Less than 30 minutes from Los Angeles, the Angeles National Forest offers a variety of recreational opportunities.
The San Gabriel Mountains loom over the valleys of the Los Angeles basin, beckoning all outdoorsman to hike and mountain bike in the summer and ski and snowshoe in the winter. During the winter, views of snowcapped peaks tempt snow lovers to leave the valley below in search of snow-covered trails.
An hour-long drive east on Highway 2 from La Cañada Flintridge will take you above 6,000 feet in elevation. Snow is abundant here during a wet winter. Storms can often dump several feet of snow. Usable snow can fall as early as December and as late as May. When I know a storm has dumped a few feet of snow, I find it difficult to skip a weekend playing in the powder.
Snowshoers will find that the forest offers many prime locations for snowshoers with any amount of experience. The terrain varies to offer any level of workout the snowshoer seeks. The Chilao Flats area is appropriate for beginners. Located between 5,000 and 6,000 feet, flat and gently rolling terrain is a welcome sight to a novice who hasn’t yet found balance in new snowshoes. Unplowed parking lots and roads are great for practice or a less intense workout. On a lazy day, I’ve snowshoed and explored Chilao Flats. It was refreshingly quiet, the silence occasionally interrupted by chirping birds and inquisitive squirrels. I recommend the area for a meditative and relaxing stroll in the snow.
If strolling in a snow-covered field or parking lot isn’t what you’re seeking, more advanced snowshoers can drive a few minutes longer. A large parking lot on the south (right) side of Highway 2 is located just before the 6,000 feet elevation marker. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) crosses the road here. A gated fire road is at the eastern end of the lot and is a perfect snowshoeing trail: Smooth, wide, and obvious when the snow is deep. After a snowstorm, there will be children sledding near the parking area. It won’t take you long to leave them behind in your search for untouched snow.
Continuing a few more miles east on Highway 2, you’ll find the Mount Waterman Ski Area. About a half mile past Mount Waterman is a winding fire road excellent for snowshoeing. I’ve met many nordic skiers on this path. The road winds uphill through the forest to an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet. The workout is spectacular and the scenery is beautiful.
About seven miles east of Mount Waterman, Highway 2 intersects with Highway 39 from Azusa. This is Islip Saddle. Highway 39 is not open and drivable to Highway 2. The only way to reach Islip Saddle in the winter is by driving east on Highway 2 from La Cañada Flintridge. At this intersection, Highway 2 is closed in the winter. The road is not maintained and is unplowed.
There is a parking lot on the north side of the road, just before the closure. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road again. Be on the lookout for Desert Bighorn Sheep that frequent the surrounding cliffs. If you are feeling less adventurous or looking for a lighter workout, snowshoe on the closed section of the road. Head south and up the mountain on the PCT for a more strenuous workout and greater challenges. I only suggest snowshoeing the PCT with poles and sure footing. If you haven’t yet found balance in your shoes, skip this trail in the winter. The trail can be very narrow and slippery. I’ve snowshoed both trails in varying conditions. The trails may be iced over. Winds from the desert blow from the north and over the saddle, creating very cold and windy conditions. The cloud cover can change quickly and dramatically. I’ve hiked there on a beautiful calm day only to return to a snow-covered car. Always be prepared with severe weather gear.
East of Islip Saddle is Wrightwood, California. Due to the winter road closure, Wrightwood has to be approached by driving west about six miles on Highway 2 from its intersection with State Route 138. Drive about three miles past the Mountain High Ski Area, and you will reach parking lots for the Blue Ridge and Pacific Crest Trails. Continuing on Highway 2, you will find the Grassy Hollow Visitor Center just around the bend. On Saturdays when the ground is snow-covered, guided snowshoe hikes leave from this visitor center. Both areas have fire roads and trails leaving from the vicinity of the parking lots. I’ve enjoyed many days exploring the Grassy Hollow area. Snowshoeing from Grassy Hollow to the Jackson Flat campground, I’ve seldom passed other hikers or snowshoers. Jackson Flat is peaceful in the wintertime. Be alert and look for wildlife; I once saw a bobcat racing through the snow.
Pass Grassy Hollow and you’ll find the other end of the Highway 2 winter closure at Vincent Gap. The unplowed road beyond the gate is another spectacular place for endless snowshoeing. You’ll tire out before you run out of trail or snow. Two parking lots are situated right before the closure and trails leave from both parking lots.
Mount Baldy is also a good place for snowshoeing in the National Forest. The ski area is accessible by heading north on Mountain Avenue from Interstate 210 in Upland. Mountain Avenue turns into Mount Baldy Road and dead ends at Mount Baldy Ski Lifts. San Antonio Falls Road is on the left side of Mount Baldy Road just below the ski area parking lot. Snowshoeing only a half mile up the gated road will bring you to scenic San Antonio Falls. Snowshoe the trail all the way to the top and you’ll find the Mount Baldy Lodge where I’ve warmed up with a very welcomed cup of pea soup.
The Angeles National Forest has many fire roads that are great for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Buy a topographic map at a sporting goods store and take it with you on every outing. If you choose a fire road above 6,000 feet (and even as low as 5,000 feet during some winters) on a north-facing slope, there’s a great chance that you’ve found a useful snowshoeing trail. Even when snow is scarce, down to a few inches, most of these roads are still snowshoe-safe. There are few rocks and ruts. If there has been a rockslide, it is normally obvious and avoidable. Avoid these obstacles and your snowshoes and ankles will thank you.
Tire chains are sometimes necessary and may be required. During the winter, keep chains in your car when traveling in the mountains. I normally wait until winter storms have passed before I head to the mountains. This gives the plows a chance to clean the roads without interference from vehicles that don’t really need to be there. If you want to know how much snow is covering the mountains before you drive all the way to the Forest, check the snow reports for Mount Waterman, Mountain High, and Mount Baldy.
A parking pass is necessary to park on National Forest lands. A yearly pass can be purchased at local sports shops and National Forest visitor centers. Grab a map and your snowshoes and you can discover more snowshoeing opportunities all on your own. Remember to leave no trace and pack out what you packed in. Preservation of this heavily used National Forest is essential.
Mount Waterman: http://www.mtwatermanpatrol.org
Mountain High: http://www.mthigh.com
Mount Baldy: http://www.mtbaldy.com
National Forest Adventure Pass: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/angeles/passes/pass-adventure.shtml