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DOWN & DIRTY

A slice of the Sierra, an hour away

L.A.-close Buckhorn campground is a favorite for its proximity to great trail-tramping. Even insects can't ruin that.

September 07, 2008|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

It's no mystery why several outdoor groups have ranked the Buckhorn campground in the Angeles National Forest as one of the top campsites in Southern California.

The campground is perched in the forest at 6,300 feet, where the temperatures are cooler and the sky is mostly free of that brown muck that floats over the San Gabriel Valley on hot summer days. The big, green pines and cedars that shade the campground make it easy to forget you are less than an hour's drive from one of the biggest U.S. cities. And then there is the little, gurgling creek that cuts through the campgrounds in the spring, giving campers a lovely water-splashing serenade.

But most hikers rave about its proximity to several great hiking trails that lead into the glorious backcountry, including the Burkhart and the Pacific Crest trails.

When I invited my 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, and my brother-in-law, Tom, to spend a night at Buckhorn with me, I warned them that the campground was so popular that we might not find an empty spot. I felt like an idiot when we pulled in on a recent weekday and found the place nearly vacant.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Mountain map: A map that accompanied a Sept. 7 Travel article on Buckhorn Campground in Angeles National Forest showed California 2 connecting with California 39. The part of California 39 south of California 2 no longer exists, and the roads do not connect.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 12, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Mountain map: A map that accompanied a Sept. 7 article on Buckhorn Campground in the Angeles National Forest showed California Highway 2 connecting with California Highway 39. The part of California 39 south of California 2 no longer exists, and the roads do not connect.

Mostly I was disheartened to see that the shin-deep creek that I remembered from a previous visit was gone, the victim of a long, dry summer.

Still, we were happy we could drive around and choose the best site the campground had to offer. We chose No. 16, away from the trash Dumpsters but within a short walk of the vault toilets (just in case we needed to find our way to the outhouses at night).

The campsites at Buckhorn vary in size and shape, but nearly all are blessed with nice shade.

It's no wonder Native Americans long ago dwelt in this area, hunting wild game and collecting pine nuts. If you scout around the big boulders in the camp, you still may find mortar holes where they ground meal.

We left Pasadena shortly after the morning rush hour on a Thursday, stopped at a supermarket in La Canada Flintridge to pick up supplies and arrived at the campground within 90 minutes, which gave us plenty of time to set up our tents and make a quick lunch of sandwiches, chips and sodas.

We could have stopped for lunch seven miles back along Angeles Crest Highway at historic Newcomb's Ranch, a combination bar, restaurant and convenience store that is popular among leather-clad motorcyclists. The restaurant serves hearty meals, but don't rely on the Newcomb's Ranch store for your camping supplies. It's open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and all day Fridays through Sundays --and has a limited selection of products. (Call Newcomb's Ranch for more details, [626] 440-1001.) Bring your own firewood, because campers have already picked the campsite clean.

During our visit, the poor city dwellers in the flatlands of the San Gabriel Valley broiled in temperatures over 90 while we enjoyed much cooler temperatures at the campground beneath the shade of pines and cedars.

We realized fairly quickly that although the campground was nearly empty we would not be alone. Flies and mosquitoes converged on us like paparazzi on a drunken starlet.

By the time darkness fell and our campfire blazed, the flies had, thankfully, diminished. Because of the altitude and our distance from major light sources, I expected a good view of the stars and planets. But a late-afternoon thunderstorm brought cloud cover over the campsite, shielding our view.

After breakfast the following morning, we packed water bottles and followed the Burkhart Trail east in search of Cooper Canyon Falls, a swimming hole with a 25-foot cascade.

The hike was hot and long, about three miles each way, along a well-worn single-track path, bordered by pine, cedar and oak trees. In the spring, the falls roared with rushing snowmelt, but by late summer they were little more than a trickle, and the swimming hole was no more than 3 feet deep and 15 feet wide.

To get to the pool, we climbed down a steep embankment off the Burkhart Trail, gripping a knotted rope to keep from slipping.

The water was brisk and so clear I could see tiny trout just below the surface, darting in and out of the shadows. Isabella and I splashed and soaked our feet in the cold water until they grew numb. Refreshed from our cold-water dip, we headed back to camp to roll up our sleeping bags and fold our tents.

By the time we returned, it was early afternoon, and the campground was beginning to fill up with weekend campers. After packing our gear, we headed to Newcomb's Ranch for a hot meal in an air-conditioned restaurant, free of mosquitoes and flies. I promised Isabella and Tom that we would return in the spring, when the camp creek would be surging and the mosquitoes, I hoped, would not be.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO BUCKHORN

From Interstate 210 in La Canada Flintridge, exit at Angeles Crest Highway (state route 2) and drive northeast 36 miles. Entrance on the left.

CAMPSITES

The 38 sites are on a first-come, first-served basis. No reservations. The fee is $12 a night, paid at a self-serve fee station. Water is available, and several vault toilets are nearby. No cellphone service is available, and a phone booth in the middle of the camp is out of service. Snow often closes the campground by mid-November.

TRAILS

The Burkhart Trail begins at the end of the paved road that cuts through the Buckhorn campground. You can also get to the Mt. Waterman Trail on the south side of Angeles Crest, opposite the Buckhorn campground entrance.

TO LEARN MORE

Call the Los Angeles River Ranger District, (818) 899-1900.

On travel.latimes.com

For more photos of this local campsite gem, see www.latimes/buckhorn.

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