Wilderness Junction : San Gabriel Mountain Roads, Trails, History Meet at Red Box


High in the San Gabriel Mountains, a liver-colored dog named Elvis glances around warily as she scoots through the scenic crossroads where someone reportedly dumped her, pregnant, two years ago.

Nearby, a Canadian man in new hiking boots asks bystanders for advice about where to trek.

Signaling the end of winter, two workers load a snowplow onto a flatbed truck. And the woman who has delivered the mail in the mountains for 17 years unloads her bundles at three mailboxes.

Welcome to Red Box, a Y-shaped junction seven miles due north of Pasadena on the back side of Mt. Wilson, a place way above the smog, where, on a recent day, a gauzy canopy of cirrus clouds laced a bird's-egg-blue sky.

Though just a dot on the map, set amid 650,000 acres of wilderness, it long has been a well-traversed spot in Angeles National Forest. Red Box is one of the few major junctions in an area of scant roads.

Hiking trails that crisscross the forest pass through the rocky neck of land where California 2, Angeles Crest Highway, meets the county road that leads to Mt. Wilson, five miles to the southeast.

"This is a gateway to a lot of places," said Kenyon DeVore, a local authority on the San Gabriel Mountains, as he surveyed the landscape and the people, vehicles, animals and birds passing through at an elevation of 4,666 feet.

"There are other places where the scenery is more beautiful in these mountains--but not a lot," said author John W. Robinson, a friend of DeVore who had accompanied him. Robinson has written extensively about the San Gabriels.

In every direction, from their vantage point in a parking lot, the men could see peaks, valleys and mountain trails.

To the east, Mt. Baldy, the highest peak in the San Gabriels at 10,064 feet, shimmered with snow. To the west, transmission towers were dwarfed by Mt. Lukens, the highest point in the city of Los Angeles at 5,074 feet.

One of the trails, named the Gabrielino Trail after the Indian tribe that once lived in these mountains, crosses 28 miles of the forest and passes through Red Box. Also there is the terminus of a dirt road, the Red Box-Rincon Road, that winds 34 miles east to Azusa.

As they chatted, DeVore, 79, and Robinson, 61, both of whom have spent decades in the mountains, stood next to a big red box, a replica of the original one that led to the place's modern-day identity.

The junction got its name shortly before 1920, when the U.S. Forest Service built a red wooden box and filled it with shovels, picks and axes to fight fires.

"The original box looked almost exactly like this. Same size, same color," said DeVore.

But it was not in the same spot. "It was over there," he said, pointing to a marker that notes the mileage to Mt. Wilson.

"In the early days, there were just trails here, no roads," DeVore said.

"Early days" means any time before the mid-1920s, when a road was cut from Mt. Wilson to Red Box. Then, in 1934, DeVore said, Angeles Crest Highway was completed to Red Box from La Canada Flintridge, 14 miles away.

Over the years, Red Box has been a school bus stop for mountain families. Burro pack trains once made their way through, going to and from resorts. Today, there is still a corral, made of metal railings, for equestrians.

Red Box also is a meeting point, a drop-off spot and crossroads for hikers, mountain bikers, picnickers and sightseers.

On either side of the junction, the landscape falls away into deep canyons: the Arroyo Seco Canyon on the west and the West Fork of San Gabriel River Canyon on the east.

"We used to call it Red Box Divide, because it divided two watersheds," said DeVore, noting that the area is one of the wettest in Los Angeles County. In a normal year, he said, about 40 inches of rain falls--close to three times the normal amount for downtown Los Angeles. Once, DeVore said, a man who ran a resort claimed that five inches of rain fell in five minutes near Red Box.

"It was a hoax. He was just a showman trying to get attention for his resort," said DeVore, whose own family ran two resorts along the West Fork and whose earliest memories of Red Box date from his boyhood.

Because Red Box is often the nearest place with a public telephone--and, at times, someone lives in the small collection of Forest Service buildings there--DeVore said: "People always are coming here in a panic, from a car accident, or somebody got shot or something."

DeVore and Robinson studied a rusty sign attached to the red box.

"This box contains fire tools," it read. "If they are needed for fighting fire, break seal. Return all tools to this box."

Robinson tried to lift the padlocked top to peek in. "Looks empty," he said.

Indeed, it was.

Said Terry Ellis, ranger for the Forest Service's Arroyo Seco District: "People have had a habit of tearing the box up and using it for firewood. We don't leave any firefighting tools in there anymore. They'd be gone in a second."

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