This trip samples the beautiful middle high-country of the San Gabriel Mountains from Chilao Flat to Buckhorn Campground. This is an area replete with grand views of front country peaks, high country forested slopes, finished off by hiking along a shaded stream reminiscent of the High Sierra.
Distance, one-way = 13 miles
Elevation gain = 1,350′ Starting elevation = 5,220′ at Chilao trailhead, eventually reaching a high point of 7,018′ at Cloudburst Summit. The end of the hike culminates with a little climb up to 6,570′.
This one-way trip is best done as a car shuttle, getting a ride to the Upper Chilao loop road adjacent to Newcomb’s Ranch on Highway 2. Leave the second car at the Burkhart Trailhead in Buckhorn Campground. Bring at least two to three liters of water per person.
Maps – I took Tom Harrison’s Angeles Front Country and High Country maps. Mileages and elevations are taken from these two maps.
On a warm August morning I started out at the sun-baked trailhead on the Upper Chilao Road. Sage brush and Yerba Santa dominate the sandy soil. The sweet vanilla of Jeffrey pines wafts through the warm pools of dry air. The trailhead is at a spot where you can head either down the Silver Moccasin Trail to Little Pines Campground in lower Chilao or…. up toward Horse Flats and Bandido Campgrounds heading toward Three Points. I took the latter. The trail quickly climbs, switchbacking through Manzanita, White Thorn chaparral (Buckbrush) and more sunlit glades of the shiny, ragged Yerba Santa. Poodle Dog bush also makes its’ presence and I keep way clear of it! I stop where scrub oaks provide a bit of shade and begin drinking from my two Nalgene bottles, already wondering if a third liter wouldn’t have been a good idea. Chilao is for the most part gently sloping terrain with dry grassy flats and groves of Jeffrey and Coulter pine set next to scenic clearings. It’s Thursday and I’ve only encountered one hiker who’s sporting a bug net over his head. Peace and quiet finds me under a bright blue sky which brings on the gift of dry, gently moving air. Bandido Campground is quiet and vacant, it’s corrals empty under more groves of pine. Soon I pass by camper less Angeles Crest Camp, the trail then cresting over a dry ridge of water tanks. From here the sun-scorched trail runs parallel and just below the Santa Clara Divide Road to Three Points. The burned-off remnants of oaks and chaparral stand as sentinels of the Station Fire, now 10 years past. Amazing how fast time flies.
This is a terrain, where in my case, is something to just be gotten through in the sharp, hard sunlight.
Soon I’m at Three Points and have finished about three miles. Here the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) ties in with my route just before crossing Highway 2. Almost immediately I’m in the welcome shade of Incense Cedar. After traversing the hot, burnt-off chaparral, it’s like heaven traversing the north facing timbered slopes and drainages for the next five miles to Cloudburst Summit. I pass by Camp Cumorah Crest which also lies quiet and unoccupied by any
campers, just like the ridge top, sunburnt Camp Eaton. On goes the trail, an old dirt road that’s become single track, pocked by about four springs seeping out from the sides of Mt. Waterman. Thick tangles of scarlet monkey flower and willows compete for the moist sand and soil.
Eventually, the trail crosses the highway, again, taking me past quiet Camp Glenwood and passing more verdant greenery in a deeply wooded canyon. My route follows the old phone line that used to make its’ way to Buckhorn and even onto the now defunct Kratka Ridge ski hill. Eventually, an old dry stack wall of stones catches my eye. I’m near the site of long-gone Camp Pajarito and I’m poking around what appears to be a cabin site when my eyes catch a split ceramic insulator still attached to a big pine. Old times. This type of phone line insulator is still used still in a crank telephone system that travels from tree to tree in the front country’s Big Santa Anita Canyon. My mind’s pulled back to a time long before the Angeles Crest Highway would be built through the San Gabriels. So, on I go, climbing up and up on a remnant road back up to the highway. Again, the trail crosses and it’s a bit more of an uphill pull to the highest part of the trip, 7,018′ high Cloudburst Summit. One of the great things about doing this hike midweek is the lack of cars and motorcycles on Highway 2. It’s just so peacefully quiet, entirely devoid of modern noise. I look both ways before crossing the
highway for one last time before descending the 2.6
miles into Cooper Canyon.
From here, the trail drops down through the pines in tight little switchbacks, passing into the Pleasant View Wilderness. Almost out of water, I’m looking forward to filtering some water from the stream somewhere below Cooper Canyon Campground. An expansive view opens up northward to Pleasant View Ridge. True to its’
name, it really is a pleasant view to take in.
The PCT / Silver Moccasin trail now crosses the little fire road which heads down to the campground. Staying high on the slope, the trail traverses way out and around airy, open stands of pine and incense cedar. I walk into Cooper Canyon Campground, quiet and well-maintained with its’ old Klamath style cook stoves lined up neatly above the stream. The peace of the place settles into me. Resting my tired feet, I have a little snack and start thinking about water once, again… The sun angles a bit more to the west and it’s time to go. The trail continues for another 1.1 miles downstream to the Burkhart Trail. The gurgling creek meanders under thickets of willow, white alder and buckbrush. Tranquil pools in the gold, heartbreaking late light begin to appear, as do lucrative little camping spots that dot the creek. Finally, at the stream crossing, I put down my burden and get out the filter and the empty water bottles. Hunkered down amongst the smoothly sculpted boulders I find a good spot to sit and top off the water bottles in one of the last little pools of light. Little bunches of columbine are growing in the damp sand. Giant incense cedars are interspersed by tall alders with ancient furrowed bark, giving the place a primeval feel. So, I drink deeply til I can hold no more. Then I went on for the final piece of the hike.
Eventually I made my way up the steeply pitched Burkhart Trail for the last 1.4 miles to Buckhorn. This was a great day with lots of variety. Amazingly I only saw two people the entire way. Good times in the high country.
by Chris Kasten