Altadena to Crystal Lake

May 23-26, 2001

On Wednesday, May 23, 2001, my sister Ida dropped me off at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Altadena, California. She picked me up 72 hours and 54 miles later at Crystal Lake. This is the story of my hike.

Bill Qualls (age 44)

This is me at the nature center parking lot. My first camp would be at Henninger Flats, which is three miles away and can be seen in this photo as the cluster of pines immediately over my head.
You hike up canyon within the bounds of the nature center for about a half mile before reaching the old Mt. Wilson Toll Road. I was only about a quarter of a mile from the parking lot when I saw this beautiful gopher snake. He (she?) wasn't too concerned about me. I set my one liter water bottle down next to him so you could get a better idea of his size.
Isn't he handsome? After a full minute and several pictures, he decided to retreat into the bush behind him. I was surprised at how fast he moved once he decided to do so!
I thought this rock was geologically interesting so I asked a passerby to take a picture of me in front of it. It's almost 7 p.m. and it's still warm. The route to Henninger Flats is entirely uphill, so I'm sweating already. Just a preview of things to come...
Many of the plants were covered with this yellow plant: they had the appearance of being attacked with a can of "Silly String."
Here's a closer look. I took a picture so I could find out what this is, but as I was doing so a passerby told me it is called "Yellow Dodder". It's some sort of parasite, like mistletoe?
I have long enjoyed the hike to Henninger Flats, even though it is uphill all the way and the trail is really a dirt road. I did this hike several times as a Boy Scout and it brings back pleasant memories. Tonight I enjoyed watching the sun set.
Getting closer...the cluster of pines marks my destination.
Looking down...the long parking lot in the center of this photo is the nature center where I started.
I like yuccas. I hope you do too as there are several pictures of them on this page! The next two photos were taken at the same time and I couldn't decide which one I like best, so I've included both of them. This one was taken WITH a flash...
...and here's a picture of the same yucca taken at the same time but WITHOUT a flash. Which one do you like best?
It was dark by the time I reached Henninger Flats. There are several benches at a spot which overlooks the basin. It was a clear night and there was no one else camping there, so rather than set up my tarp, I just slept on my poncho at that spot. I don't sleep well, even at home, and tend to wake up many times at night. From this point I could enjoy the view each time I woke up. You can hear dogs barking and police and fire siren wailing. Not exactly a wilderness experience, but nevertheless somewhat surreal and enjoyable.
This is my bed the first night. I had decided that I would not bring a tent on this trip. I brought a tarp which I would use for rain if necessary. But there was not a cloud in the sky the entire time I was out. I never did set up the tarp. I slept out in the open every night. This was a refreshing change from tenting.
This is me the first night. Notice the photon LED flashlight on the retractable lanyard. This was the first time I used this. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT! Clipped to the collar of my t-shirt, it was always accessible, but never noticeable.
The next morning I continued up the road towards Mt. Wilson. This is the view of Henninger Flats from above. This area was burned in a fire many years ago. The open area in the center of this picture is where the campground was when I was a Boy Scout.
I saw this quail on the road to Mt. Wilson.
It is 6.3 miles from Henninger Flats to Mt. Wilson. It is uphill every step of the way, for a total elevation gain of 3,078 feet.
Almost there...this is the view looking east. If you are unfamiliar with the San Gabriel mountains, this picture gives you an idea of how rugged they are.
About a half mile from the top, there is a small trail which leaves the road, but pretty much parallels it. I decided to take this trail since I had never taken it before. This was a mistake, for although the trail is in good condition, these caterpillars were hanging from the scrub oaks all along the trail. I probably walked through their webs a hundred times before I reached the top. By the time I got to the top I felt very dirty, being covered in sweat and these webs, so I found a water faucet and gave myself a sponge bath.
Here's a view from the top looking into the upper reaches of Eaton Canyon.
Here's a view of the antennas on Mt. Wilson. Mt. Wilson still has a working observatory but it's location makes it ideal for all of the television station antennas for the Los Angeles area. By now you may be thinking "that's not wilderness" but I assure you that this will change quickly!
Another view from Mt. Wilson. This is looking west towards (I think) Mt. Lowe and Mt. Markham.
I left Mt. Wilson, descending the Kenyon Devore trail down Strayns Canyon. (This trail begins where the highway leading to Mt. Wilson splits into two one-way roads.) This trail goes to West Fork campground. It is seldom used as there is little reason to hike it: West Fork campground is not as popular as it once was, and there are other routes up Mt. Wilson. As I began my descent, I thought that it was a lovely trail. It is shaded all the way (rare in the San Gabriels!) and generally in good repair (no washouts, etc.) But after a short distance I began to encounter many downed trees. The trail was often blocked. Here's just one example. I later discovered that at one of these points I had torn my sleeping pad. I was glad that I use an inexpensive closed cell foam pad and not one of the more expensive self-inflating pads!
If the obstacles were cleared, this would be a pleasant trail to hike. There are several cascades along the way.
The Kenyon Devore trail meets the Gabrielino National Recreation trail about a mile upstream from West Fork Campground. Here I saw this trail sign which greets hikers wishing to ascend the trail. No wonder the trail is used so little! Rattlesnakes are pretty common in these mountains: I don't know why someone saw fit to warn hikers about this trail in particular! The sign has actually been modified. "DEVORE" was once "RATTLE" as this trail was also known as the RATTLESNAKE trail.
This is the stream at West Fork Campground. It's a beautiful stream, but I don't think the campground is used too much anymore. At one time you could drive to this spot, but I think access by car is very restricted now. Several trails come together here, but Devore campground is only a mile downstream and hikers prefer to use it. Three years ago a ranger told me that bears were common at West Fork, and there were warning signs about bears posted at the campground. Maybe THAT is why the campground is seldom used! By the way, West Fork campground is 4.8 miles from Mt. Wilson, downhill all the way, for a total elevation drop of 2,640 feet. But in the San Gabriels, what goes down must go up...
It was at West Fork campground that I first met the Silver Mocassin trail. This trail is a popular high adventure trail for Boy Scouts: it travels 53 miles from Chantry Flats to Vincent Gap. I would be on the Silver Mocassin trail for the next 35 miles. The trail goes up Shortcut Canyon to the Angeles Crest Highway at Shortcut Saddle, a total of 3 miles and 1,800 feet elevation gain. It starts off pleasant enough, but is long and steep and hot in its upper reaches. I hate this trail every time I do it. I usually see rattlesnakes on this trail, but not this time.
This is a view from the Shortcut Canyon trail looking back towards Mt. Wilson.
The trail crosses the Angeles Crest Highway at Shortcut Saddle and descends into Big Tujunga Canyon. Do you see the pattern yet? Long up, long down, long up, long down. Welcome to the San Gabriels!
Within Big Tujunga Canyon, the trail is fully exposed to the elements. The crushed granite surface makes it feel as though you are walking in a reflector oven. I heard a rattlesnake here, but did not see it. It was in a bush on the side of the trail. Only a nut would be out walking in this!
At Shortcut Saddle my thermometer read 95 degrees. Within Big Tujunga Canyon I watched the temperature climb to 98 degrees, and then to 105 degrees. All I can think about is water. I drank nine liters this day. Food held no appeal. You can see at this point that I am not amused!
Finally, after 4 miles and a 500 feet drop in elevation followed by a 1,000 feet climb, I reached Charlton Flats picnic grounds. This is the view back to where I came from: you can see the antennas on Mt. Wilson in the distance at the left. I have hiked 18.1 miles today.
Charlton Flats is only a picnic ground but I decided to make camp here. I found a picnic table about 150 feet from the road and started cooking some dinner. As my dinner was cooking, I walked back to the road to deposit my trash in the trash can, then returned to my cooking. About five minutes later I heard a large crashing noise - obviously the trash can. I walked back towards the cans where I saw this bear. I knew there were bears in the San Gabriels, but this was the first time I had seen one here. I have admitted to others before that I have what I recognize to be a totally irrational fear of bears. As such, I was surprised by my reaction to seeing this bear: I wasn't afraid at all. I guess I would rather see a bear at day than hear a bear at night. I took this picture, then yelled at the bear from a safe distance: I wanted to make sure he knew I was there. (In retrospect, I think this was rather naive, as I suspect he was watching me cook. Why else did he show up so soon after I had gone to the trash can?) He decided to run, and I was amazed at how fast he ran. In two bounds he was across the road and on his way down the canyon on the other side. There is no way anyone is ever going to outrun one of these guys. (Of course, you should never attempt to do so as this will trigger their instinct to chase. But I'm sure that laying down and playing dead is easier said than done!)
I finished dinner then packed up to set up camp some distance from where I had cooked. I returned to the road and this coyote was seeing if the bear had left anything behind. The coyote was much less timid than the bear. We exchanged glances for awhile, then he slowly walked off.
Having already seen a bear, I was careful to hang my food in a tree. Then I laid out my poncho, pad, and sleeping bag about a hundred feet away on a thick bed of pine needles.
The evening was very comfortable with a gentle breeze: not cool, not warm, just right. But the mosquitos were out thick. This seemed strange to me as there had been no mosquitos at Henninger Flats just the night before.
There was no water at Charlton Flats. A ranger told me that the pipes were too old and that they leaked so much that they just left the water turned off. He gave me some water from his truck. I arose the next morning and decided to hike the three miles to Chilao campground before eating breakfast as I knew there was water available there. For breakfast I had my standard fare of cheerios and cocoa puffs. I also drank plenty of water.
Chilao is a popular campground for car campers. Given as there was piped water here, I decided it was time for a much needed bath. For a brief moment, I felt like a million bucks! That feeling would fade as soon as the sun got higher.
I left Chilao and continued on the Silver Mocassin towards Bandido campground. Shortly after leaving Chilao I saw this bear track.
I really like this portion of the trail between Chilao and Bandido. There are several small but scenic meadows here. Meadows are rather unusual in the San Gabriels.
I know I look awful here: it took a lot of confidence to post this picture! I did so because I wanted to show this sign. This is one of the old Silver Mocassin trail signs. It is the only such sign I saw during the 35 miles I spent on that trail. I think this is an original, and probably pre-dates my time in scouting. I will guess this sign dates back to the late 1960s. Can anyone out there confirm this?
The trail crosses the Angeles Crest Highway again at Three Points. This is also where the Silver Mocassin Trail joins the Pacific Crest Trail. The Pacific Crest Trail goes from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. I would now be following the Pacific Crest Trail for the next 21 miles.
The trail from Three Points to Cloudburst Summit is four miles of uphill, skirting Mt. Waterman. This spring - not mentioned in the trail guides - was a welcome surprise!
I have always loved the view from the northern side of the San Gabriels towards the deserts below.
Another view of the deserts from the side of Mt. Waterman.
The trail crosses the Angeles Crest Highway three times enroute to Cloudburst Summit. The trail then drops about 800 feet over 2 miles to reach Cooper Canyon trail camp.
I don't particularly like hiking alone, but I'd rather hike alone than not hike at all. For safety, I had left a written hiking plan with my sister. I also carried a cell phone, and checked in with her periodically so she could update that plan. One suggestion I got from a survival forum on the internet was to use crepe paper to mark my route. If I turned up missing and a search was done, this would help to narrow down the search area. Crepe paper is much more environmentally sound than using surveyors' tape, which is permanent. Crepe paper will disappear after a few rains, or be gathered by birds to line their nests. This one says, "BQ here Friday @ 3:00. Going to Eagles Roost. Remove after 5/31/01. Thanks."
This is Cooper Canyon trail camp. It is a very nice camp, and I have stayed here a number of times before. And although I had already gone 12 miles today, I decided to continue hiking. I would have stayed here if there were other campers here that I could talk to, but the place was empty. You see, I like to hike, but I don't particularly like to camp. I thought to myself, "It's only 3:00. It won't be dark for five hours. I won't go to sleep for seven hours. What will I do for the next seven hours?" My biggest fear is that others will find me as boring company as I find myself.... I put down two liters of water and continued on.
Isn't this a cool sign? I think it has character! I've hiked the Rattlesnake trail about half a dozen times and have never seen a rattlesnake there (though I think you can find rattlesnakes just about anywhere in the San Gabriels.) This trail is in very good condition and quite scenic. It is 1 mile from Cooper Canyon to the Rattlesnake trail, then four miles (uphill, of course) to Eagles Roost picnic ground.
Scenery along the Rattlesnake trail.
I should have camped at Eagles Roost picnic ground, but exercised poor judgment here. I have always enjoyed the view from the top of Mt. Williamson and decided to continue on to there despite having already gone 18 miles today. It would have been wise to cook dinner first, but there probably wasn't time to cook and hike. It's 1500 feet elevation gain over three miles from Eagles Roost to the top of Mt. Williamson. When I started the ascent I was moving pretty slow, and having problems with cramping. This is a view into the depths of Bear Canyon from about half way up Mt. Williamson. (Note: there are two Bear Canyons in the San Gabriels.)
I reached the peak of Mt. Williamson at about 8 p.m., hiking the last, steep, quarter mile by moonlight. I had hiked 21.1 miles with an elevation gain of about 5100 feet. I was totally exhausted. My legs and stomach were cramping despite drinking plenty of water at every opportunity. When I took my pack off, my wet back chilled from the breeze. In no time at all I was shivering! I've had enough survival training to know that shivering is a very serious thing: I am more afraid of shivering than I am of bears! I knew I was in danger of hypothermia. My body was depleted. I probably hadn't eaten more than 1,000 calories today, but had probably burned up 8,000 to 10,000. I needed to get warm fast! I pulled off my wet shirt and put on a fleece sweater, then a wind breaker. I found my stocking cap and covered my head. I was still cold. It seemed as though my body simply didn't have enough calories to produce any heat. I tried to set up my poncho, pad, and sleeping bag. I snapped the sides of my poncho together and stuffed the pad and sleeping bag inside. I was afraid that if I didn't do this, my sleeping bag and/or pad might blow away in the wind if I walked away from them such as to urinate. But getting in the bag was tough. When I stood, my stomach would cramp. When I layed down, my legs would cramp. I finally settled in, still shivering. Dinner was a piece of beef jerky and some koolaid. I called my sister on the cell phone to let her know where I was and that I was OK. I needed to tell someone that I was OK. And eventually I was. This picture is the sunrise the next morning, looking towards Victorville.
The view from Mt. Williamson towards South Fork campground and the desert.
My pack at the top of Mt. Williamson. This is where I slept. I woke early and began the descent to Islip Saddle.
Here's something I had never seen before. There were three letters placed along the trail between Mt. Williamson and Islip Saddle. They were from "Mr. McKinney's 6th Grade Class". They were letters of encouragement to Pacific Crest Trail hikers. They were laminated, then simply placed under rocks along the trail so the hikers would see them. I neglected to write down the first one, but here's the second one I found. In case you can't read it, it says "I hope you never give up. When I was 7 I cut my head open. I thought I was going to die but I didn't give up. And you should never give up. Like a bike if you fall off you have to get back. If you can give a little more effort you can go a long way. I hope you can do your best. happy trail."
And here's the third one which you can read for yourself...pretty funny!
When I reached Islip Saddle there was a gentleman there waiting to greet his son's scout troop. They were camping at Cooper Canyon (so I wouldn't have been alone afterall. They were only a few hours behind me.) He couldn't be with them because he had broken his leg a few months earlier while skiing. Anyway, he took my picture here.
At Islip Saddle I crossed the highway and continued on towards Little Jimmy trail camp (a 700 foot elevation gain over 2.1 miles). This picture was taken about a half mile from Islip Saddle looking back to Mt. Williamson where I had spent the night.
I thought it comical that I should see snow on the trail when just 36 hours earlier I had been hiking in temperatures of 105 degrees! The San Gabriels really are remarkable.
I neglected to take pictures of Little Jimmy trail camp, and that is unfortunate as it is, in my opinion, one of the jewels of the San Gabriels. I had made up my mind that I would stay at Little Jimmy for awhile and eat. I needed to get some calories inside! I had four cups of hot chocolate and two Clif bars. I still didn't feel like eating. I rested there for three hours, putting down three liters of fluids while visiting another member of the LDS church, a cop from Rialto. At noon I decided to try for Mt. Baden Powell, 6 uphill miles away. Resting, eating and drinking was the right thing to do: I felt pretty strong as I continued past Windy Gap and towards Mt. Baden Powell. There are many spectacular views towards the desert along the way, such as this one.
Isn't this pretty? Elevation about 8,000 feet.
Finally, the trail crosses a small pass near Throop Peak and you are rewarded with your first view of Mt. Baldy.
Shortly thereafter, you get your first view of Mt. Baden Powell, elevation 9,399. However, at this point I was starting to feel weak again. I simply wasn't eating enough. I had plenty of food with me, but I had no interest in eating. With two miles to go, at four o'clock I decided I didn't want a repeat of last night (camping on the mountain top) and exercised what I believe to be uncommonly good judgment for me, and decided to turn around and return to Little Jimmy. I wanted to go to Baden Powell, but I've been there before and there will be other opportunities. But not this time.
On the return trip. Isn't this beautiful? It was now Saturday at 4:30pm, and I had arranged for my sister to pick me up at Crystal Lake on Sunday at 3:00pm. But Crystal Lake is only about 3.5 miles from Little Jimmy. I saw little point in sticking around till then (boring, remember?) so I called her on the cell phone and asked her to meet me at Crystal Lake tonight at 6:00pm instead.
This is looking down towards the Crystal Lake campground from near Windy Gap.
Here's the "after" picture, taken at Crystal Lake. My pack had been pushing down my pants, and they were bunching up around my ankles. At one point I almost tripped myself on them, so I cut off the legs. My feet held up well, with only one small blister on one toe. I was ready to go home. It was a very loving sister who let a very stinky brother into her nice car! I had hiked 54.3 miles in 72 hours, including a total elevation gain of 14,600 feet. We stopped at Del Taco on the way home and I had 2 Macho Combo Burritos. I should have carried those with me on the hike! Yummy! You know, it's always the same thing: I'm always glad to get home, but once I get a bath and a burrito, I can't wait to get back out again!
Be sure to tune in next year for "Bill's Midlife Crisis - 2002 Edition - The Saga Continues."
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Copyright © 2001 by Bill Qualls. Last updated June 8, 2001.