Visitors in search of serenity in Angeles National Forest over Memorial Day weekend will instead be confronted by the closure of some of the most popular camping and picnic areas because of budget cuts.
In the Saugus district, 40 of 117 camping spots will be unavailable because Lower Shake, Prospect and Zuni campgrounds have been closed.
In the Mt. Baldy Ranger District near Azusa, which annually attracts more visitors than Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined, 90% of the camping spots have been closed. Gates have been locked at Crystal Lake campground with its rock-work amphitheater and at the Switzer picnic area above La Crescenta with its nearby 50-foot waterfall.
Even in areas of the forest's five districts where overnight campsites will be available, it will sometimes be necessary to hike for miles to reach them, and visitors may face overflowing trash cans or dirty restrooms because of road closures and reduced maintenance.
Forest officials are already fielding angry calls from unhappy campers. And they are bracing for more this weekend, the traditional kickoff of the summer camping season, when some people will probably have to be turned away at entrances to the 694,000-acre forest.
Overall, 38% of the forest's 1,400 camping spots will be unavailable.
"Imagine a station wagon loaded down with camping equipment and tents and ice chests, and kids are singing songs, going to the mountains . . . and then finding there's no place to go," said Tom Spencer, the Mt. Baldy district's recreation officer.
This fiscal year's $20-million budget is down 20% from last year, Forest Supervisor Michael J. Rogers said. Twenty-five of 150 temporary workers and 16 of the 320 full-time employees have been laid off.
"We've just tightened up and done things with volunteers and (campground) concessionaires to try to keep things together, but we're at the point now where we're running out of miracles to pull out of the hat," Rogers said.
National forests nationwide are facing similar cutbacks.
The budget for the Forest Service is down only 3% this year from fiscal 1993. But inflation, combined with that reduction, has taken its toll, officials said.
The squeeze means that available campgrounds will fill faster than ever in a forest that draws more than 32 million visitors each year, the second most frequently visited national forest in the country.
"We expect everything to be booked up, whatever's not closed," forest spokeswoman Dianne Cahir said.
Officials in the Mt. Baldy district have fielded more than 300 phone calls this week from people complaining, Spencer said. Besides Crystal Lake campground, Mt. Baldy officials have closed Manker campground and the Glacier and Little Dalton picnic areas.
In the Arroyo Seco Ranger District above Arcadia, West Fork and Valley Forge campgrounds are closed to vehicle traffic but open to walk-ins. Locked gates mean that visitors have to walk three miles from parking lots to Valley Forge campground and five miles to West Fork campground. Maintenance workers try to get to the sites for cleanup once a week, if they can.
"It's the pits, I tell you," said Don Wopschall, the Arroyo Seco district's recreation lands officer.
The Valyermo Ranger District in the Big Pines area is bracing for the overflow of campers who might have headed to Crystal Lake and other now-closed campgrounds, said Shawn Lawler, that district's interpretive manager.
"I'm expecting we'll probably be filled at least by tonight," she said. "Everyone that calls, we're telling them to come as soon as they can."
The district has not had to close any of its 13 campgrounds, she said. But people can expect reduced services. "That's the only way we can keep them open," she said. "That's a real different mode of operation than any of us are used to."
Some campers are scrambling to make other plans.
Explorer Scout Troop 964 from Redondo Beach camped at Crystal Lake last year and had planned a return visit, troop leader Sam Rahman said. About 30 teen-agers learned such things as how to start a fire with rocks and twigs, and how to pitch a tent.
"They'll go sightseeing or exploring a lot more than they would just sitting around a city street," Rahman said. The troop had to camp this year in a park in Monrovia, he said. Officials at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Los Angeles are also looking for another campsite, said volunteer Al Estrella, who has arranged for group trips to Crystal Lake for four years.
"You can hear the birds singing in the morning and the waterfalls in the distance," Estrella said. But not this year, he said.