When I think of Los Angeles, I think of traffic jams, smog, and urban sprawl. I think of population density and the enormous sea of concrete and asphalt geographers refer to as a megacity. Los Angeles boasts a population of 3.83 million, but the greater Los Angeles area includes a staggering 14.8 million inhabitants. And yes, it’s true; LA’s traffic jams are the stuff of legend. If you’re getting on the freeway, gas up first.
But as I recall growing up on the edge of Los Angeles, I also remember dazzling sunsets over a blue ocean and the silhouettes of palm trees along Pacific Coast Highway. I remember standing, at night, on Mulholland Drive and looking down on the electric sea of jewels that stretches so far beyond the horizon. I remember Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, Venice Beach and the Sunset Strip–places so unique one cannot deny that at least some of LA’s mythology is founded.
The truth is, I miss LA. It’s a city with tons of culture, a fast pulse, and some beautiful pockets of nature–if you know where to look.
Last weekend, I flew to LA to visit my family. I visited many of my favorite places like Neptune’s Net, Olvera Street, Sycamore Cove, and the City of Santa Barbara. But, the highlight of my visit was a 9-mile hike in Big Santa Anita Canyon. With my brother, Dan, as guide, we drove one hour from my parent’s home in Ventura County to the trailhead at Chantry Flat, just six miles off the 210 freeway.
The parking lot at Chantry Flat fills up early. This is, after all, Los Angeles. If you want a spot, you’ll need to do a dawn patrol. But if you get there later, just park safely along the side of the road after buying an “adventure pass” from a docent in the upper lot. Apparently, you’ll be ticketed by the forest service if you don’t put this pass in your window. And don’t leave anything visible in your car. If you live in downtown Eugene, you probably already know this one.
On to the hike. After a short, steep descent down an asphalt road, we became immersed in a deep, cool canyon, thick with trees and a lovely stream. And though I’ve been in similar canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains, I was still dumbfounded that we were only twenty miles from downtown Los Angeles. Nothing but the sound of flowing water and wind in the trees for the next three hours.
The historic trail winds along Santa Anita Creek, passing many small cabins, some built as early as 1890. These are the survivors of an era of hiking and trail resorts in the San Gabriel Mountains in the early 1900s. All the cabins are privately owned and are only accessible by foot or pack animal. Adam’s Pack Station at the aforementioned Chantry Flat is still a fully functional pack station serving the cabins and campgrounds of Big Santa Anita Canyon. Supplies only make it in by mule or horse.
Less than two miles in, a side trail branched off the main path and we followed it to the primary destination of most hikers, Sturtevant Falls. This gorgeous, 55-foot waterfall rivals many of Oregon’s finest, with clear water cascading down sheer rock into a large, oval reflecting pool. It was a bit crowded, but was a cool, scenic place to rest and have a snack before continuing on our way. After backtracking to the junction, we continued on the upper trail toward Spruce Grove Campground.
We continued along the deep pools and cascades of Santa Anita Creek for a time, but then the trail climbed up the canyon wall and finally broke into the hot Southern California sun. We were now on a narrow path through yucca and chaparral and the trail was dry and dusty. Small birds and blue-throated lizards rustled through dry brush frequently and we began to get used to it. But about four miles in, something bigger rustled.
Dan was ahead of me, and when we heard the loud, continued sound of dry brush compressing directly in front of him, we stopped instantly. Simultaneously, we both saw it. Just two feet from Dan’s bare legs was a fat diamond back rattlesnake moving off the trail toward the rocks. It stopped and began rattling its warning and pulled one S-curve into its body for a strike. We didn’t move a muscle. We looked at it and it looked at us and the sound of its rattle sent the hair up on my neck. Finally, it turned slowly and made its move for a crevice in the rock, rattling the whole way in.
Dan’s reflexes served him well, but he was also lucky. Had we been moving a bit faster or the snake a bit slower, things may have turned out differently. It was a sobering reminder that when in nature, nature is ultimately in charge. You can take precautions, but there’s no telling when you may have to deal with a very unpleasant situation.
Needless to say, for the rest of our hike, we were edgy. After the rattler, every small bird and blue-throated lizard that chattered through the brush scared the piss out of us. We would jump like scared rabbits and then we’d laugh our asses off at ourselves.
We finally made it to Spruce Grove campground where we enjoyed water, energy nuggets and energy bars. We debated continuing on to the summit of Mt. Wilson, but my still-healing ankle was already calling out for painkillers, so we decided Spruce Grove was far enough.
We made good time getting back to Chantry Flat and enjoyed a cold Gatorade and snack from the refreshment stand at a shady picnic table. My brother, a three-time marathoner, talked to some trail runners who had passed us on the trail. They were at the halfway point of a 46-mile one-day run. Humbling.
Including our side excursion to Sturtevant Falls, we logged nine miles for the day. We completed our adventure with a 20-minute drive to Chinatown where we enjoyed delicious noodle bowls and a bit of LA culture.
As I walked and looked up at the red Chinese lanterns against LA’s blue sky, I realized that no matter how often I return to LA, it always seems to have a surprise.