A long-term goal of mine is to write a different kind of Angeles National Forest hiking book. What I have in mind requires me to go to the same places as both destinations and noteworthy stops within a longer hike, in all seasons, at various times of day, with diverse objectives in mind, and that I arrive from numerous trailheads. Although I probably need another decade more of hiking to acquire the range of experiences I believe are necessary to write what I hope to write; I think these past six years with over 3,100 miles of hiking in Angeles National Forest under my belt have provided me with enough experiences to begin sharing them in a way that hints at my long term vision.
In addition to the obvious appeal of hiking to the White City ruins at Echo Mountain (elevation 3,207′); I’ve enjoyed the nighttime city glow numerous times with Echo Mountain being my last stop on long winter hikes preparing me for future treks to destinations like Mt. Whitney. No matter how late I was, I always saw people coming up the Sam Merrill Trail, many not bothering to use a headlamp. Watching a sunset on the peak and hiking back down at night is probably the best option for summer hikes.
The concept of designing a multifaceted challenge that encourages social participation yields many avenues for me to begin sharing my evolving vision. Important among them is sharing the thinking behind the design of this challenge which provides a sensible framework to begin describing some of the ways my eventual book will be different and why. For those who prefer to focus on just the details of the challenge itself, go to my 12 Peak Challenge page.
On most days, being on the summit of Mt. Lowe (elevation 5,603′) yields great views both out to the ocean beyond and to the many peaks that exist close by. However, several times during the year, the opportunity also exists to stand in clouds or walk through them by visiting Mt. Lowe. With several nearby higher peaks behind it blocking and slowing down the movement of clouds making their way over the San Gabriel Mountains, Mt. Lowe often finds itself in their direct path. When the clouds are low and blocking the view of the upper peaks from the city below, a long ascent into them from Inspiration Point below or a short decent into them from San Gabriel Peak above is usually a possibility.
My first question was my most difficult one to answer. Should I choose the destinations for completing the challenge myself?
Angeles National Forest has a substantial trail system yielding almost countless opportunities to choose unique paths through it. Of my 346 completed hikes in Angeles National Forest since January of 2011, 180 of them were different and I feel like I’m only about a third of the way toward doing what I expect to complete. The number of potential options underscores the problem I experience when looking at most hiking guide books: too many choices with very little information presented that I personally find helpful in deciding among them. Short of committing to doing most of them, which I feel makes choosing somewhat irrelevant; those books leave me overwhelmed and cause me to delay trips instead of inspiring me to go on them. While I’m confident others must like that format and find it helpful, I think my contributions need to come from what speaks to me in order for them to have any chance of speaking to others.
San Gabriel Peak (elevation 6,161′) is the highest peak in the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains and commands expansive and unobstructed 360-degree views from the small flat area on its summit. It is the one peak in the front range that the clouds go around instead of over. Sitting on the bench and spending a while watching the clouds engulf the peaks below (including Mt. Wilson to the east, leaving only its antennas in view) is among my favorite experiences hiking in Angeles National Forest. On occasion, I’ve changed plans to go to a different spot in the forest when driving toward Red Box and realizing another great opportunity to have this kind of experience was emerging.
Alternatively, one of my favorite hiking guide books–Mount Whitney: The Complete Trailhead to Summit Guide by Paul Richins, Jr.–provides another approach. One compelling destination, several ways to get there, many I could initially eliminate for one reason or another. I bought the book the first time I saw it because I was inspired by the destination. I was able to start training the day after I bought the book, long before even choosing the route I would take. Before then, I had never thought about hiking to Mt. Whitney. Inspired by reading that book, I’ve hiked to Mt. Whitney twice (so far) and in the process of doing so–including hiking frequently in Angeles National Forest (initially to train)–I’ve positively changed my lifestyle and I’m healthier because of that. Although I think that the journey is more important and interesting than reaching the desired destination; I find it hard to go on a journey without having chosen a destination that generates enough of a pull to cause me to get moving in the first place.
As a fire lookout, Mt. Vetter (elevation 5,908′) rises above its surroundings with expansive and unobstructed 360-degree views mostly of surrounding mountains (many of significantly higher elevation far off in the distance) instead of the city, ocean, or desert. From one starting point (Charlton Flats), a road leads to the summit which makes first attempts at things like snowshoeing, mountain biking, and night-hiking easier. With picnic tables in several places along that route and the current state of the ruins of the lookout tower whose recently remodeled foundation provides a great place to sit, a dinner/sunset hike with a nighttime return is a great way to enjoy this peak.
Ultimately, I intend to one day write about enough destinations in ways that allow others to effectively choose among them having been provided with the kind of information I would need to be able to decide for myself in places I don’t know well. As mentioned above, I’m about a decade away from achieving that. So, without that information ready to share, I need to choose the destinations in order to move forward now. As a result, I’ve designed this challenge to form a comparatively small tour that covers a representative range of microclimates and diverse hiking experiences in Angeles National Forest which serve to underscore the point in hiking to all of them. Monthly blog posts toward the end of each month, one for each peak, will provide me a framework to begin sharing my perspectives on these places in ways that more closely correspond to my long-term vision.
The summit of Mt. Hillyer (elevation 6,162′) is long and its highest point isn’t obvious as bumps along its ridge a little further away look higher until one reaches them and looks back. Nice views can be had with some walking around the peak. Getting to the peak requires trekking through one of my favorite areas of Angeles National Forest, a wonderful combination of trees, large boulders, and interesting rock outcrops that are popular destinations for rock climbers. The Mt. Hillyer Trail is magnificent in snow and can be snowshoed with far less risk than many of the other popular areas for snow play in this forest.
Next, I needed to decide how many destinations to choose and the maximum time frame to accomplish reaching all of them.
I wanted to create something appropriately challenging for super busy people with fairly set routines who are casual hikers and aren’t looking for a major lifestyle change, but, who also want to regularly get out and enjoy nature. There was a time when I was in that group of people, struggling to find any time to get away and would have benefited from participating in something that significantly reduced the time I needed to invest in figuring out what to do. A once per month break in routine would have been both challenging for me and something I would have welcomed back then. Also, since I decided to choose the destinations; I wanted to keep their number manageable for most people. With that in mind, I settled on 12 destinations that could be completed over a time span of a year from starting the challenge. For more avid hiker’s, this challenge can just be added into one’s larger hiking plan as I added the 52-Hike Challenge to my 70 hikes last year.
Mt. Waterman (elevation 8,031′) is possibly the best example of a peak being in the “Goldilocks Zone” for hiking experiences in Angeles National Forest. At any time of day and any time of year, Mt. Waterman is a top choice for getting in a great hike–especially when reached from the trailhead near Buckhorn Campground. In summer, being heavily wooded and located at a reasonably high elevation; it is comparatively cool. A great choice for hiking in snow, it’s contours and trail don’t have the significantly more dangerous exposures as so many of the other available options. With great views, large boulders, and several excellent spots to rest or engage in a brief bit of rock scrambling along its long summit, Mt. Waterman will not disappoint.
Another thing to decide was how strenuous my chosen destinations should be to reach.
When it comes to hiking, the primary challenge many people contend with is just breaking free to hike at all. So, it was important to me to choose places that had at least one way to get to them which I could reasonably expect that most people could handle without training. At the same time, it is important to me that avid endurance hikers would also have a route to my chosen destinations that they might find significantly challenging that could require training to complete.
Winston Peak (elevation 7,502) is the only peak in this challenge that I’ve never seen others at unless I brought them there myself. Simultaneously close to parking at Cloudburst Summit and the trail leading to its summit clearly off the beaten path (and not on most maps), Winston Peak feels both accessible and remote. Heavily wooded with rock outcrops and boulders along the peak as well as the trails leading to it from both the north and the south; options to explore and discover unique spots to rest (perhaps even camp) are abundant. It is now a personal favorite which I will visit multiple times every year I live near Angeles National Forest.
Addressing those competing objectives provides an opportunity to emphasize one of the many great features of the trail system in Angeles National Forest: the connectivity from one trail to another that makes it possible to get to most places in the forest from any starting point. In large part, this is due to five long trails which connect to one another and which most people who use the forest only section hike–the Burkhart National Recreation Trail, the Gabrieleno Trail, the High Desert National Recreation Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Silver Moccasin Trail.
From a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking north up a hiker’s trail along the aptly named Pleasant View Ridge leads to Mt. Williamson (elevation 8,214′) just east of the trail where the ridge turns and continues west. Continuing west and following the ridge to two more bumps of higher elevations 8,244′ and 8,248′ under a mile from Mt. Williamson yields stunning views of the desert directly below to the north and across the range out to the ocean to the south.
All of the destinations I’ve chosen connect via trails to one of the larger trails mentioned above. This will allow everyone to make the path to the destination as strenuous as they want. In addition, I’ve chosen destinations that I’ve personally reached from at least three different starting points and which I know of at least six different starting points I intend to eventually start from. For example, I’ve hiked to Mt. Lowe starting from four different trailheads and via thirteen different routes ranging from 3.2 miles and 520′ of gain to 20.6 miles and 6,563′ of gain.
Remains of a fire lookout and cabin still occupy the summit of Mt. Islip (elevation 8,250) which is a popular destination for its views as well as its proximity to the Pacific Crest Trail, Crystal Lake (including the car-camping campgrounds and cafe), and Little Jimmy Campground (possibly the best backpacking campground location in Angeles National Forest). Enjoying a nice sunset on the often cool and windy peak and then travelling down to spend the night in a tent at the much warmer protected area of Little Jimmy Campground (also near water at Little Jimmy Springs) is a great way to begin a backpacking trip–something lots of Boy Scouts do on Saturday nights.
Requiring a minimum time to complete the hikes, (e.g. 12 separate hikes on different days), felt like an unnecessary limitation that would downplay other hiking approaches that I would prefer to emphasize instead.
The annual Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run through Angeles National Forest is completed by its participants over a single day. While I don’t know anything about designing an endurance run, I chose my destinations so that they could be linked together via trail (except for a few short walks along pavement) in under 100 miles making it possible an extreme athlete could complete this challenge in a single day–though, there is close to 27,000′ of gain and 20,000′ of loss associated with that. Over the past six years, I’ve section hiked my way through a few different routes that connect all my chosen destinations.
Throop Peak (elevation 9,138′) is located a short (but steep) way up from the junction of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Dawson Saddle Trail (one of my favorites). Its location makes it an easy destination to add to longer hikes reaching several other peaks along the Pacific Crest Trail nearby. Its north face typically holds onto snow after Angeles Crest Highway re-opens between Vincent Gap and Islip Saddle in the spring. At comparatively high elevation, Throop Peak’s north face also supports an excellent grove of Lodgepole Pines–a great spot to enjoy them is to sit on a log just below the peak and rest in their shade.
Coming up with a one-day option means all other options between a single day trail run and 12 separate day hikes within a year are possible as well. For example, it could be thru-hike backpacked, section hike backpacked (with or without covering all connecting terrain), section hike day hiked (with or without covering all connection terrain), or day hiked covering as little terrain as possible (about 62.5 miles over 12 separate hikes). At a minimum, this year I will both section hike one route that connects all the peaks and I will complete a separate day hike to each peak along a different route than I have personally done before.
The last thing I considered before choosing the twelve destinations was what would unify my choices and what would make them different.
When I thought about places I’ve been in Angeles National Forest; by far the most dominant type of place where people could comfortably gather was on peaks. Verticality is such a major topographical characteristic in this forest that in his book 106 Tops in the Angeles Forest, J.R. Bruman focused on peaks that are above 5,000′ in elevation and over 250′ above their surroundings (he included some exceptions). He listed an additional 18 “near misses” and there are another 20 listed in the Sierra Club Lower Peaks Section that were eliminated due to being below 5,000′ (the only exception being his inclusion of Brown Mountain). Focusing on peaks also provided me with a large enough list of options to meet the other criteria mentioned above.
Around 1,500 years old, the Wally Waldron Tree (a Limber Pine) stands almost as a gateway to Mt. Baden-Powell (elevation 9,399′). Impossible to reach without traipsing through large strands of Limber Pine and Lodgepole Pine forest, and without enjoying breathtaking views of desert, mountains, and ocean along the way and on the summit, Mt. Baden-Powell always provides a superb high country experience.
While there are many unifying characteristics that these destinations share (even the lower peaks can get snow in the winter); there are numerous differences which make each peak a unique and interesting experience to summit. Differences in elevation from Echo Mountain’s 3,207′ to Mt. Baldy’s 10,064′ yield significantly diverse microclimates to explore. Some peaks, like San Gabriel Peak, have small summits with expansive 360-degree views; others like Mt. Hillyer are long rounded summits where determining the high point isn’t obvious and views can be blocked depending on where one stands. Several peaks like Mt. Baden-Powell are very popular while others like Winston Peak get comparatively few visitors. Many peaks like Mt. Islip feature the ruins of past structures while others like Mt. Williamson don’t even have trails to them that show up on most maps (though, the hiker’s trails are easily navigated). Peaks like Mt. Lowe look down on the city and out to the ocean while others like Vetter Mountain have views mostly distant peaks in all directions. Several peaks like Throop Peak are accessed from short trails off of major trails like the Pacific Crest Trail and can easily serve as one destination on a hike of many. Others, like Mt. Waterman, are far enough away from the major trails that creating multiple destinations for a hike requires significantly more mileage to complete.
Access to Baldy Notch year round via ski-lift, cutting down the effort required to reach the summit of Mt. Baldy (elevation 10,064′) by close to half of the next shortest route is what allows Mt. Baldy to be in this challenge. It is the highest and likely the most popular summit in Angeles National Forest. Just above treeline and extreme in many respects Mt. Baldy is simultaneously challenging and accessible (I’ve seen young children at the summit–though, not in snow). All routes to Mt. Baldy traverse incredible terrain with stretches that are strenuous. The shortest route from Baldy Notch via the remarkable Devil’s Backbone Trail is around 6.4 miles and 2,225′ of gain and achievable for most people who like to hike.
From a possible starting point in a residential neighborhood in Altadena leading to Echo Mountain to potentially coming down a ski lift from Baldy Notch after summiting Mt. Baldy; these twelve peaks form a small but representative sampling of the diverse opportunities to hike to peaks in Angeles National Forest. I hope you’ll consider taking my challenge and letting others including me know if you do.