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Mt. Zion Trail: Spectacular Vistas in the San Gabriels

Zion, the name of one of the hills of Jerusalem on which the city of David was built and which became the center of Jewish life and worship, also is the name of a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains above Arcadia. The holiday season--or any time you’re in a contemplative mood--is a fine time to ascend Mt. Zion and ponder the meaning of Hanukkah, Christmas and peace on Earth.

Mt. Zion Trail was one of many paths constructed by turn-of-the-century pioneer packer/entrepreneur Wilbur Sturtevant. Sturtevant had constructed Sturtevant’s Winter Camp, a creek-side refuge from city life on the banks of Winter Creek, and Camp Sturtevant in Upper Santa Anita Canyon. He needed to connect his camps, so in 1896 he began constructing a 3-mile link in the Sturtevant Trail that would later be known as Mt. Zion Trail. The first 1 1/2 miles of trail up Mt. Zion from Winter Creek was a killer to construct--a 1,000-foot climb over the steep and rocky shoulder of Mt. Zion.

Long after Sturtevant finished his trail, the pioneer was asked why he elected to climb over Mt. Zion rather than around it. Sturtevant replied: “Well, I’m a pretty stubborn sort of man; a fellow told me it would be better to go around, so I went over.”

At least stubborn Sturtevant had an easier time building the second half of his trail, which led down Mt. Zion into Santa Anita Canyon. Here the slope was gentle, the trail shaded by tall trees.

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Fire and Rain

For two decades, until a trail was built up Santa Anita Canyon in 1916, Mt. Zion Trail was the primary route to Camp Sturtevant and the backcountry beyond. A 1953 fire scorched Mt. Zion, and subsequent rains, landslides and erosion destroyed part of the trail. By the 1960s, chaparral had covered the trail and made it impassable.

Fortunately, this historic path was rescued from oblivion by Sierra Club volunteers and an informal group of San Gabriel Mountains aficionados who call themselves the “Big Santa Anita Gang.” Mt. Zion Trail was reconstructed and reopened to public use in the spring of 1987.

Mt. Zion Trail allows the modern mountaineer to make a grand loop by connecting the Winter Creek and Gabrielino trails. Those hikers not quite up to a 9-mile trip can enjoy a shorter 5-mile loop along the Winter Creek Trail or a walk along the Gabrielino Trail to Sturtevant Falls. With a half-dozen interconnecting trails accessible from the Chantry Flat picnic area, you can plan your own perfect hike.

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Directions to the trail head: From the Foothill Freeway in Arcadia, exit on Santa Anita Avenue and drive 6 miles north to its end at Chantry Flats. The trail begins across the road from the parking area. A tiny store at the edge of the parking lot sells maps and refreshments.

For more information about trails and recreation in the Chantry Flats area of the Angeles National Forest, call the Arroyo Seco Ranger District: (818) 790-1151.

The hike: Descend three-quarters of a mile on the paved fire road, part of the signed Gabrielino Trail, into Big Santa Anita Canyon. At the bottom of the canyon, cross a footbridge near the confluence of Big Santa Anita and Winter creeks.

After crossing the bridge, look left for the signed Lower Winter Creek Trail. Following the bubbling creek, the trail tunnels beneath the boughs of oak and alder, willow and bay.

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After crossing Winter Creek, you’ll arrive at Hoegee’s Campground, 2 1/2 miles from the trailhead. In 1908, Ariel Hoegee and his family built a resort here that soon became a popular destination for Mt. Wilson-bound hikers. The resort was a casualty of the great flood of 1938, but a trail camp named for the Hoegees stands on the site of the old resort and offers the modern-day hiker a tranquil picnic site or rest stop.

Walk through the campground until you spot a tiny tombstone-shaped trail sign. Cross Winter Creek here and bear left on the trail. After a short while, you’ll arrive at a signed junction with Mt. Zion Trail. Those in the mood for a shorter walk can decide here to loop back to Chantry Flats via the signed Upper Winter Creek Trail. The more energetic will now begin the ascent to Zion.

Over the Shoulder

Mt. Zion Trail wastes little time in its steep ascent of the chaparral-cloaked mountain. You’ll get good over-the-shoulder views of the canyon cut by Winter Creek. About 1 1/2 miles of climbing brings you to a signed junction. Here you’ll find a small interpretive display that explains the history of the Mt. Zion segment of the Sturtevant Trail and the short side trail that leads to the peak. Follow the summit trail 100 yards through the manzanita to the 3,575-foot peak, where you can sign a summit register and enjoy fine clear-day views.

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Return to Mt. Zion Trail and enjoy a pleasant, shady descent of a bit more than a mile into Big Santa Anita Canyon. In the canyon bottom you’ll reach a junction. Here the Sturtevant Trail heads up-canyon to Sturtevant Camp, now a Methodist Conference family camp, and on to Mt. Wilson. Head down-canyon to Spruce Grove Camp, a shady spot with plenty of picnic tables. Another mile of travel brings you to Cascade Picnic Area.

Below the picnic area, your trail, the Gabrielino, forks. The leftward, lower trail, which heads through the heart of Santa Anita Canyon, is prettier, while the upper trail, which zigzags along the canyon wall, is easier walking and offers good views. The trails rejoin in a mile and proceed down-canyon as one.

Once you reach the canyon bottom, you can detour on a short side trail to one more tribute to Wilbur Sturtevant--Sturtevant Falls, a silver stream that cascades 50 feet to a natural rock bowl.

After recrossing the Winter Creek footbridge, trudge up the paved fire road back to the trailhead.

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From Chantry Flat, a loop around Mt. Zion via Gabrielino, Winter Creek and Mt. Zion Trails: 9 miles round trip; 1,500-foot elevation gain.


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