WE FINISH OUR STARBUCKS AND BEGIN TO WALK, passing modest homes and apartments. Some streets are sleepy, and others sketchy, with cars on lawns and graffitied stop signs.
First lesson: Enjoy the scenery you get–not the scenery you wish for. The neighborhood transforms as we near the hills. The houses get bigger. Some have equestrian lots. Finally, the residential section vanishes altogether. The last developed bits we pass are a tree farm and a fire station. We begin to climb. We’re now officially in the national forest, following the dry Tujunga Wash past an upward-thrusting part of the San Andreas Fault. We turn off the road and drop into a small parking area. As we consult a faded trailhead map, a woman approaches, arms flailing. She shouts: “Don’t go up there! There are mountain lions and rattlesnakes! Somebody’s dog got killed last week.”
Rattlesnakes are a hazard in the San Gabriels (mountain lions, too, but rarely if you’re bigger than a poodle). After a bit of consideration, we decide that reasonable precautions–like, not worrying–will keep us safe. As she steps into her car, the woman gives us a “you’re stupid” shrug.
IF YOU WERE VISITING ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST FOR the first time, I’d take you here, to Trail Canyon. The path begins along a shady creekbed, passes one of the region’s few year-round waterfalls, and rises to a narrow ledge hundreds of feet above the canyon. One guidebook says it would be easy to “imagine yourself in Yosemite Valley.”
And yet, there are a few things you must keep in mind when urban hiking: You’ll have Yosemite moments. You’ll also have helicopter-flying-overhead moments. You’ll have splash-in-the-falls idylls, then cross a paved road (there are two up here, but my route avoided them) and almost get run over by a dozen motorcycles. You’ll see more stuff–popped Mylar birthday balloons as well as the occasional gang-tagged boulders near the trailhead. And there are problems to solve, like where to get water, or how to enjoy real meals, rather than trail mix and sawdust bars, under a fire ban.
But when don’t you face challenges in the backcountry? Wherever you go with your boots and tent, you’re required to embrace some difficulties. So what if the trail is parched and s’mores are prohibited and you haul out a few Stellas you didn’t empty? You deal–and you realize how lucky you are to live in one of the world’s biggest cities and still have wilderness (okay, almost-wilderness) out your back door. My point is this: The Angeles is the forest I live next to. It’s the one I’ve loved for 15 years. Even in the very first few hours of this trip–which is the very first time I’ve arrived in the forest by a bus and road walk–I love it more than ever.
YOU SEE ALL SORTS of strange things on the trails of the Angeles. We pass a rusted wheelbarrow, two wrecked cars, and–strangest of all–a pink kid’s bike, bleached from the sun and propped up alongside the trail.
Not long after the falls, we meet four hikers, the only people we’ll see on the entire backcountry portion of the trip. This will surprise me, since one of the things I love about Trail Canyon is that the first five miles are often super-populated, and with the truly tough: those who conquer the canyon in flip-flops.
The flip-floppers have never been told that hoofing it in the wilds outside L.A. is wrong, impractical, and just plain impossible, so they know none of the above. They whip the crap out of Trail Canyon. This kind of bad-assery is common around here. One winter, I drove up and found a family loading snow into the back of a pickup. As soon as it was full, they made a mad dash to the flatlands, where they hoped to build a front-lawn snowman with a 15-minute lifespan.