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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.

A QUICK LOOK AT THE LOCATION OF THE SAN GABRIELS would make you think a public-transit jaunt there would be easy. Suburbs engulf the northern and southern ends of the range (Palmdale and the Antelope Valley–on the edges of the Mojave Desert–are at the north; the San Fernando Valley and Pasadena are to the south). But the truth is, it’s more than a little complicated.

Here’s another truth: I love complicated. On that staircase story, I grew obsessed with finding and mapping a circuitous route through the city. These days, my favorite bike route is one I designed that crosses over each of the 10 bridges that traverse the Los Angeles River: east, west, back, forth…

My point in disclosing this is to be candid about a certain fact: I am a route dork. I happily spent months poring over maps to find staircases, and I spent months studying timetables from eight transit systems–along with maps of the forest, the city, and the suburbs–to figure out a route that would coordinate bus schedules, get us within an acceptable walking distance of a trailhead, and leave time to enjoy the hiking part of a three-day weekend. For me, it was better than watching Star Trek.

Those of you who live in cities like Portland or Salt Lake might be thinking that busing it to an L.A. trailhead sounds like torture. Your transit systems take you directly to trails (see “Urban Renewal,” page 76). New Yorkers, you have a rail line with a scheduled drop-off at the Appalachian Trail. In Los Angeles, the best we can do is illustrated by this conversation I had with an information officer for our rail system:

“Hi, I’m writing an article about using the transit system to access hiking trails.”

“I can send you a brochure! We have a service that goes to the aquarium!”

Other cities, you may have your trail-bound subways, ferries, and trains. I grant you this.

What we have here–I’m not afraid to say it–is a pioneering traverse.

AS WITH ALL EXPLORATORY ENDEAVORS, FINDING THE right team was difficult–though this, I admit, came as a surprise. It was a struggle to get my hiking friends to understand how a trip like this could be fun. Take the bus? In Los Angeles? It was something none of them had ever done. The idea of conducting a three-day backcountry trip via mass transit seemed unimaginable, even stupid, to my normally carbon-conscious friends. One day, a group of us went mountain biking, and I sold–hard–the idea to a friend I thought would be willing. She stared at me and said, “Interesting.” Then she loaded her bike onto her Prius.

In the end, I found people who’d already bought into the idea of going carless in Los Angeles: bike commuters. Most of those folks also love buses and trains, if only because they have to combine different forms of transportation when they want to travel great distances.

Route dork, meet the transit geeks.

In February, I emailed a description of the journey: one bus to the suburbs, another along the foothills, off-load in a community called Sunland, and walk five miles along a paved road into the forest. From there, we’d connect to a narrow trail that would take us through a deep canyon, across several rocky streams, up to the crest of the San Gabriels, with a pair of summits–5,400-foot Condor Peak and 6,500-foot Mt. Gleason–along the way. We’d briefly traverse the Pacific Crest Trail, then drop along a winding fire road toward the town of Acton, in the Antelope Valley. Another five-mile blacktop walk would take us to the Metrolink light rail and back to Los Angeles, where we’d reconnect with the Sunset Boulevard bus at Union Station, the region’s transit hub. Total walking mileage: 32. Departure time: Saturday morning. Arrival home: Monday evening.

A few exchanges later, I had a team: three volunteers, plus me, with my girlfriend, Kalee, making the fifth.

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