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A Pocket-Size Wilderness

At the very edge of the L.A. megalopolis, a miniature campground offers birdsong and a waterfall as antidotes to the relentless urban bustle.

August 28, 2005|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Lonnie Fehr wanted to live under the creek-side alders of an unspoiled forest. So he tossed a tent into his pickup truck and headed out of the city -- but not too far out.

Fehr's journey to the great outdoors took him just a mile and a half from the houses of Altadena to Millard Campground, a secluded patch of wilderness barely within the boundaries of the Angeles National Forest.

"It's the closest campground, and that's what I like about it," said Fehr, 50, Millard's volunteer host and only permanent resident. He settled there five years ago.

Millard is a nature lover's getaway that is short on the "away." In travel time, it is nearest to civilization of the nine national forest campgrounds hidden in the front-country folds of the San Gabriel Mountains, where the city stops like a carpet against a wall.

"Every day I can go down and get the mail in town, pay the bills, go to the grocery store," said Fehr, looking out the window of his dust-dulled Streamline, one of a series of old trailers that have replaced his tent.

As a rock drops, Gould Mesa Campground is closer to the city. It hugs the Arroyo Seco below La Canada Flintridge, down a winding maintenance road that descends about 500 feet in little over a mile. But the road is off-limits to autos, so campers must hike in.

Millard's six tent sites rank among the most popular in Los Angeles' vast and untamed backyard. The campground might lack the adventure of a long-distance escape from the fast lane, but its environs do offer fast food.

"That's how you survive up here: McDonald's," said Kathe Hieber, a veteran camper who has been going to Millard since her high school days in the 1980s. On a recent Saturday, she was preparing for a night in her van, staking out a choice corner of the parking lot, under a canopy of oaks and big-leaf maples.

"Two or three days out of five here, I'll get meals in town," Hieber said, adding that Millard was her favorite Southern California campground because it provided a "balance."

"For getting away from people, it's great. And it's so close to the freeway."

Millard occupies a canyon whose ridge tops frame the cityscape, the L.A. skyline resembling Oz in the summer haze. Liquor stores and laundries are a seven- or eight-minute drive back to the strip malls. McDonald's and Rite Aid add a couple of minutes to the drive.

Few other cities boast such stone's-throw convenience to national forest-quality camping, said Michael Lee, a spokesman for the Outdoor Industry Assn.

"Sitting around the campfire and telling stories with your friends -- when you can do that a mile from the city, it's kind of cool," Lee said.

But Millard isn't for everybody. Tent campers must walk about 100 yards from the parking lot, shouldering their gear. Residents of the auto capital tend to favor campgrounds where they can sleep beside their cars, said Gerry Reponen, assistant recreation officer for the Angeles National Forest.

"They want to carry their tent no more than 20 or 30 feet from their parking space," he said.

Some campers might also find Millard's proximity to the city unnerving. Gang members have been known to scrawl graffiti on the granite and smash beer bottles in the scrub.

Fehr, a part-time handyman, said increased Sheriff's Department patrols have kept the troublemakers at bay the last couple of years.

"It's quieted down," he said.

Brant Wassall, a Duarte special education teacher who was camping with his 5-year-old daughter Natalie, said it was a comfort to have the city next door, in case of an emergency.

"You have a lot of peace of mind here, especially with kids," said Wassall, 45. "If anything happens, you can get right back into the city."

As another security measure, the gated road to Millard is closed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., which can strand campers on either side.

"If you get caught out late, you have to call the sheriffs," Hieber said.

"There are worse places to be trapped," said her friend Duff Shidaker, a trainer at Santa Anita Racetrack. He pointed beyond the creek and its cover of alders, songbirds whistling in the boughs.

"Walk 10 minutes up there, you find the same kind of trees you see up above Big Sur."

Several of the front-country campgrounds hark to L.A.'s "Great Hiking Era" that stretched from the 1890s to the 1930s. In those days, Reponen said, people on foot or horseback embarked on two-week round-trip journeys to roadless gulches and glens, some now reachable within an hour on Angeles Crest Highway.

Millard was named for Henry Millard, a beekeeper and woodchopper who homesteaded the canyon in the 1860s, said John W. Robinson, author of a history of the San Gabriel Mountains.

"I'm not surprised it's a popular campground," said Robinson. "It's beautiful there."

The thinly paved route to Millard switchbacks out of Altadena along hillsides spiky with yucca. As soon as the road dips into the canyon, the sights and sounds of the city disappear.

Gone with them are amenities like running water. Millard does require a bit of roughing it.

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