Distance: I’m guessing about 7.5-8 Miles
Elevation gained: I’m guessing 2,200′
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
Critters: Grey squirrels galore.
Note: You will need an Adventure Pass
Just as important: You need to get here early on weekends and holidays since this place is insanely popular.
Just a few linear miles from the endless urban sprawl of Los Angeles county lies a year-round creek, surrounded by a lush forest of alder, bay, oak, maple, and Douglas fir. The discrepancy between these two environments is so sudden and so total that one can almost completely forget that one is still so close to one of the most chaotic, noisy, and crowded environments in the country.
Such is a part of the magic of Santa Anita Canyon, which I have written about previously here and here. I’ll probably write about it again, since it is possibly my favorite hike in all of Los Angeles. I know there are a ton of brilliant hikes in Los Angeles, but the combination of a fairy-land forest, quaint local history (cabins and hiking resorts), access to Mt. Wilson, and a very well-executed trail puts this hike squarely in the favorite slot.
I took this hike last Thanksgiving and decided to do it again this year. The difference this time around was that my friend Kyle, author of the excellent Hiking Angeles Forest blog, joined me. Kyle is something of an expert on Angeles National Forest, with the San Gabriels being both his backyard and his passion. His knowledge of the area is thorough and inspiring, and he’s a great guy to hike with.
He was also game to wake up for my 7:00 AM start time. While late evening hikes are a magic all their own, I have come to feel that the early morning hikes are the way to go, particularly when you have to find a parking spot at Chantry Flat. Finding a spot here on the weekend is a little like trying to get a prime spot at Target during Black Friday. Show up early. Camp out if you must.
We were in store for a brilliant hike today. Many of the maples in the canyon were still clinging to their bright yellow leaves, giving an air of fall color. Those who bitch about their being a lack of fall color in Southern California don’t know where to look. There is plenty of it on display here, as well as in the Palomar Mountains, the Volcan Mountains, and the Laguna Mountains in San Diego.
Despite the season, Santa Anita Canyon is a great place for hiking. While it does get crowded, the majority of visitors spend their time near Sturtevant Falls. The falls are a worthy destination, but if you feel lukewarm toward waterfalls the way I do, you’ll do well to venture past the falls and into the upper reaches of the canyon. Here, the walls close in and you wander through an absolutely magical stretch of forest. This stretch of forest is gorgeous under all conditions, including early morning light as well as thick fog. I’ve seen it both ways, and it’s amazing each time. There’s no wondering why this place is so popular.
Further along the canyon, you can enjoy destinations such as Spruce Grove Campground, a popular backcountry campground that has the rare option of fire pits, Sturtevant Camp, turnouts for the Mt. Wilson Trail, Mt. Zion, and, eventually, Hoagees Campground and Winter Creek.
Along the way, Kyle and I enjoyed a number of different micro-environments that depended on presence of water and direction of slope. Here, you can go from dense thickets of thirsty alders and maples to open, sunny stretches of manzanita, toyon, and chamise in a matter of minutes. Big-cone Douglas spruce, towering bays, and live oaks fill up the space in-between, and the diversity is a large part of the charm.
The only drag on this hike is the last stretch, which includes a 500′ climb up a steep, winding asphalt road. It’s not such a problem at the start of the hike, but when you’ve gone 7+ miles, and you’re feeling tired and footsore, this stretch can be a bit of a soul-sucker. It’s helpful to know that taking Upper Winter Creek home on the Mt. Zion Loop instead of the prettier Lower Winter Creek allows you to avoid this hill.
It’s a small price to pay for such a great hike. I enjoyed the locale, hiking with Kyle, and earning a little bit of calorie credit before I befuddled myself with feasting. If you live in Los Angeles, love to hike, and you have not been to Santa Anita Canyon, then you are depriving yourself in the worst way.