Highway closures confuse, frustrate

With a small day pack strapped to his back, Scott Groves set out from his home in Pasadena to the foot of Mt. Wilson Trail in Sierra Madre. He climbed seven miles to the top of the mountain and then proceeded down Mt. Wilson Road before happening upon the closed portion of Angeles Crest Highway (SR-2).

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The former Boy Scout and U.S. Army soldier had already been hiking for five hours, and it was too far to turn back.

"It wasn't even on my radar that this was closed," Groves said as he stopped to fill his water pouch near the intersection of Angeles Crest Highway and Angeles Forest Highway. "I had read that it was clear to come up from the Palmdale side so I figured everything here was cool."

About 20 miles of the 66-mile mountain pass, from La Cañada Flintridge to Mt. Wilson Road, and 25% of Angeles National Forest remain off limits to the public as construction crews rebuild large washouts caused by winter storms. The $16.5 million in repairs, contracted out to Thousand Oaks-based Burns Pacific Construction, is expected to be completed in November.

Meanwhile, the closures continue to frustrate and confuse those seeking to access some of the most popular portions of the San Gabriel Mountains. Hundreds of motorcyclists, bicyclists and hikers have been spotted in restricted areas, according to Caltrans and U.S. Forest Service officials.

Some of the trespassing seems to be due to genuine misunderstanding about the status of different portions of the road and forest. In late June, Caltrans Public Information Officer Patrick Chandler intercepted a dozen family members setting off on a hike.

"They parked at Angeles Forest Highway where it meets Angeles Crest and walked up to the closure and were going to go down Switzer Falls," Chandler said.

He had to explain to the family that the popular trail was closed. But the hikers were not alone in their confusion. Road repair workers reported that Los Angeles County public safety personnel have attempted to respond to emergency calls by traveling north on Angeles Crest Highway, only to hit road blocks.

L.A. County Fire Battalion Chief Mitch Brookhyser confirmed one such incident. On May 31, units from La Cañada's Station #82 responded to a call of a motorcycle that had gone off the side of Angeles Crest, Brookhyser said. The responders were forced to stop at a locked gate. The call was canceled minutes later, he said.

Many of those entering closed portions of the highway and forest, however, are doing so with overt disregard for clearly posted signs. A Las Vegas motorcycle crew posted on their blog a dozen photos of themselves circumventing closures and being cited by the California Highway Patrol during an outing in May.

And on a recent afternoon Jim Blake, a Lake View Terrace resident and an avid bicyclist, stopped to watch workers repair a 200-foot-deep washout near Brown Canyon, the largest of the two dozen damaged spots. He had pedaled 27 miles, traveling on Big Tujunga Canyon Road, Angeles Forest Highway and Angeles Crest Highway.

"Big Tujunga Canyon was open," Blake said. "Then they had some signs on Angeles Forest Highway that it was closed ahead, but cars could go through. At Angeles Crest Highway they had a gate, but I could get through there."

He enjoyed having the road to himself, Blake said, although he did have to steer clear of a couple of dump trucks.

"I thought it was great, there was no traffic," Blake said. "But I wasn't aware they had this kind of damage here. I wasn't prepared for this."

Individuals who knowingly or unknowingly enter closed portions of Angeles Crest Highway and Angeles National Forest can be fined by the California Highway Patrol or Forest Service law enforcement agents, Chandler said, and are taking a serious safety risk.

"Because it is still a construction zone, it is off limits to the public," Chandler said. "It is just dangerous."

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