Gabrielino Trail fully reopened after 2009 Station fire, thanks to massive volunteer cleanup

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As hard as it was for residents to recoup property losses following the 2009 Station fire, the recovery of natural landmarks, like the 26-mile Gabrielino Trail northeast of La Cañada’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been slower still.

For nine years, large portions of the trail devastated by rains, downed trees and erosion were closed to the public. Today — thanks to the efforts of some 100 trail enthusiasts who partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to commit more than 1,900 volunteer hours of cleanup — the Gabrielino is back in service.

Volunteers joined Forest Service employees in an Aug. 24 hike from the trail’s Switzers/Bear Canyon trail junction to the Oakwilde campground and the Ken Burton Trail. The act was a sort of victory lap for the crew, many of whom restored the Gabrielino to its former glory one rock and one limb at a time.

“Everyone had a vested interest in getting this trail open, so we all worked together,” said Jenny Johnson, a Burbank resident and president of the Mount Wilson Bicycling Assn. (MWBA), which organized citizen volunteers. “It really was a nice community collaboration.”

In a celebration Sunday at Altadena’s Loma Alta Park, MWBA members joined forest officials and members of the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Assn. (CORBA), among others, to recognize volunteers who dedicated nearly a year to the project.

The restoration began in 2016 with an in-depth assessment of the damage that had been left behind by the Station fire and the mudslides that followed it. CORBA President Steve Messer and representatives from the L.A. Conservation Corps and Forest Service walked the perilous slopes, cataloging the damage.

“Given the extent of the damage, it was hard to imagine getting the trail back at all,” Messer said in an Aug. 27 statement issued by the Forest Service.

Johnson said hundreds of fallen trees littered pathways.

“A couple of our volunteers became chainsaw certified so we could actually cut the trees down,” she said.

Grants from retailer REI and Southern California Edison allowed CORBA to hire professional trail builders for more technical tasks. But officials acknowledge the reopening couldn’t have happened without the sweat equity invested by locals, who biked in to work areas with heavy equipment strapped to their bikes and backs.

Fabian Garcia, a partnership coordinator with the Forest Service, said volunteers have become a vital component of the agency’s maintenance and restoration efforts.

“I can’t explain how critical their dedication to their public lands has been to keeping these sites open for safe public use,” he said.

The reopening of the Gabrielino — which became the country’s first designated National Recreational Trail under the National Trails System Act in 1968 — couldn’t have come at a better time.

“It was so significant for us for that to happen,” Garcia said of the 50th anniversary. “And the driving force behind it was these volunteers who silently worked on it and chugged away. They never stopped until it was done.”

Twitter: @SaraCardine