GETAWAYS : Hike the High Country : The San Gabriel Wilderness offers dozens of trails. It boasts rugged canyons and majestic 7,000-foot slopes.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. Daniel Foster writes regularly for Valley Life

Atrek in the foothills surrounding Los Angeles can be refreshing, but sometimes one yearns for something a bit more isolated. Something, say, above 7,000 feet.

The San Gabriel Wilderness area encompasses more than 36,000 acres within the Angeles National Forest--plenty of space in which to get some perspective on a city-bound life. Far from smog, development and even most humans, the area has rugged canyons with wildflowers, pine, fir and cedar-covered slopes and majestic peaks--all about 35 miles northeast of La Canada Flintridge.

Among the dozens of trails, Eagles Roost to Littlerock Creek, a six-mile moderate hike that encompasses a 1,100-foot elevation loss and gain, traverses some of the most stunning forests of the high country. The path, a haven for those seeking true solitude, passes under Kratka Ridge and Mt. Williamson's southwest shoulder.

"Some people enjoy the lower country, but trees there are pretty much limited to canyon bottoms," said Ranger Terry Ellis of the National Forest Service. "It's a bit cooler up higher and you're more apt to see bears and bighorn sheep."

Hikers aren't likely to encounter bears during the day, said Ellis. "Wild animals are more intent on getting away from humans, rather than seeking them out," he added. For day hikes, Ellis recommends packing plenty of water, some food, insect repellent, a whistle and a snake bite kit--more on that later.

On your way to Eagles Roost, you may want to visit the Chilao Information Center, just off the Angeles Crest Highway about 12 miles before the trail head.

The center, built in 1982 to attract city dwellers to the high country, provides a good introduction to the forest through exhibits and children's activities.

The trail begins at an unmarked fire road that descends to a canyon bottom. Within half a mile the road narrows to a regular path, hemmed in by rugged terrain and canyons packed with sugar, Jeffrey and Coulter pines interspersed with white firs and incense cedars.

The path was originally named Rattlesnake Trail and yes, you may encounter the venomous namesake. Rattlesnakes, which cannot control their body temperature, tend to seek cool, shady spots (beside rocks and logs) during the heat of the day and warmth during cool nights.

Within two miles of the trail's start, you'll cross Littlerock Creek, a crystal-clear stream fed by springs tucked high in the folds of Mt. Williamson. It's tempting, but don't take a drink--unless you boil the water for at least five minutes to remove bacteria. Feel free, however, to pull up a boulder and dangle your feet in the stream. The temperature is nearly glacial in degree, so those with pacemakers may want to pass on a dip--possible in one of several shallow pools found at the trek's end.

After crossing the stream, follow the trail west along the north slope of a gorge. Magnificent vistas dotted with pine and yucca surround you before the trail drops once again to its conclusion at Littlerock Creek.

You can return along the same path, or ascend the marked Burkhart Trail to Pleasant View Ridge, about a five-mile trek. Or cross the stream and follow the trail about five miles to Buckhorn campground. If you've arranged for a shuttle from the campground, you can drive from there back to Eagles Roost.

Where to Go

Location: Chilao Information Center.

Getting there: Travel east on the Foothill Freeway (I-210), exit at Angeles Crest Highway and head north for about 27 miles. Turn left at the sign reading "Visitor Center" for the Chilao Information Center. The trail head is about another 10 miles north, just off Angeles Crest Highway. Park at the marked Eagles Roost picnic ground, cross the highway and look for the trail head.

Hours: Open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends; the center may be closed for special events.

Call: (818) 796-5541.

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