Would it be nice to have some kind of post in here during other times of the year?
These sites are being developed …
The trail to the Big Horn Mine was recently washed out by the heavy thunderstorms experienced throughout the San Gabriel mountains. Earlier this month, our gauge received 4.03″ in a just a few hours, turning Wrightwood’s Swarthout wash into a raging torrent. Erosion occurred throughout the community and on local mountain hiking trails as well. Take care crossing this drop-off if you happen to be planning a hike to the Big Horn mine.
by Chris Kasten
BIG HORN MINE
Total Trip Length = 3.6 miles round trip
Elevation Gain = 500 feet
Trailhead Location: Vincent Gap on the Angeles Crest Highway
When it’s hot and sweltering in the front-country of the San Gabriel mountains, taking your next hike to Mt. Baden-Powell, located in the high-country near Wrightwood, just might be a good way to go. The views are spectacular and far-reaching under deep blue skies. There are few places where you’ll encounter such a variety of conifers. Earlier this summer, my wife and I hiked out to the abandoned Big Horn Mine. A couple of miles of hiking along a dilapidated dirt
road that skirts the steep and, at times, forested mountainside of Mt. Baden-Powell, takes you to this historic relic of the earlier days of mining in the East Fork of the San Gabriels. The mine’s location was found by the back-country recluse and mountain man, Tom Vincent, back in 1895 while out hunting for big horn sheep. Various groups of investors and entrepreneurs each took their chances at developing the remote mountainside mine from the turn of the century up until the early 90’s. In all cases through out the decades, investment exceeded the value of the extracted gold, followed by diminishing returns until abandonment.
This pattern of running the mine for a some time, only to be followed by quiet idle years, has continued for over a century. Today the disintegrating remains and cool, empty tunnels sit quietly in the steep, rugged slopes of Mine Gulch at about 7,000′ in elevation.
To get to the mine’s trailhead, park at Vincent Gap on the Angeles Crest Highway, just west of Wrightwood, CA. Pass by the white pipe gate, continuing along the red, rutted old mine road. As you skirt alongside the mountainside, watch for a hiking trail switchbacking down into the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Area of Vincent Gulch and on into the expansive East Fork of the San Gabriel watershed. Pass by the trail turn-off, staying with the road as it skirts alongside a steep mountain chute,
then enters into a soft and forested slope of mature sugar pine, white fir and the ever-present aromatic jeffrey pines. Eventually, you’ll leave the protection of the forested slope and enter back into steep and arid mountainsides of fractured rock, peppered with yucca, manzanita and mountain mahogany where these plants can get a toehold. In places, the road can be completely washed out, necessitating scrambling alongside narrow and crumbling scratch trails made by other hikers. The exposure and consequence of a misstep is a reality along this side of Mt. Baden-Powell, so take your time. For the most part, the hiking is fairly easy for good stretches, eventually taking you around a shoulder on the mountain to the Big Horn’s rusted out stamp mill and other assorted mining debris, pipe and concrete slabs.
The adits, horizontal mine entrances, are fenced off with steel bars; the last owner’s attempt to keep hikers from going into the mountainside. When you get to the end of the road, be careful crossing the steep slope over to the stamp mill. Return the way you came.
Total Trip Length = 7.6 miles round trip
Elevation Gain = 2,800 feet
Trailhead Location: Vincent Gap on the Angeles Crest Highway
Mt. Baden-Powell, once known as North Mt. Baldy, was re-named for Lord Baden-Powell, founder of Boy Scouting in the United States. The approach to this 9,399′ peak is by way of the pleasantly forested north-east facing mountainside, affording you ample shade and stunning views out over the Mojave Desert and eastern high country of the San Gabriels.
You’ll want to dedicate most of your day to this hike due to the high elevation of the summit and also some of the steep trail pitches between the 37 switchbacks. Bring plenty of water for each person in your group, i.e. two to three liters. Avoid taking this hike in the winter and early spring months due to steep, icy slopes that parallel this route. When there’s ice, the potential for a fatal accident is ever-present. During the warmer months, this well maintained trail is a wonderful route to the top and quite safe.
Head on up the red, dusty path alongside the split cedar fence. Scrub oak, white fir and jeffrey pines shade your route as you head toward the
first of many switchbacks. The trail switches back and forth along the broad, northeast facing ridge line of the mountain. Each time the trail wraps back around the ridge, for quite a ways up, you can look back down at the Vincent Gap trailhead parking area, possibly even spotting your car. Four switchbacks up is a nice little wooden bench to rest on. By now, you can begin to gauge your progress, by sighting out across to West Blue Ridge, gradually gaining a greater view out into the Mojave desert’s vastness. Old, magnificent sugar pines begin to make their presence as you continue climbing up; their long horizontal branches terminating in clusters of long cones that exude bright, shiny sap. A large cool, flat slab of rock is up this way, too. The mountains internal coolness is often evident when laying up against this monolith.
Almost half-way up, a wooden sign at the end of a switchback points the way to Lamel Spring, which makes for a tranquilly floral spot to take a rest. The switchbacks become ever broader from here, passing by inviting little flats filled with pools of shade and quiet sunlight where people have camped amongst the scented evergreens, perhaps taking in the glow of sunrises and sunsets not to be forgotten. A bit further on, the switchbacks begin to tighten up, as does the steepness. Lodgepole pines are now becoming the the dominant conifer, as you’re squarely into the 8,000′ + elevation range. The bare forest floor is in places littered with their tiny ornate cones. Glades of low buckbrush and deer brush fill in empty pockets where the perfectly straight lodge poles have left a little sunlight. On and on you keep climbing while converging ridges begin to make their way toward you and the ever-nearing summit. And then it happens – twisted and wind bent limber pines finally appear. At this point you’re nearly
9,000′ up and there’s a spaciousness between these ancient trees that in many cases are nearly as wide as they’re tall. The lines of the sun burnished wood of these rare trees appear twisted and deeply etched by centuries of sun, wind and ice. Not much further up, the switchbacks finally give out and you find yourself hiking atop a narrow ridge with a dizzying drop-off into the East Fork thousands of feet below to your left. Fortunately, the trail is just a few feet over on the gentler, west side of the ridge. Near the end of this airy ridge, there’s a tree near the Pacific Crest Trail cut-off and the final summit approach which is worth pondering. A weathered, wooden sign indicates that this limber pine is over 1,500 years old! There are other trees in the area that are reputed to be over 2,500…., yet remain unmarked to keep them protected.
Soon you’re on top of the mountain. The top is rounded and exposed. A four-sided concrete and brass edifice to scouting, its’ base eroding, is near the top , along with an uncovered trail register with hundred of entries of hikers who made the climb. Look off in any direction and the view’s good. On clear, wind-swept days, you can make out distant peaks like Mt. Wilson and even the channel islands. Myriads of canyons drop off all around. Enjoy the return trip back.
by Chris Kasten
Total trip length = approx. 3 1/2 miles round trip
Elevation gain = 1,100′
Trailhead location: Vincent Gap on the Angeles Crest Highway
This hike ascends the switch-backing Pacific Crest trail up the northeast facing slope of Mt. Baden-Powell. This is an easy to moderate hike, affording scenic vistas out over the Mojave Desert and the eastern high country of the San Gabriel mountains.
Just recently, with summer edging toward the beginning of July, I hiked up to the little mountainside oasis of Lamel Spring on the forested slope of Mount Baden Powell. Somehow, it seems that on every trip back to this beautiful mountain, that the experience is somehow brand new. As with all hikes starting out from Vincent Gap, the soil is brick red and dusty, a bit like being out in parts of New Mexico and Utah. The trail wastes no time in its’ ascent up the northeast facing slopes of the mountain. Many of the hikers starting out from Vincent Gap have one goal in mind; summiting the 9,400′ peak and then returning down the same trail. If you don’t feel like going all the way to the top, this little spring is a peaceful and scenic destination located a little less than half way up to the top.
There are fifteen switchbacks in the 1 3/4 miles to the spring. Forest transition is ever-present as you continue to climb up and along the slopes. In the beginning of the hike, you’re amongst tenacious scrub oaks mingling amongst the ever-present Jeffrey pines. It’s not long until white fir begin to make their presence and the oaks disappear. A bit further up, noble stands of ponderosa and sugar pine begin to dominate the scene. While all this is happening, the sky at this elevation, most days, takes on a cobalt blue look to it. The air is fragrant with the intermingling of conifers, somehow peaking the senses. Look for a little bench about halfway to the spring. It’s out on the end of a switchback, presenting you with a view back down to where you left your car! This is a good
place to rest and take in the scenery. To the east, you can view East Blue Ridge and the top of the lift for Mountain High Ski Resort. Looking straight across the great openness of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, Pine Mountain and Mt. Baldy present themselves in stark relief against the horizon.
When you come to the sign for Lamel Spring, just head to your left and follow the narrow path for a couple of hundred yards. Even from the spring, if you look carefully, it’s possible to see the trailhead parking area. Enjoy the peace of this place and take your time on the return hike back. Springs like this are a rare find in the San Gabriels!
by Chris Kasten
Total trip length = approx. 12 miles round trip
Elevation loss = 2,700′. This hike is all downhill until you turn back around for the return
Trailhead location: Vincent Gap on the Angeles Crest Highway, just west of Wrightwood
This hike descends Vincent Gulch to Mine Gulch campsite, then further down East Fork
Last Wednesday I journeyed back down Vincent Gulch to the stream side shelf of Mine Gulch Camp. Nothing’s at Mine Gulch any more in the way of improvements such as tables, fire pits or outhouses. However, the broad bench alongside the stream bed is shady and very level, offering a great camping spot at a place where you can explore the Prairie Fork by going straight across the wide, bouldery wash or heading down the East Fork toward Alder Gulch, Fish Fork and points further on. My goal was to continue down the East Fork of the San Gabriel River to a spot near the confluence of Alder Gulch and then double back, hopefully returning back up to Vincent Gap before I lost my light.
Really, once you starting heading downstream from Mine Gulch campsite, the East Fork stream bed is one big rocky floodplain for the next thirteen or fourteen miles to road’s end near Follow’s Camp. It is slow going and the stream crossings are numerous. Bring a pair of water shoes with you, so you can just slog across the East Fork without having to make an endless number of risky jumps just to keep your boots dry.
Part of the character of these upper reaches of the East Fork is the isolation from other hikers. I was out for nine hours and only saw one person, and that one person was within a hundred yards of the trailhead at Vincent Gulch. That was it! Much of the terrain passes through a myriad of beautifully striped metamorphic boulders, piles of fractured rocks that have fallen hundreds of feet from towering cliffs that border the deep canyon. You must pick your stream crossings amongst wide glades of buckwheat, Yerba Santa and mountain mahogany peppered with sunbaked driftwood from times and storms gone past.
Gentle, onshore breezes pushed up canyon as I continued heading downstream. Occasionally, beautifully twisting sycamores graced my way, sheltering me from the relentless June sunshine. Their leaves quaked gently back and forth in the fresh air. The interplay of shadow and bright pools of warm light constantly and quietly changed the mood around every bend in the canyon. Surprisingly, the stream was flowing much more abundantly than I had expected. Narrow hedgerows of white alder grew tightly along most of the stream course, adding their shade across secret pools of green.
After finally turning around for the long ascent back to the car, I had fun looking for stacked rock cairns, “ducks”, that had been placed by earlier hikers to mark where they thought the route should be amongst the wide, wide sunbaked washes. It was a tiring, yet exhilerating day in the wild and quiet Sheep Mountain Wilderness. If you want to get re-charged with the peace and quiet of the open spaces of our mountains, this just might be the place to consider.
by Chris Kasten
Once I left Cabin Flat’s abandoned remains, the road steadily and steeply made its’ way up the Prairie Fork. A Dwight Twiley song, “I’m On Fire” (circa 1975), kept running through my head as my route passed through thick groves of buckbrush and sage intermingled with groves of statuesque Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines. Nature had made good on her promise to take back what people had not maintained. The road is designated as 3N39 and is wide enough to drive on for short distances, only to be reduced to single track and even completely missing at a couple of
stream bed crossings. The Prairie Fork is in many ways a wide flood plain throughout her length. Left and right and left, again, the channel meanders where it will and so do my thoughts. The metamorphic boulders’ grays seemed ever grayer under the flat steel gray skies on my upward trek. Yet, there was a brightness that came flooding in every so often throughout the quiet alpine day. The air continued to be still and fresh. Small bird calls and the crunching of my boots on dry twigs and sand punctuated the quiet scenery. Several miles up from Cabin Flat I encountered the sylvan, forested bench of Lupine Campground. The elevation between the two camps is about 1,200′, yet enough to produce a noticeable change away from the oak-woodland environment into a mature coniferous forest.
True to its’ name, the resilient purple and lavender blooms of lupine abound in this forest setting. As with Cabin Flat, there were no people here at Lupine Campground, either. The tables here are the “old style” large dimensional type built by the Forest Service back in the day. Liking them so much, I once copy-catted this design, including the hefty 3″x12″ planks, and built some at Sturtevant Camp in the Big Santa Anita Canyon. There’s the sense of being in a bit of a time capsule in places like this. Over and over, I saw the rock work which used to support the flat plate Klamath style wood burning stoves that each campsite once had. It was amazing how “at home” I felt here in this old hidden camp. One issue, however, kept knocking at the back of my throat… My water was nearly out and the Prairie Fork had been reduced to a dry wash not far above Cabin Flat. If only Columbine
Spring was running… Time to check it out.
The scuffing of my boots through the sagebrush woke up the sleepy scent and my thoughts would be filled with more mountain places. Up the little canyon behind the camp I followed the broken pipes of the derelict water system. Climbing the upslope wall of the concrete water tank, I peered down into the opening in the roof. It was dry and filled with rocks. So, onward and upward I went, passing squaw currant and more sage. Eventually meeting up with the Fish Fork Trail, the little canyon
produced the sweetest little sound of trickling water over rocks and mosses. Setting up to filter some of this mountain spring water, a pair of hummingbirds buzzed my red anorak jacket and then went about their work of gently prodding what nectar they could get from the still developing blooms of the currant. They seemed to keep a wary eye on this lone traveler as the three of us took what we could from the oasis.
Happily rehydrated, it was time to get a move-on up and out of the Prairie Fork to Guffy Campground. Munching on almonds and a little apple, I encountered a third washout on the road dropping down from Blue Ridge. High clouds were swarming past Pine Mountain, now looming high up to the southeast. Occasional spits of rain had now turned to sleet and hail. Putting on my rain gear under a cluster of oaks alongside the switchbacking road, the chill was now beginning to soak in. The only thing to do was hike faster, and, of course, I was soon sweating under the rain top. Sunshine
came streaming in as the pelting of hail resonated under my hood. Puddles had formed and red
bouquets of Indian Paintbrush speckled the glistening slopes of rock, pine and sage. A thick blanket of clouds had now pushed up so high, Pine Mountain’s (9,648′ elevation) plate-like slide was completely hidden from view. As soon as I reached the top of the road, the moisture was over, replaced with a frigid breeze.
Guffy Campground, like its’ neighboring camps, was devoid of people. Although chilly, a warm light permeated the late day scene. Dropping down to the north side of the campground to find the spring just barely flowing, really more of a drip, at this point in the year, filled me with fiery summertime woes.
Heading east on the Pacific Crest Trail, the gold light illuminated the ancient “flag” trees growing out of Blue Ridge’s gentle and meandering rocky trace. A yellowed little poem from the Mountaineer Progress Newspaper, that lays on my desk, came to mind. There is no author attached to this little beauty, except the words: “Thanks Blue Ridge, Holiday Hill and Table Mountain.”
Where is the magic?
Pristine, shimmering snow
Slopes no prints have crossed
And peace, utter peace.
What is the magic?
About a mountain mantled with fires.
Arms reaching to the heavens while we traverse snowy paths.
Can there be magic?
In loving my Blue Ridge, schist clad bare faces
Paths skirted by buck brush offering redemption and renewal.
I once felt the magic of her sensuous slopes shining beneath my long skis
Offering of herself
Assuring the restoration of my soul.
Once, down the Acorn Trail a few hundred feet, the temps seemed to have bumped up a good 15 to
20 degrees. Finally. Dusk was rapidly falling on the north side of Blue Ridge as the trail made its’ rapid descent of 1,500′ down into Acorn Canyon. The Swarthout Valley cradled Wrightwood, far below, in a story book dream. The yawning had begun. Too lazy to walk the entire distance home, I called my wife from the mountainside to see if I could get a short ride home from the trailhead. Just before Joanie met up with me, the walk past large homes, lit from within, was almost over whelminging reminiscent of how a
lone traveler sees everything from the outside. Truly separated from another’s hearth fire. For a few moments the wildness of the day seemed to not know how to marry with the world of seemingly big, quiet houses and pavement. When
the little car pulled up to greet me, the scent of home-made lasagna wafted up from her hair and clothes. Ever better, comfort of home had arrived to me. I was back home as a traveler from the near, yet distant lands of our mountains.
by Chris Kasten
Just last week, on Earth Day, I hiked down the Mine Gulch Trail from the Vincent Gap trailhead.
My goal was to reach dilapidated Cabin Flat Campground, up in the Prairie Fork. This would be an
“out and back” day hike, with the hope of returning back before dark. Vincent Gap is a great jumping off place for everything from the Manzanita Trail down the desert side of the range, Mt. Baden-Powell’s summit, exploring the Big Horn mine or, in my case dropping into the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. The day was still and the air crisp. The small leaves of the ceanothus (buck brush) were tipped with the silver pearls of water droplets from the previous night’s light rain. Looking up, only the tiniest puffs of cumulus clouds peeked out from behind Pine Mountain to the east. Perfect.
Contouring the red dirt mountainside, I followed the old Big Horn mine road to a point where the single track Vincent Gulch trail begins its’ descent. A short ways further, the trail enters a sylvan green sanctuary of mature incense cedars and pines. Steadily the trail descended into healthy stands of oak woodland while manzanita began to make its’ presence. The ends of switchbacks afforded views into the expansive rocky run-outs coming off the northeast slopes of Mt. Baden-Powell. Vincent Gulch’s steep, brushy tributaries continued to merge under canopies of canyon live oak. Within a couple of miles, the murmur of a small stream could be made out before arriving at the bright spring greens of a healthy riparian environment of white alders and big leaf canyon maples. The shaded stream is bounded by a steep and fractured geology.
Dark banded metamorphic rock twisted and turned, leaving the stream and trail no choice but to follow. So, on I went through groves of laurel bay and Big Cone Spruce. Eventually the trail gave out to a wide, barren wash of bright rocks of all size and shape. Bright, bright sun was everywhere. The clouds had eclipsed a bit more of the deep blue sky near both Mt. Baden-Powell’s summit and Pine Mountain as well.
Just before approaching Mine Gulch Campground, you’ll find the wreck of a small private plane that went down many years ago. By now I was thirsty and was half way through the water, but no problem, had thrown my water filter into the pack at the last minute. However, had forgotten to bring a hat, and could already feel the sun beginning to burn the top of my head.
Was soon at the Mine Gulch Campground, about 4 1/2 miles in, essentially a shelf at the confluence of Mine Gulch, Vincent Gulch and the Prairie Fork. Back in 1978, about the only improvement at this camp was an outhouse. Now, even that was gone. It appeared that folks still camped here, for some of the small flats looked recently swept clean from tents and tarps. There were some abandoned camping supplies, buckets and even a fairly new looking pick axe. Not all that surprising. The East Fork still attracts amateur miners looking for that elusive gold. However, no people were to be seen or heard. Just the constant murmuring drone of the East Fork doing its’ river thing, grinding out the mountains over the eons.
Directly across the wide wash from the campground is a wooden sign telling me that Cabin Flat lays this way, not to mention the rest of the broad Prairie Fork. Hopping from rock to rock, lizards flitted about the dry sycamore leaves. The leaves and wash were paper dry in the way that September seems to conjure up. It was only April…
Prairie Fork. Just the name evokes images. And, true to its’ name, there are places so wide that it almost beckons the name “valley.” This is a very big drainage that has miles of timber stands, grassy meadow-like flats, chaparral and high ridge lines all around it. Starting on up from its’ mouth, the ascent is easy, yet the trail’s about non-existent.
Periodically there’d be a rock cairn or “duck”, marking the way that previous travelers had taken. Sometimes the placement of these markers made sense, and when they didn’t, it was time re-think my next move. The area between Mine Gulch and Cabin Flat Camps is a little better than two miles in distance and really, pretty much cross-country hiking. The lower part of the route is made up of glades of Yerba Santa interspersed with Yucca, blossoming buckbrush and the ever-present wide wash.
Often, the pattern was following a remnant trace of trail or even the old jeep track, then coming to a turn in the canyon and being forced to cross the smallish stream. Stream crossings in this part of the San Gabriels invariably means thrashing through thickets of young white alders. Yet, that’s just what it is. What really was amazing was just how very wide this canyon is. Lots and lots of hidden terrain. Occasionally, the canyon bottom would tighten up and so would the foliage, bringing on thoughts of fat, black rattlers just waiting under my feet… I balanced and walked across dozens of fallen trees and the detritus of drift wood from storms in earlier times. Just before
approaching Cabin Flat, when the going seemed to be getting easy, there was a thicket of willows to pass through. Then the young stinging nettles came into play. Memories of having gotten stung by huge nettles back in ’78, meaning eight feet tall or more, came back sharply through the backs of my calves. Quickly as I could, I jumped over a muddy expanse of more nettles and was free of the creek bed and climbed up the bank into an abandoned parking spur at my long awaited destination.
Completely still air and a sky that had become almost completely gray framed what was left of the old Cabin Flat Campground. An occasional water drop made its’ way to me, yet it was the most refreshing sort of spring-like warmth mixed with the water. The light drops seemed to wake up the scent of the sagebrush that had crept through most of the campsites that now sat idle. Finding a few picnic tables under some shade trees, it was time to finish more of my lunch as drops turned to drizzle. The sadness of the place had begun to soak
into me, it was time to walk off the ’70’s. The second liter of water was now gone and this thought kept surfacing… maybe, just maybe, I could go on further to Lupine Campground, just a few miles on. There might even be water at Columbine Spring. And so I walked on,
not heading back quite yet…
by Chris Kasten
Something noticeable about Wrightwood is that when you walk outside your door you are in a beautiful forest setting. How nice it is that each and every house or cabin is different from one another, with individual character. Quiet streets, fresh air filled with the fragrance of nature.
Mormon Rocks located about 1 mile west of the Interstate 15 freeway north of highway 138 is recognizable to nearly everyone who has ever traveled the freeway from the Cajon Pass to Las Vegas. These familiar formations appear to welcome travelers to the Mojave Desert.
Older maps of the area show the formation as being called the Rock Candy Mountains. Local legend has it that the rocks were named for the Mormon pioneers who camped here after their descent from the pass ridgeline. In actuality, there was no reason for them to camp at these rocks where there was no water here with the nearest spring being only one mile further down the canyon.
Another legend calls the rocks the ‘Chanting Rocks,’ as when the wind would blow across the portholes in the rocks it was said the sound made was similar to a low chanting or singing.
Since the color and composition appears to be the same as the rocks at the Devil’s Punchbowl, 35 miles to the west, it has been suggessted that both were once the same and that with movement along the San Andreas these two formations were split apart. Scientific examination of fossils found between the two show that they are two separate formations.