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L.A. Drives: Hit the backcountry without going far — at Rowher Flat

One of the great things about life in L.A. is how short a distance you have to drive to get out into the country. You can get from surf to snow in 90 minutes, and you can get from HOV lanes to OHV parks in half that. But stay clear of this route if it's raining, unless you can manage a lot of super-slick mud.

For this adventure, we took a four-wheel-drive Jeep Renegade and headed for the off-highway vehicle park at Rowher Flat to seek out some unpaved roads where we could spin up a little sand.

The journey started with breakfast near Santa Clarita, on Sierra Highway, at the Halfway House, one of the Southland's oldest continuously operated cafes. It's been here since 1931.

From there we headed a few miles north-northeast and turned left on Rush Canyon Road into the Rowher Flat OHV area, a 10,000-acre recreational park set aside for off-road vehicles. Popular with dirt bike and ATV riders, it's also a cool overland route between Sierra Highway and Bouquet Canyon Road.

We followed a wide dirt road to a motorcycle staging area in Rowher Flat proper. Just past the broad open parking area, we turned left onto an unmarked dirt road known as Forest Road 5N14, downhill into an area known as Texas Canyon. This was our first taste of rugged road, a mixed surface of hard-packed gravel, soft sand sections and the whoop-de-doo undulations created by the off-roaders.

Soon we took a hard right onto the unmarked Forest Road 5N18 and headed uphill, climbing past some impressive rock formations to the ridgeline that lies between Sierra Highway and Bouquet Canyon. There, the ridge road becomes Forest Road 6N07.

The Jeep Renegade is a comfy little city cruiser, so I expected it to find some of the steeper, sandier sections challenging. I was wrong. The perky Jeep walked right up everything it met.

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Near the crest, the road turns right and begins to trace the ridge. Soon, the Bouquet Canyon Reservoir comes into view. Built in 1934, it's part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system, the pipes for which run near the reservoir. Because they're painted a bright white, you can see them clearly from the summit.

The road gradually flattens out as it winds along the ridge. Stay left and be sure to avoid the several black diamond trail options, unless you have a very capable off-road vehicle and are an experienced 4x4 operator.

The road will appear to come to an end, then bend left and begin to descend onto an unmarked road identified on maps as Martindale Ridge Road. The dirt road heads downhill, producing ever-better views of the reservoir. Leaving the ridge, you'll lose altitude gradually through a series of switchbacks, in and out of oak tree shade, until you finally spill out onto Bouquet Canyon Road.

Farther south, there are options for more dirt driving. Quarry Road and Del Sur Road parallel the paved road and meet it about 10 miles down the canyon, on the right. You can even take an extension of the dirt road you started on and make a more technical, rocky climb back toward Texas Canyon, off to the left.

There's also a lunch spot if you're here on the weekend or some weekday evenings. The Big Oaks Lodge is a popular biker hangout, known for its pizza, handmade tamales and patio dining.

Civilization gradually returns as you continue downhill. On the left is a large establishment known as LARC. Founded in 1959 as the Los Angeles Retarded Citizens Foundation, it's now a residential facility for developmentally disabled adults.

Vasquez Canyon Road is the short way back to your starting point, but it has been closed indefinitely since November after a massive landslide. Reconstruction will take months, but once it reopens, you can take it back to Sierra Highway, then turn left to go back to the Halfway House. It's worth a stop at Sanchez Produce, where, depending on the season, you can buy fresh strawberries, peaches, melons or sweet corn. You can also buy firewood at $20 per wheelbarrow-full.

If Vasquez is still closed, follow Bouquet Canyon Road until it turns into Newhall Avenue and hits Interstate 5, or turn left onto Plum Canyon Road, follow it as it turns into Whites Canyon Road, and then turn left onto Via Princessa and follow that back to Highway 14.

If you've driven this route, you've done about 40 miles of driving — 17 of them on dirt! And you've seen a piece of backcountry L.A. that even your four-wheeling friends might not know about.

charles.fleming@latimes.com

Where to start: Sierra Highway, near Sand Canyon Road, in Santa Clarita

What we drove: 2015 Jeep Renegade 4x4

What to see: Rowher Flat OHV park, Bouquet Reservoir

Where to eat and drink: Halfway House Cafe, 15564 Sierra Highway, open daily 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Big Oaks Lodge, 33101 Bouquet Canyon Road, open Wednesday and Thursday for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for lunch and dinner

Total drive length: 40 miles

Total drive time: 2 to 3 hours

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 27, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Nearby backcountry at Rowher Flat - Off-road area offers a variety of terrain to challenge you and your vehicle. - L.A. DRIVES" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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