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Big Santa Anita Canyon

Big Santa Anita Canyon

The best part of living in Los Angeles is getting out!  Nothing against the city, but with consistently great weather (albeit dangerously dry) and such a diverse mosaic of destinations within a day’s drive, it’s hard to sit still in Santa Monica.  While Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Big Sur are all world class destinations, there are an abundance of micro-adventures closer afield, some right within city limits.  Big Santa Anita Canyon is one of those places, filled with history, adventure and scenery.

The forty years straddling the turn of the twentieth century was known as Los Angeles’s “Golden Age of hiking”.  Angelenos, dwelling in the expanding metropolis between the Santa Monica and the San Gabriel Mountains were inspired to climb out of the basin and into the alpine for exercise, air and a relationship with nature.  Mountain resorts were built, mimicking those of the European Alps and funicular tracks were run up rugged slopes to whisk weekenders straight from Union Station to the lofty mountain lodges.

One of the most popular enclaves of its time was Big Santa Anita Canyon.  The first cabin was built in 1898, forty years after gold was discovered in the canyon's river.  By the end of the 1920’s there were 350 small cabins speckled up the shady canyon.  Toward the top sat Sturtevant Camp, a charming retreat along the river with several cabins, a tennis court, a giant hall for parties and a big oak deck for outdoor dancing.  The camp exists to this day and while much its vivaciousness has faded, its charm lives on. 

We started our micro-adventure on Saturday morning, leaving our house for Sierra Madre, just forty minutes away.  We parked at the exceptionally busy Chantry Flats trailhead which features a pack station, restaurant, restrooms and general store.  Parking was a disaster and we worried we wouldn’t get one of the eight unreservable campsites at Spruce Grove Campground below Sturtevant Camp.  We did not purchase an Adventure Pass.  While it is an advertised requisite for the Angeles National Forest, it is not essential.  If you do receive a ticket, purchase the five dollar Adventure Pass from the ranger station or REI after the fact and mail it in.  The fine will be absolved. 

The hike begins on a long walk down a paved road to the bottom of the canyon.  It’s an easy way to start the hike but a pain at the end.  After a mile, the road ends at the canyon’s old post office and a Gabrielino Trail leads into the woods. 

Shortly thereafter, we started to see a few of the some eighty cabins that still stand, each unique unto itself.  Tiny telephone shacks dot the trail, connected by wire strung through the trees.  The party line still works.  The trail feels like stepping back in time more than stepping into the wilderness.  Along with the historical features, the river is dammed at several spots.  I don’t support the development of wild spaces but Santa Anita’s cabins were, for the most part, responsibly built and it is admirable to see a segment of history so devoted to recreation in the mountains.  The historical significance of this canyon and its cabins call for a different kind of appreciation.  The dams still have to go.

The trail climbs through an oak forest, up ivy covered walls and along a fast flowing river with deep pools and waterfalls.  The path rounds the biggest of them all, Sturtevant Falls, standing at over fifty feet. Above the falls, the landscape looks more like a forest in Connecticut more than a canyon in Los Angeles.  It’s disarming and adds to the thrill of adventuring so close to home.  A change of scenery is closer than you think.

We took a right where the trail splits into two, both of which lead to Spruce Grove.  A bit steep, the low trail hugs the river and offers amazing scenery.  After four miles we had reached the campground.  There were only a couple sites occupied and some day-hikers were having lunch at a couple others.  We were thrilled.  We picked a site with an old iron wood stove and set up camp.  The grounds are located just above the river and the water rattles over the stone bed.  Setting up camp we found a small geocache which was mostly filled with garbage and some really old pot. 

Once camp was in order we set off for Sturtevant Camp, less than a half mile up the trail.  Abandoned in January when we were there, the place really is something to behold.  There is a great big swing in the middle of the camp and we played on it for a bit, explored the grounds, and pretended to be vintage guests.     

Though lacking in the extravagance of the Overlook or the horror of The Shining, that feeling of a bygone era persists.  The patina of the buildings, the sandy tennis court, seeing the faded pictures on the walls through the yellowed windowpanes, you could almost hear echoes of jazz and campers yucking it up.  The sound of squirrels fighting cracked the illusion. 

Everything is as it was, but everybody is gone.  The camp is open to the public and is currently owned by the United Methodist Church.  The church is looking to sell and the pack station at Chantry Flat is currently raising funds to save and revitalize the camp. 

Heading back down the trail we collected ample firewood for the night.  A couple more parties rolled into camp but everyone got a site and seemed very pleased for it.  There was a young couple who hung out in the tent all afternoon and there was a dad with two kids and a single friend who told fables all night to the captivated kids.  Then the dad told a story and totally bombed. 

We made dinner and got the wood stove roaring as the temperatures dropped into the forties.  We were in bear country and without a bear canister I brought our supplies up a gully away from our site, building a heavy cairn over the bag.  I don’t think any authority would sign off on this as proper bear deterrence but everything was in one piece in the morning.

Darkness came quickly in the shady canyon and we turned in to watch the fire glow from the stove door.  It was my mother’s birthday and I had just lost her two weeks earlier.  She had her own tradition of camping on her father’s birthday every year since his passing and I was proud to be doing the same for her.  For humans, death is a severance.  In nature is it not and to connect with nature we connect with all energy.

In the morning we broke camp early and moseyed down the canyon.  We took the milder, alternate route away from the river along the face of the canyon.  Mountain bikers ripped by.  Back along the river we passed the tiny cabins, some neighbors were chatting to each other as hikers strolled by.  The golden age has long been over but good riddance, they knew little about conservation in the first place.  A new age is present, with Angelenos flocking to the mountains to experience nature and history and preserve a bit of both.