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Bus Hiking: Don’t Pay at the Pump

Gas prices are soaring. Glaciers are melting. What's a conscientious hiker to do? Take the bus, says Dan Koeppel, who did just that to escape downtown L.A.

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE A DONUT IN THE WILD. Or an order of onion rings, a Big Mac, or a Grand Slam breakfast. But our time–at a trailhead marked by a quartet of fast-food restaurants, two gas stations, and a giant billboard advertising a radio program hosted by the “boogieman of the morning”–is short. Five backpackers are about to load into what might be the world’s most unlikely hiking shuttle: Metro Bus 91, a commuter line that carries a quarter-million passengers annually along a 20-mile route that leads from bustling downtown Los Angeles to the city’s suburban foothills.

We are not alone. A dozen strap-hangers wait with us at the intersection. There’s a mother with three children; a middle-aged man in a wrinkled suit; and a heavyset teenager with a bike. I count four iPods, six shopping bags, and one Spiderman book tote. We’re the most burdened of all, with our fully loaded backpacks. It’s a Saturday morning, and we’ve been traveling for almost two hours, since 6 a.m., when we started our journey on Sunset Boulevard, two blocks from my house and a mile from the Hollywood Freeway.

We step on board, forsaking fast-food delights. The orange vehicle plods along. It’s standing room only: We’re standing, and we take up all the room. As passengers squeeze around us, we do an awkward dance trying not to whack them in the heads. Soon we’ll come to Foothill Boulevard, the main So-Cal thoroughfare to the 650,000-acre San Gabriel Mountains, on the southern fringes of Angeles National Forest. Our stop is coming up. We can see 6,000-foot peaks. And a Starbucks.

ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST IS WHAT LOCAL USED-car dealers like to call “freeway close.” That means an easy drive, no matter the distance. But proximity can be problematic. Annually, 30 million people visit the forest, which is located entirely in Los Angeles County. Assuming the average roundtrip to the trailhead is 50 miles, these visitors create roughly 2.25 billion pounds of greenhouse gases. During the 15 years I’ve lived here, I’ve been as guilty as the next guy, putting thousands of extra miles on my car as I’ve repeated the 20-mile back-and-forth from my door to the trailheads.

But it was spiking gas prices that finally made me try to find a better way. I started by selling my car. I live with my girlfriend, so we figured one vehicle would be sufficient. Los Angeles has a new subway, plus those poppy-colored buses, and I own a swell bicycle. I’m also a rabid walker. In 2002, I began climbing the hills in my neighborhood, which are lined with staircases. Five days a week, I hiked them with a GPS, developing a 20-mile, 50-staircase route that gained 7,000 feet. (I wrote about that endeavor for BACKPACKER’s June 2004 issue, and have since added 20 more staircases.)

With all this low-impact travel under my belt, I figured the next step was totally logical: Find a way to get to my favorite trailhead in a vehicle that was already going there.

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