Less than 30 minutes from Los Angeles, California, 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 outdoors people 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, searching for 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. I find it difficult to skip a weekend playing in the powder when I know a storm has dumped a few feet of snow.
Trails to Explore
The Angeles National Forest in southern California has many fire roads that are great for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Snowshoers will find that the forest offers many prime locations for snowshoers with any amount of experience. The terrain varies to provide any level of workout the snowshoer seeks.
Chilao Flats & Beyond
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 those still getting used to their snowshoes. Unplowed parking lots and roads are great for practice or a less intense workout. On several days, 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, those seeking a more strenuous outing can drive a few minutes longer. A large parking lot on the south (right) side of Highway 2 is 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 prominent 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.
For additional suggestions in the area, contact the Chilao Visitor Center, which is typically open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 am – 3 pm.
Mount Waterman & Beyond
Continuing a few more miles east on Highway 2, you’ll find the Mount Waterman Ski Lifts. About a half-mile beyond Mount Waterman is a winding fire road that’s excellent for snowshoeing. I’ve met many nordic skiers on this path. When meeting others on the trail, remember your winter trail etiquette. The road winds uphill through the forest to nearly 8,000 feet. Thus, 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 area is Islip Saddle. Highway 39 is not open and drivable to Highway 2, and 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 because 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. As an alternative, head south and up the mountain on the PCT for more strenuous exercise and more significant challenges.
I only suggest snowshoeing the PCT with poles (one or two) and sure footing. So, if you haven’t yet found balance in your ‘shoes, skip this trail in the winter. The path can be very narrow and slippery. I’ve snowshoed both routes in varying conditions. The trails may be iced over (which, if this is the case, you’ll want to bring a traction device like Yaktrax (see our review). Furthermore, 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.
Mount Baldy & Beyond
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. However, 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.
For additional suggestions in the area, contact the Mt Baldy Visitor Center, typically open on Saturdays and Holidays from 7 am – 2 pm.
Grassy Hollow & Beyond
East of Islip Saddle is Wrightwood, California. Unfortunately, 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 approximately 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.
The parking lot to the PCT and the Grassy Hollow Visitor Center have fire roads and trails leaving from their vicinity. I’ve enjoyed many days exploring the Grassy Hollow area. For example, 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.
Read More: The San Gorgonio Wilderness
Recommendations Before Heading Out
Buy a topographic map at a sporting goods store or My Topo 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 usually is evident and avoidable. Avoid these obstacles (and other snowshoeing hazards), 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 usually wait until winter storms have passed before heading to the mountains. This strategy gives the plows a chance to clean the roads without interference from vehicles that don’t need to be there. If you want to know how much snow is covering the mountains before driving 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. Purchase a yearly pass at local sports shops and National Forest visitor centers. Then, 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.
What areas have you snowshoed in the Angeles National Forest or southern California? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
This article was first published on September 20, 2004, and was most recently updated on January 13, 2021.