Pedal Into L.A.'s Trolleyed Past

The Arroyo Seco
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Biking in the Arroyo Seco Canyon
The author and a friend biking across the Arroyo Seco

A little over a hundred years ago, Bob Waterman and his bride visited the Arroyo Seco Canyon and spent their honeymoon hacking a trail that their horses could use. They returned and told a Los Angeles carpenter, Perry "Commodore" Switzer, about the beauty of the canyon. Switzer improved and expanded the trail and built Switzerland, the first resort in the San Gabriels.

Access into the canyon was by horse, stage or foot until the early 1920s, when the lower canyon was paved. Later, during the Depression, the construction of the Angeles Crest Highway allowed motorists to reach many parts of the upper canyon. Then the great flood of 1938 destroyed most of the paved road and the structures in the Arroyo.

Today, the Arroyo Seco Canyon is unknown, ignored or forgotten by the thousands of motorists who cross its lowest parts as they travel the 134 and 210 freeways. Yet a mountain bike allows the outdoor enthusiast to easily experience the beauty of both the canyon and the stream that carved it. An easy journey, it is especially enjoyable early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

You begin your journey at the corner of Ventura Ave. and Windsor St. in West Altadena. You can park in the paved lot immediately south of this intersection. There are two paved roads leading north into the canyon. The left (west) one descends into the parking lot of Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You enter the road to the right (east) by riding around a locked yellow gate. Immediately, you will see a JPL ONLY sign. Ignore it; it should be on the other road.

Just past this sign is the only overlook of the trip. To your far left, you can see the Verdugo Hills. Just below you and across the canyon is what appears to be a small city. It is the Jet Propulsion Lab, from where all our space probes are controlled. Straight ahead is Brown Mountain.

At mile 0.60 you turn right onto a paved road and begin cycling into the canyon.

The next 0.75 mile is paved, and occasionally you will share the road with Forest Service personnel and their families using it to drive to and from their residences.

At mile 0.75 you can hear water as it cascades over the stream's boulders and you ride across the spot where the stream from El Prieto Canyon joins the Arroyo. As the banks of the Arroyo's nearly-year-round stream become wooded, don't let the beauty distract you from the poison oak that is also in abundance. You now cross the first of the trip's 10 bridges, a substantial, concrete one.

At mile 0.88 a gradual bend in the stream creates a popular, though unofficial, picnic area. Another 0.1 mile finds you crossing a wooden bridge erected in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Because the route is still paved, road bikes can use this part of the canyon, but the slots between the wooden planks make this a hazardous spot for them.

For a short distance, access to the water (used by the City of Pasadena) and to a grove of trees is prevented by fences. Then you cross the National Forest boundary and reach the junction of Forest Roads 2N70A and 2N66. You take the left fork, 2N70A, and then the pavement ends and bicycle tracks in the sand immediately announce that you have encountered mountain-bicycle country.

At mile 0.98 you cross the second wooden bridge and find an official picnic area, with table. At this spot, from 1914 until 1925, Theodore Syvertson had a store and six cabins. Today only a sign is left to remind us of Teddy's Outpost, once popular with hikers, equestrians and motorists.

At mile 1.25 you skirt the Forest Service residences, where a fountain has the only drinkable water on the trip.

At 1.56 miles another bridge crosses the stream, which has lots of water, even as late as September. You are now cycling essentially through a grove of birch trees on a road so sandy that a lack of traction, not steepness, will probably force you into your lowest gear.

At 1.81 miles from the start you ride across another concrete bridge and, to the west of the stream, you see a wall of granite, as beautiful as any in the Sierra. Then an additional 0.1 mile brings you to a bridge with a weight limit of 10 tons! Be careful: Although built of steel, this bridge has a wooden surface with openings between the planks wide enough to catch narrow mountain-bike tires.

Next you can see but not cross, because of a chain barrier with stop sign, the most impressive man-made structure left in the canyon. Although it has a sign that identifies it as the ELMER SMITH BRIDGE, the road on its far side has been washed away. Probably a victim of the 1938 flood, it leads nowhere.

Most of the year, you will ford the stream at 1.93 miles, and again just after taking the right fork at 2.04 miles.

Taking the short path to the right just before the bridge at 2.20 miles can give you an idea of the resortlike nature of the canyon in the old days. Here you'll discover the foundations of several old cabins. One even has a rock love seat. A return to the road finds a wooden bridge, posted with only a 2-ton limit.

At 2.31 miles you reach the 1,500-foot-elevation Gould Mesa campground, named for Will Gould, who owned land in this area in the early 20th century. It's a pleasant but primitive campground (outhouses, but no water), which because of its inaccessibility by car, is uncrowded, even on holiday weekends.

At the campground limits, you can turn left and take the road that climbs above Gould Mesa for another steep mile to the pavement of the Angeles Crest Highway, 2,000 feet above sea level. Here your options are to use the Angeles Crest Highway for either a paved descent or for access to other unpaved roads. Otherwise, at the campground limits you can continue straight, passing the Nino Picnic area and crossing two more bridges, until at 2.69 miles the canyon widens once more.

Here the wind blowing the leaves and the water rushing over the rocks usually drown out any sound from the Angeles Crest Highway, which can be seen 600 feet above you. The only sign of civilization is the occasional contrail that can be seen far above the hawks that sail on the canyon's thermals.

At 3.00 miles the road narrows almost to a trail, making additional travel by mountain bike difficult. Those who like to keep their bikes clean and dry should return.

For others the next stretch involves more challenges: much walking of the bike, several stream fordings, and places where the bike must be carried across the stream.

At 3.36 miles you will come to a massive concrete-and-stone structure. This is one of the few remaining sections of the old paved road. Leave your bike at the bottom and, using the rocks and roots for handholds, climb the 25 feet to its top. From there you can see that this was a major engineering accomplishment, not just a few inches of asphalt poured over existing ground.

On the bike again, you keep crossing and recrossing the stream several times until, at 1,600 feet and 3.75 miles, you reach the Paul Little Picnic area. This is a pleasant spot to end the trip. Modern picnic tables tastefully blend into the ruins of an old resort, making it a good place to rest before returning. Besides the table, it also has outhouses and a water fountain, which is unfortunately usually capped.

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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