Trails of San Gabriel

Three Primo Hikes in the Mountains above Los Angeles

As long as humans have lived in the Los Angeles Basin, we have looked at the San Gabriel Mountains. Whether phantomlike behind a veil of brownish haze, sharply etched against a blue winter sky, or playing hide-and-seek with billowing clouds, they are a familiar scene on the northern skyline.

As mountains go, the San Gabriels are a gentle range. Ridgelines are sinuous rather than jagged, summits rounded rather than angular, slopes tapered rather than sheer. Although they present a formidable barrier to north-south travel, their elevations and topographical features do not compare with the sky-piercing crags of the Sierra Nevada.

The San Gabriels form a great roof over the Southern California coastal lowlands, covering an area that reaches from seaward slopes across to the Mojave Desert, and extends west-to-east 63 miles from the Ridge Route to Cajon Pass. It can be said that the mountains act as both hero and villain to the Southland's millions: they protect the coastal plains from the desert's harshness and gather moisture from Pacific storms, but at the same time increase urban air pollution by locking in air masses.

Geographically, the San Gabriels are for most of their length made up of two roughly parallel ranges. The northern, inland range is the longer and loftier, extending from Mt. Gleason and Mt. Pacifico eastward past the 8000' and 9000' summits of Waterman, Williamson, Islip, Hawkins, Throop and Baden-Powell, and climaxing near its eastern end in the only summit over 10,000' Mt. San Antonio (Old Baldy) and its cluster of satellite peaks. The southern, or front, range, though neither as long nor as high, is equally as rugged. Two of its summits Strawberry and San Gabriel exceed 6000', and 10 others exceed 5000'. Below the peaks is a complex of deep, shaded canyons, extending well up into the higher parts of the range. The range's major watershed is the San Gabriel River, whose three main forks and countless tributaries drain fully 20% of the mountain precipitation. Other important watersheds are Pacoima, Little and Big Tujunga, Arroyo Seco, Santa Anita, San Antonio and Lytle Creek canyons on the south slope of the range, and Little Rock and Big Rock creeks on the north.

Finally, there is the Liebre Mountain-Sawmill Mountain-Sierra Pelona country to the northwest of the San Gabriels proper, beyond the great wind gap of Soledad Canyon. Geographers disagree on whether this gentle mountain region of long whaleback ridges and shallow canyons belongs to the San Gabriels, to the Tehachapis, or to neither. But it is part of Angeles National Forest and it is good hiking country, so it is included here.

Other mountain ranges in California are higher, more jagged, more bedecked with ice and snow, more breathtaking, more primitive. But no other is so accessible to so many people for so little effort and yeararound. When winter's white mantle closes off the high country, the woodsy canyons and green-velvet foothills become refreshing, delightful and inviting. And then, in turn, when summer's sweltering dryness invades canyon and foothill, the high mountains once again beckon. For this all-season aspect, and for the San Gabriels themselves ageless, rock-ribbed, aromatic with the restoring scents of forest and chaparral shall we ever be thankful.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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