walked by this thing in the summer 40-odd years ago," he says, "you'd probably see 12 naked Forest Service guys sitting in it."
Soon we're moving again.
Where: Canyon trails off the back (north) side of Mt. Wilson in Angeles National Forest.
What: Strenuous one-way hike is just over 8 miles with about 4,300 feet of elevation gain. Requires drop-off and pick-up or two cars.
How: Take the Angeles Crest Highway (2) north about 14 miles from La Canada-Flintridge to Red Box Station. Turn onto Mt. Wilson Road, drive 4.4 miles to the Kenyon DeVore Trail and park on the north side of the road. The hike ends farther up the Angeles Crest Highway at mile marker 43.3. The drive between the start and end takes about 20 minutes.
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