Forest hikers go for the green

Leading family and friends up a two-mile trail into Angeles National Forest on Saturday, Sheree Reed had only one goal in mind: to see Switzer Falls.

Of the 28 waterfall hikes in the Los Angeles area, Reed said Switzer Falls is the most family-friendly and, unlike the seasonal waterfalls in Malibu, Switzer flows all year.

“I knew [the forest] had been burned, but this area hasn’t really been affected that much,” Reed said. “This one is intact.”

With just a 10-mile drive from La Cañada up the recently reopened Angeles Crest Highway and a right turn at Angeles Forest Highway, picnickers and hikers can find the newly paved Switzer Falls Picnic Area parking lot off to the right. Due to its moist, riparian environment, the popular picnic area and hike to the falls was one of the few places in the forest left untouched by the 2009 Station fire.

Like Reed’s waterfall meet-up group, hikers, bicyclists and camping enthusiasts from the La Cañada community and beyond have returned to limited recreational use of popular forest destinations since the June 3 reopening of Angeles Crest Highway.

Walking with her dog down from the falls through dappled shade, hiker Kristi Reed (no relation to Sheree Reed) marveled that despite some burn marks, the Switzer trail is just as lovely post-fire as it was before the blaze.

“I also hike a lot in San Bernardino near Big Bear, where they had their fires the year before, and I was expecting that — which is just desolate,” said Kristi Reed. “It is a very lovely surprise that there is so much green down here.”

Gerald Reponen, assistant recreation officer for the Los Angeles River District, said that the Red Box Picnic Area and the west fork of the San Gabriel River Canyon have been opened. The public can also hike into the Valley Forge, West Fork and Devore campgrounds. The trail to Mount Disappointment, Reponen added, was also reopened.

Although the highway from La Cañada to Wrightwood has been reopened, not all areas of the forest are safe enough to be cleared for public access. According to Reponen, all of the trails on the north side of Angeles Crest Highway between George’s Gap, Clear Creek, Red Box and Shortcut Saddle are still closed.

Another popular area still off limits is the upper Arroyo Seco Canyon above JPL, from above Gould Mesa campground to the Paul Little picnic area, as well as the stretch from the Paul Little picnic area to the Commodore Switzer Trail Camp.

“If you went up behind JPL, you wouldn’t recognize it,” said mountainbike enthusiast Bryan Workman. “You can only go up about four miles or five miles in the Arroyo and then there’s basically nothing left. There were waterfalls up there and it’s all been washed away.”

New bathrooms were installed at the Switzer Falls Picnic Area and Chilao Flats Campground, where Sport Chalet employee Michael Cistulli camped last week. Cistulli’s group could find no designated hiking trails, but found the old magic of the forest still there.

“The campgrounds [at Chilao Flats] are absolutely beautiful,” said Cistulli. “You’re under pine trees that are still there. They’ve got tons of different camp [sites] and tons of new bathroom facilities.”

Nine miles past Chilao Flats Campground is the completely rebuilt Buckhorn Campground that Reponen hopes to reopen for Labor Day weekend. Bear Canyon Campground was opened, but the trails to access it were wiped out by mudslides.

As the forest recovers and shifting hillsides stabilize with vegetation and become more geologically sound — a process Reponen said could take a minimum of three years — paths like the Gabrielino Trail will be rebuilt and gradually more forest will be opened for public use.

Not all residents were eager to return to the forest they once knew and loved. La Cañada native John Rowe recalled, with a note of sadness in his voice, hiking the trails in the shade of trees while growing up.

“I always used to go up with my dad and my dog, and we’d go up and take hikes down all the trails right off the Crest,” said Rowe. “I’ve driven up there a few times and it’s very different. It’s not what it was.”

To view a map of area in the Angeles National Forest opened to the public, go to Adventure passes are required for parking at any of the lots in the forest. They can be purchased at Sport Chalet.

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