There’s one image of the city of Los Angeles that probably sounds familiar – Hollywood and beaches and suburban sprawl –but one thing that’s often missing from that picture is the wealth of outdoor recreation that is available right in the city’s backyard.
Royal Robbins himself was fond of scrambling in the San Fernando Valley and standing on the edges of precipitous rock formations in Griffith Park, but he was more excited to hitchhike and backpack in the San Gabriel Mountains just to the north of the city.
Home to the newly designated San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, the mountain range covers some 970 square miles and often surprises visitors with its varied topography. There are deserts, piñon-juniper woodland, cascading waterfalls, riparian canyons, and snow-capped peaks soaring above 10,000 feet. If you’re a first-time visitor, here are four places that’ll get you well acquainted with its surprising diversity. And don’t feel bad if you’re just discovering these mountains – many Angelenos live here for years before they realize how much great hiking is so close by.
This quintessential canyon destination has been a favorite for generations and it’s not hard to see why – the upper reaches of the Arroyo Seco trickle through a canyon littered with historic ruins of bygone wilderness resorts, leading visitors to popular Switzer Falls just 1.5 miles in. Relax and hang out near the trailhead with the picnickers and barbeque pits or stroll under the shade of sycamores and alders on the trail. Those looking for more solitude can continue hiking into Bear Canyon to a rugged backcountry trail camp and more swimming holes and fishing spots – assuming L.A. got a decent amount of winter rain, of course. Depending on the heat, the amount of sun breaking through the tree cover, and the number of gnats buzzing around in those pools, you’ll likely want a pair of convertible pants with you.
Officially known as Mount San Antonio, this 10,064-foot tall peak is the highest point in the San Gabriel Mountains and the tallest in Los Angeles County, too. In the warmer months, a challenging but non-technical trail climbs through dense pine groves and across exposed ridgelines to Baldy’s hulking summit for 360-degree views of the region. It’s one of those must-do adventures for all outdoorsy people in Southern California. In the winter, experienced mountaineers can brave the often-wicked weather to ski down the Baldy Bowl. If you’re hiking in the cooler months or just starting out in the early morning, you’ll want to pack a warm outer layer like the Batten Down Jacket.
One of the toughest and most remote hikes in the entire mountain range, Twin Peaks is a rarely-visited region in the central San Gabriels. A just-under 10-mile round trip brings you up and over the eastern flank of nearby Waterman Mountain and back down to Twin Peaks Saddle under the shade of some of the largest conifers in Southern California. From there, it’s an off-trail scramble back up for stunning views of the San Gabriel Wilderness – one of the oldest wilderness areas in the country. Experienced climbers can continue to nearby Triplet Rocks – just make sure you budget a full-day, pre-dawn start for this one. This route can get cool and hot and will usually take you a full day of effort, so it’s a good idea to wear some breathable (and stink resistant) Merinolux here.
If you can’t budget the time for a full-day adventure or even a drive into the interior of the San Gabriels, the southern foothills offer up some exemplary scenery with only moderate physical demands. Located just north of its namesake city, the trails in Monrovia Canyon are gentle and draped in old-growth native oaks. The result is like walking through a cathedral of trees, and it’s not to be missed. A trickling waterfall awaits hikers at the northern end of the canyon, while a lovely nature center and the longer eastbound Ben Overturff Trail provide opportunities for those with more time to spend. Just be on the look out for bears in the early morning hours!
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