Peer northeast from the jammed freeways. Look up, above the shimmering waves of heat and smog, to the San Gabriel Mountains. You can almost see it: blessed relief waiting at Icehouse Canyon. In a time gone by, Los Angelenos could literally taste that relief. Tons of ice were hauled down narrow Icehouse Canyon from the wintry heights above for the express purpose of making ice cream.
The ice trade is long gone, but the canyon is still the portal to a world far removed from the basin below. At its head lies the Cucamonga Wilderness, a 12,500-acre preserve of tall peaks, long ridges, ponderosa and Jeffrey pine, and home to deer, bobcats, black bears, and Nelson bighorn sheep. Getting to the wilderness is the trick. From the trailhead, it's an uphill slog of more than 3,000 vertical feet to Icehouse Saddle. Like a pinwheel, all trails in the 30-mile network radiate from the 7,800-foot saddle, offering something for everyone, from vigorous dayhikes to 4-day wilderness outings.
Once at the saddle, you can choose from four trails that head off to distinctly different venues. Ontario Peak Trail leads to Kelly Camp, the site of an old hunting lodge and a perennial spring, then on to 8,637-foot Ontario Peak.
If reaching high points is your thing, then head north on the 3T Trail and climb Timber and Thunder Mountains, as well as the wilderness high point, 8,985-foot Telegraph Peak. Or travel south on the rocky Cucamonga Peak Trail, which leads to the peak by the same name and eventually out of the wilderness.
For a real wilderness experience, take the fourth option presented at the saddle and descend the Middle Fork Trail to Comanche, Third Stream Crossing, and Stone House Camps along Lytle Creek. Commanche is set in a forest of pine and aspen beside the headwaters of Lytle Creek at 6,300 feet. Fair warning: Black bear visiting hours are anytime the bruins decide to amble through camp, so stow food properly.
While you're sweating your way back to Icehouse Saddle, think about that delicious ice cream waiting at Mt. Baldy Village.
QUICK TAKE: Cucamonga Wilderness, CA
DRIVE TIME: The Icehouse Canyon trailhead is about 50 miles (1 hour) east of downtown Los Angeles and 1 mile north of the Mt. Baldy Village.
THE WAY: Take I-10 east from LA, exit north on Mountain Avenue in the city of Claremont. Mountain Avenue ends at Mt. Baldy Road. Go left, follow the road to Mt. Baldy Village. The ranger station is on the left in the center of town. Pick up a free wilderness permit and pay the $5 parking fee. Trailhead parking is about a mile up the road on the right.
TRAILS: The wilderness contains more than 30 miles of trail. The one-way hike to Icehouse Saddle is 3.5 miles.
ELEVATION: The trailhead is at 5,600 feet; the saddle is at 7,800 feet. Telegraph Peak, the highest in the wilderness, soars to 8,985 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Try campsites at Cedar Glen or Kelly for vistas and quick access; head for Commanche if you like a physical challenge, remoteness, and can't get to sleep without stream music.
CROWD CONTROL: The mouth of the canyon can be busy on weekends, but about a mile from the trailhead you enter the wilderness and reasonable solitude. On the east side of the saddle, you own the wilderness.
MAPS AND GUIDES: Tom Harrison Cartography's Trail Map Of The Angeles High Country (415-456-7940; $7.97) is an excellent resource. The Mt. Baldy Nature Center (ranger station) sells maps and guides to the wilderness.
PIT STOP: The Buckhorn Lodge and Mt. Baldy Lodge serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Prices are reasonable.
WALK SOFTLY: Leashed dogs are permitted on trails but are discouraged in spring because of bighorn sheep activity. No open campfires; camp stoves only.
MORE INFORMATION: Angeles National Forest, 110 Wabash Ave., Glendora, CA 91741; (626) 335-1251.