One of the prettiest sights of autumn is the fluttering of the aspen’s golden-yellow leaves. From a distance, the trees stand apart from the surrounding dark forest. In the right light, the aspens seem to burn, like fire in the wind.
Botanists say the aspen is the most widely distributed tree on the North American continent. Even not-so-lyrical American fur trappers and mountain men of the last century were impressed by the tree’s range and beauty.
The water-loving aspen is a rarity in Southern California, but there is a handsome little grove in the San Bernardino Mountains. Aspen Grove, reached by a trail with the same name, is an ideal autumn excursion.
One of the most ecologically diverse ranges in the state, the San Bernardino Mountains host the world’s largest Joshua tree and the tallest known lodgepole pine, so it’s not too surprising to find an aspen grove. Coastal, desert and even Alpine plant species are found in these mountains.
The hike to Aspen Grove is particularly inviting after Jack Frost has touched the trees. After the first cold snap, the aspens display their fall finery, a display of color unrivaled in Southern California.
It’s only a short quarter-mile saunter to the aspens that line Fish Creek, but the trail continues beyond the grove, traveling through a pine and fir forest and a lovely meadow.
Directions to trailhead: From Interstate 10 in Redlands, exit on California 38 and proceed 32 miles east to the signed turnoff for Heart Bar Campground. (As you head up 38 into the San Bernardino National Forest, remember to stop at the Mill Creek Ranger Station just beyond the hamlet of Mentone and pick up a wilderness permit.) Turn south (right) on dirt Forest Road 1N02, and drive 1 miles to a fork in the road. Stay right at the fork, join Forest Road 1N05, and follow it on a 1 1/2-mile climb to a small parking area and signed Aspen Grove Trail on your right.
Fish Creek, where the aspens grow, is the boundary of the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The Mill Creek Ranger Station, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., can supply a permit, map and trail information. The ranger station has a “Self Service” booth outside that dispenses permits; they are also available by mail. Information: (714) 794-1123.
The hike: The trail, for its first quarter-mile an abandoned dirt road, descends toward Fish Creek. The very beginning of Aspen Grove Trail offers the best view of San Gorgonio Wilderness peaks--the highest in Southern California. To the west stands mighty Grinnell Mountain, named for turn-of-the-century University of California zoologist Joseph Grinnell, who studied the animals of the San Bernardino Mountains. To the south is Ten Thousand Foot Ridge, headwaters for Fish Creek, which you soon see and hear meandering below.
At Fish Creek, a sign marks the boundary of the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Cross the creek and enjoy the aspen grove that lines Fish Creek. It’s a small grove, but a pretty one. No one will blame you if you picnic among the whitewashed trunks and quaking leaves and hike no farther.
The aspens have been suffering slightly of late at the hands of--or, more accurately, the jaws of--a creature that loves the trees. The aspen-chomping California golden beaver is not a native of the San Bernardino Mountains, but since its introduction it has found the area--and the aspens--to its liking. Forest Service wildlife experts are working on a plan to manage the native aspens and non-native beaver.
Creek and Forest
After admiring the aspens, continue on Aspen Grove Trail, which heads up-creek. The path soon wanders a bit away from Fish Creek and travels through a forest of ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine and Douglas fir.
About a mile from Aspen Grove, the trail passes little Monkey Flower Flat. During late spring and early summer, columbine and lupine join the monkey flowers in bedecking the flat.
Beyond Monkey Flower is a much larger flat--Fish Creek Meadow. Aspen Grove Trail skirts this meadow and ends at a signed junction with Fish Creek Trail. The left fork of Fish Creek Trail leads a bit more than half of a mile to Forest Road 1N05. Take the right fork of the trail, which angles toward Upper Fish Creek. The path ascends above the creek, passes through a pine and fir forest and, a bit more than a mile from the junction with Aspen Grove Trail, reaches Fish Creek Camp. This fir-shaded camp is an ideal place to relax before returning the way you came.
Aspen Grove Trail
Forest Road 1N05 to Fish Creek Meadows: 5 miles round trip; 600-foot elevation gain. Forest Road 1N05 to Fish Creek Camp: 7 1/2 miles round trip; 700-foot elevation gain.
Wilderness Permit required.