HAPPY TRAILS : Resort Camps in Big Santa Anita Canyon Still Provide Refuge From Urban Stress
Back in 1893, Sierra Madre resident Wilbur Sturtevant, having tried his hand at gold prospecting and running a pack train, set up a cluster of tents in a clearing deep within Big Santa Anita Canyon.
Sturtevant advertised his modest digs as a “hiking resort,” a place where Los Angeles residents could escape the hectic pace of city life.
The camp operator’s gamble that people would hike a half-dozen miles to relax in the shade of his spruce trees paid off.
Sturtevant soon built a lodge and a few cabins, establishing the first of several hiking resorts that thrived in the San Gabriel Mountains during the early decades of this century.
The resort boom spawned by Sturtevant has long since withered, but the camp he built has clung tenaciously to its canyon crevice, weathering fires, floods, changes in ownership and severe fluctuations in the hiking resort business.
Owned and operated by the United Methodist Church since 1943, Sturtevant Camp offers hikers essentially the same thing it did at the turn of the century: a refuge from urban noise and stress but with amenities not available to backpackers.
Today, more hikers are taking advantage of Sturtevant’s attractions than at any time since the camp’s heyday.
During the first six months of this year, 670 people stayed at Sturtevant, a 34% increase from the same period in 1985. Five years ago, the camp averaged about 400 guests for the entire year.
“We’ve seen an increase in people and also a change in the type of users,” said Gary Keene, a Methodist minister who worked at the camp from 1979 to July 1 of this year, managing it since 1984.
After years of being primarily a church retreat, he said, Sturtevant--which is available to anyone, regardless of religious affiliation--is becoming a popular recreation spot.
“Previously, the bulk of the use was kids--Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, church groups and school groups,” Keene said.
“The last couple years, we’ve been seeing a lot more singles groups, couples and families who just want to come up and hang out,” he said.
In Search of Seclusion
The adult visitors come to Sturtevant Camp for the same quality that lured thousands during the canyon’s resort boom: seclusion.
“The adults really know how to enjoy it--there are no phones up there, no way for them to be bugged,” Keene said.
The trail to the camp, now only four miles long since the completion of Santa Anita Canyon Road, begins near the Chantry Flats ranger station.
Guests not wishing to lug their personal effects to the camp can rent the services of the Chantry Flats pack station, whose train of horses, mules and burros has hauled supplies into the canyon since the turn of the century.
The camp, with its hot showers and meal service, may not be rugged enough for some backpackers.
But while long-distance runners routinely jog the Sturtevant trail as part of an 18-mile round trip to Mt. Wilson, some camp patrons still are not prepared for the Spartan stroll to Sturtevant.
“A lot of folks have no conception of it, they have nothing to compare it to,” Keene said. “They show up with big Samsonite luggage. It doesn’t fit on the burros very well.”
Despite the rigors of getting to the camp, even the most citified visitor usually is won over by its pastoral beauty, Keene said.
“They sweat and . . . moan on the way up, but once they get up there, they love it because there’s no place like it,” Keene said.
Even though the numbers of people visiting Sturtevant Camp are beginning to approach those of its glory days, when it would host as many as 100 hikers on busy weekends, the camp is a far cry from the resorts of the turn of the century.
Auld Lang Syne
“It’s nothing like it was then,” said Kenyon De Vore, an information officer with the U. S. Forest Service station at Chantry Flats.
“Back then, it was more like a hotel,” De Vore said. “There were 20 or 30 resorts in the mountains, five in the Big Santa Anita Canyon alone, and people would hike from one to another.”
De Vore, 74, is the canyon’s resident expert on the hiking resort era. His parents, Ernest and Cherie De Vore, built Camp West Fork just beyond the canyon’s northern ridge in 1913. They opened Valley Forge Lodge, a second, more modern resort five miles east of Mt. Wilson, in 1922.
Camp West Fork closed in 1925 and Valley Forge Lodge was destroyed by the flood of 1938. Today, their former locations are marked only by the De Vore and Valley Forge trail campgrounds.
However, they left a deep and detailed imprint in the memory of De Vore, who entertains canyon visitors with tales of such resorts as Hoegee’s Camp, Fern Lodge and, of course, Sturtevant.
After its start in 1893, the hiking boom hit full stride in 1906 when the Pacific Electric Rail Car line was extended to Sierra Madre. A terminus was located near what is now the corner of Highland and Montecito avenues.
“People who worked in offices and banks in downtown Los Angeles would ride the street car to Sierra Madre, then they would hike to one of the resorts,” De Vore said.
“A resort would usually consist of a big building where they had dining and dancing, surrounded by smaller cabins where people stayed,” he said.
“Many of them would have large dance floors and live music. Some even had a branch of the public library,” he said. “They usually charged a dollar or two for lodging. Dinner was 50 cents.”
Activities at the camps included hiking, horseback riding, reading and fishing. Sturtevant Camp had tennis courts; Valley Forge Lodge had a swimming pool.
However, the resorts’ primary appeal was social.
“It was sort of a turn-of-the-century singles scene,” said Keene, who has become a student of canyon lore since he began working at Sturtevant.
“It was fairly rowdy. There were reports of various illegal activities up there. There’s fairly good speculation that the cellar under the kitchen at Sturtevant was used for a still.”
Suing for Peace
Glen Owens, president of the Big Santa Anita Historical Society and an Arcadia developer who became interested in the canyon’s past after buying a cabin in 1967, confirms that the resorts were often wild places for their time.
In his book, “The Heritage of the Big Santa Anita,” Owens writes of a controversy that erupted in 1916, after the opening of Fern Lodge.
Disturbed by the active social scene at the lodge, nearby cabin owners retained an attorney who petitioned forest officials for “protection from gramophone and other dance music, dancing on Sundays, the yells and shouts of the patrons of said public camp and other annoying elements.”
However, the forest supervisor refused to take any action, finding that “a summer resort where people of limited means may find recreation, is from our viewpoint, desireable.”
De Vore acknowledged that some bootlegging and other undesirable activities went on at some of the resorts, but said his parents’ camps attracted a more wholesome clientele.
“We didn’t get the trash because we were so far back in the mountains,” he said. “We had good people.
“We introduced all the guests at our lodge, and of course, there was some courting. We had more than one couple meet up there, and then the next time they came back, they’d be married, and they’d thank my mother for introducing them. There were also a lot of lifetime friendships started up there.”
The hiking era was at its peak between 1913 and 1925, except for a brief downturn during World War I. During this period, there were five resorts and more than 200 private cabins in the canyon.
Few Cabins Remain
The high-water mark came in 1919, when 5,000 people packed the canyon for the July 4 weekend.
Many of the cabins were destroyed by fire or flood, De Vore said, and only about 85 cabins remain today.
Although the canyon currently averages more than 32,000 visitors a month, he said these forest service statistics lump hikers and campers in with teen-agers who come into the canyon at night to party.
As the end of the ‘20s approached, so did the end of the canyon’s great hiking era.
Death by Automobile
“It began to dwindle in the ‘20s and finally came to an end in the ‘40s,” De Vore said.
“The cause of the lack of business was the evolution of the automobile and improvements in roads. People didn’t have to go someplace local for their vacations. As the roads improved and people could go to places like Yosemite, they did.”
De Vore left his parents’ resort in 1935, but he did not leave the canyon. Because of his extensive knowledge of the area, he was hired as a surveyor by the county Flood Control District and assigned to the San Gabriel Mountains.
He retired in 1970, but returned to the canyon in 1974 when he began working for the forest service.
During his years in the canyon, De Vore noticed a pattern in hiking popularity.
Interest in hiking was low in the years immediately after World War II, as people were preoccupied by such modern diversions as television and the increased recreational options made available by the advent of freeways.
Beginning in the late 1950s, De Vore said, people began returning to the canyon. This upswing has been bolstered by the “back to nature” movement of the 1960s and the recent fitness trend.
Owens, who in 1981 founded the Big Santa Anita Historical Society to raise money for the forest service through the sale of books, maps and posters of the area, said the canyon’s appeal is eternal.
“Nature hasn’t changed that much, and man hasn’t changed that much,” he said.
“It’s just that in the last few years, man has been distracted by all his toys. I would say that hopefully man is rediscovering his essence up there.”
Although hiking popularity has remained fairly constant over the last decade, De Vore said, he recently has noticed much greater interest in seeing a return to the resort era.
“I get inquiries from people all the time: ‘Can we rent one of those cabins in the canyon?’ Is there any place to stay up there?’ ” De Vore said.
No Return to Past
Although he, too, often pines for the days of the resort camps, De Vore said he does not think it would be possible for an old-fashioned resort to survive.
“They might do an all right business on Saturday nights, but you can’t live on that,” he said.
“And it would be so much more expensive. And can you imagine all the permits they’d have to get from the forest service and the county and the health department?
“Young people often tell me they wish they could live back then. It was so much more wholesome. . . . It was so quiet then. Now, these kids come up there with these ghetto-blasters, and you can hear them a half-mile away.”
Today, rates at Sturtevant Camp run $40.35 for a weekend (two nights) with meal service. Those wishing to cook for themselves can stay for as little as $13.75 a night.
Reservations are required and can be made by calling the United Methodist Church’s camp office in Pasadena.