Mt. Wilson – Angeles National Forest

Santa Anita Canyon

Santa Anita Canyon, Angeles National Forest

You could say that Mt. Wilson and I share a love, hate relationship, which has nearly turned violent on a couple of past occasions, including my first solo attempt at the peak last January when Mt. Wilson literally tried to kill me. This weekend, however, things worked out quite well, the Gods of Mt. Wilson smiled upon me, and I managed to make my way to the top and back down without any major incidents.

I’d been planning my triumphant return to the top of Mt. Wilson for months, though for one reason or another, things kept cropping up and keeping me from reaching the peak again. It’s not that the hike itself is all that difficult, but that it requires a significant mental commitment to complete. I’ve been back to base camp (Spruce Grove campground) quite a few times since my last ascent, but the relative comfort and tranquility of the area often makes it tough to motivate myself to leave. It may seem like a poor trade-off, abandoning the secluded beauty and peacefulness of Santa Anita Canyon for an arduous 2,500 foot elevation climb up to the top, but the view up there is entirely worth it.

I wanted to get back to the peak to get a look at the devastation wrought by the recent Station Fire so I could document the damage with my camera. I had attempted to do the same thing a couple months back, just after the fire, when I hiked up to Newcomb Pass during an aborted attempt at reaching Devore Campground, but the view was obstructed and the photos turned out like shit, which is why I’ve since updated that post with shots from this weekend’s trip.

Based on Chayacitra’s Google Analytics data, I could tell that I wasn’t the only one interested in seeing the burn zone, so I figured I would take one for the team and drag my tripod along on this outing, which is something I’ve never tried before. It was entirely worth the effort (not for the shots from the top, but for those taken down in the canyon), which has convinced me that, 1. I should always take a tripod along, and 2. I need a lighter tripod.

None of my shots from the top look fantastic, and I was pretty disappointed to find such terrible lighting conditions when I got up there, but the hazy skies and constant cloud cover didn’t stop me from  having a good time anyway. And even if the pictures do suck, as I’ve said before, the Station Fire and it’s aftermath still afford us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness impermanence, interconnectedness, and creation/destruction on a simply massive scale. I think there’s a great lesson in this fire for each of us, which is why I’ve been so intent to get these pictures taken and posted. So without further ado, here is their story.

I got up at 6:30 on Saturday morning and cooked up one of my famous omelettes to load up on some protein before finalizing my last second packing, then hopped in the car and sped off. I remembered at the last second that I was missing the most important backpacking food ever- bread, cheese, and grapes- but thankfully my local Ralphs was already open. I don’t know what had possessed me to plan on surviving with just cliff bars and trail mix this time around, but I’m damn glad I figured things out at the last second. There’s simply nothing like a good loaf of bread, some chipotle cheese, and a bag of grapes out on the trail.

I was even fortunate enough to run into some of the best customer service I’ve ever personally experienced, when the Ralph’s deli guy went completely out of his way to stop me from taking one of “yesterday’s” loaves of bread, replacing it with one that was piping-hot and literally fresh-out-of-the-oven. As it turned out, that loaf was so good at retaining heat that even hours later, in 40 degree temperature weather out in the middle of the wilderness, I was treated to a meal of hot bread!

When I arrived at the Chantry Flat parking area, the regular early morning Parking Rodeo was in full effect, with the Ranger playing parking lot attendant. It was a big mess, with a bunch of non-English speakers trying to figure out her instructions, and doing some of the worst parking I’ve ever seen. I was glad that I had packed all my stuff up beforehand so I could get on the trail quickly.

I totally screwed the pooch though and had completely forgotten to renew my Angeles National Forest Adventure Pass, which had apparently expired in November. I thought I had at least another month left on the damn thing, but apparently my timing was way off. I wasn’t about to sit around for an hour waiting for the pack station to open so I could buy a new one though, and since the tickets are immediatley forgiven as soon as one provides proof of their valid pass purchase, I figured it didn’t matter anyway.

Dam Along the San Gabriel River

Dam Along the San Gabriel River - Angeles National Forest

Though the weather was perfect and I had been expecting to have to wade my way through people, I found the trail itself to be relatively empty. Like usual, I was somewhat disappointed at the lack of spectacular views on the hike out, but I think I’m just spoiled, and that it’s unfair to compare Angeles with the likes of Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Saguaro, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Park, all of which I’ve been to in the past 3 months. While those places are all far more impressive than Angeles, none of them less than an hour outside of a major metropolitan area. And while the Angeles National Forest may not provide the most amazing scenery in the country, it sure is conveniently located for those of us stuck here in Southern CA. And for that, I absolutely adore the place.

My hike seemed a bit tougher than usual, but I think it’s partially because I haven’t done any proper backpacking since I visited Saguaro in October. Or it could have been the added weight of my new, heavier backpack, and the addition of the tripod, which as I stated above, I’d never carried into Angeles before. Either way, the 3.5+ mile trip didn’t take very long at all though, and I didn’t even have to take a single rest break, but I was definitely feeling the load on my back by the time I pulled into Spruce Grove.

Now that I’ve spent so many nights there, it almost feels like coming home when I arrive at the campground, and I was delighted to once again find it completely unoccupied. Apparently I’ve got some kind of amazing luck, because the local Ranger swears that the only time the place is deserted like that is when I’m around. I guess I just know how to pick the right weekends!

After arriving I unpacked enough to get my lunch supplies out and was totally shocked to find my loaf of bread still warm enough to release a stream of steam each time I cracked a new piece off the end. It made for a great meal, and an absolute treat, considering it was already cold enough that I had to put on my thermal pants, beanie, and fleece gloves. And it was still just 10:00 am! (Though I do get cold easily).

Once I managed to get warm I set up the tent and stowed my gear, then snapped a couple pictures of the campground so you could all see just what it looks like, and perhaps get an idea of why I like it so much.

Spruce Grove - Angeles National Forest

Spruce Grove Campground - Angeles National Forest

Spruce Grove is definitely one of my favorite Southern California campground, mostly because it’s usually empty, right next to the stream (allowing easy access to filtering water), and relatively warmer than the surrounding area due to the thick tree canopy. I think I’ve spent something like 20-30 nights here now and I’ll definitely keep racking them up throughout this year, though with the loss of the Northern Angeles to the Station Fire, and my desire to start taking on longer trips, I may have to start looking elsewhere. Thankfully there are plenty of other trails around, and I think my next foray may be to head out East into the San Bernadino Mountains. Perhaps another shot at San Jacinto is even in order.

For now though, Spruce Grove remains my home base, and as every other time before, it served me quite well on this trip. Someone had been kind enough to do some pretty extensive fire-wood collecting, and little fire-wood burning, so I was even able to scavenge some excellent pieces of wood from the area immediately surrounding the campsite. I then collected up the obligatory load of tree branches, pulled them to pieces, and piled up what I figured would be enough wood to last a few hours.

As always, I enjoyed the process, and for the first time even remembered to use my gloves and rain jacket to keep myself from getting scraped up and filthy. It’s amazing how long it’s taken me to develop the skill, but I’m finally getting better at efficiently breaking down tree limbs and using their stress points and weak spots to break them up. I no longer decide how long I want each piece of wood to be, but instead go with the flow of the branch itself, and allow it to snap at the points of it’s own choosing. While I may not get the “perfect pile” or “perfect length” of wood each time, it sure saves me a lot of energy. And it certainly feels much more “Zen” to do it this way.

Fire Wood Collection - Spruce Grove, Angeles National Forest

Fire Wood - Spruce Grove Campground - Angeles National Forest

After working up a sweat preparing the evening’s fuel I laid down and listened to the sounds of the forest around me, deeply enjoying the gurgling sounds of the local stream. A half hour or later I was ready to get to it again so I collected up my camera and tripod, then headed South along the trail, looking for potential photography subjects. I’ve shot this area probably 10-15 times now, but never with a tripod before, and even with the assistance of my K10D’s “Shake Reduction” technology, I’ve never managed to hold the camera steady enough for properly exposed photos. I’ve always had to trade off between sharpness and depth of field, which isn’t quite the way I like to pursue my art. And even though I’m shooting with a wide angle lens there’s so little available light due to the thick tree cover that my exposures typically require 1/4th a second or even longer- far too long for hand-held shots.

This time around, however, I was able to capture a few images that I really like, thanks to the help of my Amvona AT-L 101T Tripod. In particular, I was quite pleased to finally snag properly exposed and sharp photos of some mossy logs that I’ve been trying to shoot for over a year, but never had any luck with! Here are a few of my favorite shots from the afternoon.

Stream near Spruce Grove - Angeles National Forest

Stream near Spruce Grove - Angeles National Forest

Fallen Leaf - Angeles National Forest

Fallen Leaf - Angeles National Forest

Moss Covered Log - Angeles National Forest

Moss Covered Log - Angeles National Forest

When I got back to camp I was pleased to see the area still unoccupied, but found myself starving, so I chomped down some more bread, cheese, and grapes, then filtered another CamelPak full of water. I’m still flabbergasted at the terrible design flaws in both my Katadyn Hiker Pro Water Filter and Camelbak water bladder though- neither or which have been designed for easy use. There are no convenient hand-holds, handles, or grips of any sort, making solo water pumping far more difficult than it should have to be. It’s never a problem with another person around, but it requires way too much of a juggling act to get it done when I’m alone. Unless each company makes significant strides in their designs, I will not be purchasing anything from them ever again. And if anyone out there knows of easier to use models, please let me know, because I’ve frankly had my fill with each of these (even though they’re both relatively new).

Exacerbating my frustration with operating such poorly-designed gear, one of the denizens of the local cabins (the closest one to Spruce Grove campground) had decided to do some serious construction work at just about the same time that I had fixed on doing some serious relaxation. Unbeknownst to me, though I was later informed by the Ranger, their cabin’s side paneling had not been properly finished and they were quite worried about getting it put fully into place before the first big Winter storm. It sounded to me like they were just pounding hammers to make noise for making noise’s sake, but I guess there was some method to the madness. Either way- it was incredibly obnoxious, keeping me from being able to relax, clear my thoughts, and get any good meditation in. All I could think about was throwing a rock through their cabin’s window (which I’m glad I did not do).

I ended up having to put in my earbuds and take a quick nap- hoping that they’d give up on the hammering after about an hour or so. But of course, they did not. That would have made things too easy for me! My next attempt to escape the annoyance was to head toward a gigantic rock pillar which I’ve planned to climb since I first saw it nearly a year ago, but never actually explored. I slowly made my way to the top, then walked out toward the ledge, sitting about 100 feet up off the canyon floor, meditating for an hour or so, and again enjoying the silence of the forest. I was just far enough away that the incessant hammering sounded more like some kind of distant drum or bass playing, and I was again able to relax and enjoy myself.

As the light began to fade, I hurried back to camp and decided to start up my fire since that’s no easy task even with a headlamp (which I conveniently lost in Death Valley, and had not yet replaced). My first attempt was an abysmal failure, the result of failing to properly prepare my fuel with enough light kindling. I always end up collecting up far too many large and medium sized logs, with way too little of the tiny, easy-to-light stuff, and even after a year of constantly reminding myself to do it right the next time, I still haven’t quite been able to broke myself of the bad habit. Without enough kindling it’s terribly difficult to get a fire to any sort of self-sustainability.

My second fire starting effort turned out to be far more successful,  thanks to a much larger supply of kindling, and the assistance of Coghlan’s Emergency Tinder. That stuff was excellent, incredibly worth it’s price, and far more effective than any of the other similar products that I’ve tried in the past. In fact I’d say this is the best product on the market right now, at least that I know of, and I’ve tried everything that REI carries. The only real drawback of the Coghlan’s stuff is that it’s difficult to use in cold weather, but with a bit of cleverness and a jacket pocket, that’s a relatively simple problem to overcome. It still took me a little over an hour to build up a coal-base hot enough to get my fire to sustainability, but once I hit that point it was all smooth sailing.

Soon after the fall of total darkness the local Ranger stopped by to check in with everyone and make sure that everything was in order. I’ve met him quite a few times and I always enjoy the chance to pick his brain and ask questions about the area. He’s been watching over Sturtevant’s Camp for something like 25 years now, so there’s really no one with a better understanding of that area. I was particularly curious to get his take on the Station Fire damage, and to find out if it was possible for me to get into the burn zone.

Unfortunately, as I suspected, the Ranger said that all trails to the area are now officially closed for some sort of “Reforestation” effort, and that this would probably be the case for some time to come. On the bright side though, even though I could get a decent view of the Northern Angeles from Newcomb Pass (where I was thrown out of last time), he let me know that the Echo Rock viewpoint on top of Mt. Wilson would be a far better bet. And even though my knee and hips had been giving me trouble earlier in the day, so much so that I had abandoned my plan to hit the peak, his advice rekindled my desire to get up there. After our obligatory discussion of the weather, the Ranger was on his way and I found myself again alone with my little fire- just the way I like it.

Camp Fire - Spruce Grove Campground

Fire Art Attempt - Spruce Grove Campground

Camp Fire - Spruce Grove Campground

Another Attempt - Spruce Grove Campground

I chomped down a gigantic cookie, continued working my fire, and tried taking pictures of the flames and the fire’s evolution. I have an idea for a series of photos that I’ll attempt the next time I’m backpacking, which involves documenting the beginning, middle, and final stages of an evening’s fire- similar to what’s posted above, though I’d like to produce a sort of time-lapse sequence capturing a fire’s entire life cycle. I think it could be beautiful! I was enjoying listening to the sounds of the canyon until a very peculiar owl call began to attract my attention. The sound was like none I’d ever heard before- a piercing call ripping through the silent night- soon commanding my total attention. I had wanted to investigate the noises, but started to get cold, tired, and even downright scared.

I had been thinking about some of the concepts from the Don Juan series of books written by Carlos Castaneda, and was attempting to perform one of the energetic meditations suggested for tapping into an area’s power when I first began to hear those weird calls. I had just been trying to “expose myself to power” when the first call rang out. I immediately froze up, sat completely still, closed my eyes, and just listened to the noises. Unfortunately I did that for so long that my fire ended up burning itself out! Having used up all my pieces of light kindling, my only options were to freeze my ass off or get in bed, so I chose the latter. I had been enjoying my fire already for 3-4 hours, so it was probably time to get to bed anyway, but it certainly felt like a defeat at the time.

Listening to the calls, which I think could be more accurately described as shrieks, howls, or even screams, I had the feeling of total certainty that they were not being produced by ordinary means (ie. owls), but by some sort of beings of the night- some kind of energetic entities. I figured that the destruction wrought by the Station Fire had probably driven some of the older, bigger, and badder entities out of the deep Angeles, and into the fringes of remaining forest- where I was now lay. I didn’t want anything to do with those potential terrors at that point, so I cut out all light, sound, and movement of my own, sitting totally still and just listening to the weirdness. After an indeterminable period of time I ended up falling into a very deep sleep.

I woke up the next morning around 8:00 AM, feeling excellent, without any of the previous nights soreness in my legs, hips, and back. I was quite confident that I’d be able to handle the hike up and down Mt. Wilson, but I knew I’d need to carbo-load first. I heated up my usual evening meal, the incredible dehydrated Macaroni and Cheese from Backpacker’s Pantry, which I promptly chomped down, then set to work on packing up all of my innesential gear. I knew I would be pushing daylight to just about it’s limits if I spent any significant amount of time at the top of Mt. Wilson, and I didn’t want to have to hike out in the dark (especially since I didn’t have a head lamp), so I packed up everything I didn’t need to take with me to the summit and stored it all neatly in my tent, which due to later time-constraints turned out to be an excellent idea.

It was a quick, but relatively difficult hike up to Wilson’s summit, fraught with the usual perils of numerous avalanche chutes leading to certain death. You see, the local Ranger has reminded me twice now that these are the steepest slopes in the lower 48 states, and there have been numerous body-rescue missions in the area to prove it. I can’t claim that I’ve done much hiking or backpacking outside of the South West, but based on what I have seen, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that these slopes really are the steepest, especially after paying so much attention to them each time I’m out there by myself. It’s never an issue when hiking with friends, but when I’m out there alone there’s a noticeably higher level of excitement due to the many opportunities for getting myself killed. Take a look at the slope in the following picture and you can get some idea of what I’m talking about.

Avalanche Chute - Mt. Wilson, Angeles National Forest

Avalanche Chute - Mt. Wilson, Angeles National Forest

When I did reach the summit, for only my third time ever even though I’ve camped at the mountain’s base so many times now, I was rewarded with a completely unobstructed and nearly 360-degree view, allowing me to document the full damage done by the Station Fire, and giving you the opportunity to take a peak at the area without even having to leave the comfort of your own home. The following shot is my favorite of the series, with Mt. Baldy’s snow-capped peak in the top-right, the foreground showing the healthy Angeles, and the mountains to the left exhibiting the extent of the area’s devastation. For the other pics from this series, please see the following post: Aftermath of the Station Fire – Angeles National Forest.

Angeles National Forest - Station Fire Aftermath

Angeles National Forest - Station Fire Aftermath

I lingered at the fantastic Echo Rock viewpoint for about two hours, hoping that the cloud bank to the South would clear up, giving me the opportunity to capture those mountains under even lighting conditions, but alas, it never happened. Accordingly, these shots are nowhere near as nice as I was hoping they’d turn out, but I figure I’ll be making a return trip to the area relatively soon, so all is not lost. I was also quite pleased to find myself in good enough shape to bring the majority of my backpack’s weight, including both the camera and tripod (each of which are my heaviest piece of backpacking equipment on their own) the entire 2,500 feet up, without any serious problems. And just as I was packing up to make my way back down the mountain, I heard the sound of approaching humans, at which time I realized that I’d had the mountain to myself for the entire time that I was up there- just the way I like it.

Near Mt. Wilson Summit - Looking South East

Near Mt. Wilson Summit - Looking South East

The hike back down was far easier, and much faster than my way up, taking less than half the time and failing to produce any noticeable sweating or fatigue. I even had enough energy to stop short at the Half-Way sign and set up my camera to capture my only self-portrait of the trip, which I think turned out relatively well.

Self Portrait - Half Way Back Down Mt. Wilson

Self Portrait - Half Way Back Down Mt. Wilson

I arrived back at camp around 3pm and was pretty happy that I’d had the foresight to pack things up before heading for the peak, as I was now officially feeling tired and lazy. Light was already beginning to become an issue so I quickly broke down my tent, cleaned up the campsite according to my leave no trace style of backpacking, and got ready to take off. The day had been a good one, and I was only disappointed that I wouldn’t have time to stop by Sturtevant’s Camp for another conversation with the local Ranger, especially since I’d wanted to show him my photos from the peak. I’ll be keeping them on my memory card so he can get a look at them the next time I’m out there.

I made it back to my car relatively quickly, getting there just as the deep Twilight had begun to set in, which was quite a relief considering that things would have been somewhat complicated without a headlamp to rely on. I was then treated with my first twilight drive down the mountain and back into civilization, enjoying the view of the emergence of the evening’s first stars. It had been a great trip and even now I can’t wait for my next adventure. I’m full of ideas for how I want to shoot the canyon on my next trip out there and I’ll be sure to bring my new headlamp along so I can take my sweet time.
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4 Responses to Mt. Wilson – Angeles National Forest

  1. Lana says:

    I just wanted you to know that I’m really loving your blog. I’m getting excited to set out on my first-ever backpacking trip (at age 41) and you are really helping to stir that excitement. Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful photos and enlightening observations.

  2. Tim says:

    Thank you for the incredibly encouraging remarks, I very much appreciate the kind words. I hope your upcoming adventures are every bit as exciting and fun as you’re expecting them to be. Where are you going for your first trip?

  3. Kelly says:

    Thank you for sharing this information.  It was priceless to me. I went camping for the first time at Mt. Shasta and now I’m hooked but wanted to go some place closer but still be secluded in the forest and from your dialogue and pictures I think this is the perfect place for me to go!  I hope to visit this campsite in December.  I saw that you went around the same time of year.  Do you have any tips for me?

  4. Landon Faulkner says:

    See any deer or bear up there?

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