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DOWN & DIRTY

Two feet ... and climbing

It's a long and winding road to a San Gabriel Mountains camp, but tranquility and views make it all worthwhile.

July 01, 2007|Scott Doggett | Special to The Times

IF you're seeking a nearby secluded patch of forest in which to stake a tent, try Little Jimmy Trail Camp, just an hour north of La Canada Flintridge.

The camp, accessed only by foot, sits among magnificent, shade-providing Jeffrey and sugar pines on fairly flat terrain that's covered with a cushy blanket of pine needles.

The camp takes its name from a comic strip character invented by James Swinnerton (1875-1974), whose cartoons in the San Francisco Examiner began appearing in 1892, according to the cartoon website Toonopedia.com.

Swinnerton's initial characters were bears. Then tigers. In 1904, he created his best-known figure, Little Jimmy, a cute boy who had an uncanny ability to become distracted from the simplest tasks and to emerge unscathed from brouhahas he'd innocently caused.

Shortly after that lighthearted character made its debut, Swinnerton's life took a serious turn. He contracted tuberculosis, and his doctor told him he only had a couple of weeks to live. The cartoonist decided to move to Arizona, for its dry weather. But he far outlived his doctor's prognosis and, finding Arizona summers oppressive, he spent the hot-weather months in the San Gabriel Mountains.

During the summers of 1908 and 1909, he spent considerable time at a place once called Swinnerton Camp. Eventually the site was renamed Little Jimmy's Trail Camp.

There are two routes to the trail camp, both about the same length and starting at the edge of Angeles Crest Highway. The first one is a half-mile trek on asphalt. The far more scenic option, and the one I chose, is a well-graded trail on natural terra firma.

The trail lacks shade and is moderately steep as it switches back and forth through shoulder-high chaparral for the first half a mile, before entering a shady pine forest. For the next mile, the trail is mildly to moderately steep over dirt, granite and pine needles, where countless darting lizards and ground squirrels thrive.

After 1.5 miles and about 1,000 feet of elevation gain (starting at 6,300 feet in altitude), the trail crosses a fire road. At the first intersection, a sign points the way to Little Jimmy and indicates the trail camp is 1.1 miles away.

This last stretch is mostly easy walking on level ground. It took me just 20 minutes to cover that distance -- well under half the time it took me to cover the first part. Although the highway was visible at times, only the soft sizzle of wind passing through pine trees and occasional birdsong could be heard.

As the trail nears the camp, far-reaching views to farmland several thousand feet below and many miles away are visible through openings in the forest caused by slides and fire. Also visible are nearby ridges and the bluest sky, thanks in large part to the altitude.

Round a bend and a picnic table appears. You have reached the camp, which consists of many dozens of hardy pine trees, 16 unnumbered campsites, 10 or so picnic tables, several fire rings, two pairs of pit toilets and half a dozen concrete stoves.

Three things to bear in mind: You're in bear country, so be sure to bring a bear canister for storing your food. Also, although there are stoves and fire rings, the Forest Service was not permitting fires of any kind in the area; be sure to call (see box) to check on the rules.

And last: Numerous websites and guidebooks mention a nearby spring. Unfortunately, this year's record-low rainfall has reduced the spring to a trickle that probably won't last much into summer. Plan on bringing in the water you need -- and a water purifier in case there is still some water to tap. The spring is one-fourth of a mile by trail southeast of the campground.

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Setting up camp

BASICS

Campsites at Little Jimmy Trail Camp are walk-in only and first come, first served. There are 16 sites and a seasonal spring whose water you'll need to treat (by pumping or by using iodine) before drinking. Consider taking a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, 3 quarts of water, matches, first-aid kit, sunglasses, sunscreen, flashlight, light hiking boots, warm hat, bug repellent, towel, cooking gear and food. And don't forget warm clothing; at 7,500 feet in elevation, it gets cold at night even in summer.

DRIVE TIME

From the 210 Freeway, take the Angeles Crest Highway exit and proceed 40 miles north to the Islip Saddle parking lot (on your left after you pass through two tunnels). Cross the highway from the north end of the lot to find the trail head. Though the campground is free, be sure to display an Adventure Pass in your car to avoid a ticket. (You can buy a pass at the Shell station where the 210 Freeway meets the highway in La Canada Flintridge; $5 per day or $30 per year.)

INFO

Contact (626) 574-1613, www.fs.fed.us/r5/angeles/recreation.

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