Hiking: San Gabriel Mountains

Seeking Peace in Arroyo Seco

December 26, 1993|JOHN McKINNEY

Early in the 20th Century, a hiker could venture up the Arroyo Seco from Pasadena and within an hour lose all signs of civilization.

Amazingly, you can still do that today.

Arroyo Seco is perhaps the best-known canyon in Southern California. It's the site of the Rose Bowl, and also contains California's first freeway, the Pasadena. But the lower 10 miles of canyon, dominated by the freeway, bear little resemblance to the upper 10 miles of wild and rugged arroyo that spill from the shoulder of Mt. Wilson, north of the Rose Bowl.

The westernmost section of the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail travels the length of the canyon, from Angeles Crest Highway south to an area near the Caltech/ Jet Propulsion Laboratory complex in Pasadena.

The 9 1/2-mile, mostly downhill hike explores the wildest part of the Arroyo Seco and visits several peaceful trail camps. Stone foundations of long-abandoned rustic resorts remind the walker that the Arroyo Seco once was a popular weekend retreat.

Perry Switzer, a carpenter who regained his health in the invigorating San Gabriel Mountains, built a trail up the Arroyo Seco, then constructed a modest resort. The next owner, Lloyd Austin later added a tennis court, chapel and dance floor. Switzer-land was popular with hikers well into the 1930s, until Angeles Crest Highway rendered the peaceful camp obsolete.

Directions to trail head: Take Angeles Crest Highway (California 2) north from La Canada for 10 miles. A short distance past the junction of the Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest (N3) highways, you'll see the Angeles National Forest Clear Creek Information Station on your right. Inquire here about trail, weather or road conditions.

Half a mile further, turn right into the 20-vehicle parking lot next to the access road that leads to the Switzer Picnic Area. You'll walk down the road half a mile. The Gabrielino Trail begins across the bridge at the lower end of the picnic grounds.

The hike: Follow the trail into the canyon. The pathway meanders with the stream under oak, alder and spruce. You'll cross and recross the stream several times and do some easy boulder-hopping. In the spring, stream crossing is quite difficult in some places. After a mile's walk, you'll reach Commodore Switzer Trail Camp just above a falls. It's an inviting place complete with picnic tables.

From the camp, cross the stream and follow the trail on the west slope. You'll get a nice view of the falls. A signed junction soon appears. To the right (southwest) is the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail down to Pasadena. The trail leaves the main Arroyo Seco canyon, crosses a chaparral-covered ridge, then drops into Long Canyon. It then descends to the Arroyo Seco creek bottom and follows the creek an easy mile to the Oakwilde Picnic Area.

About three-quarters of a mile past the picnic area, the trail ascends high onto the canyon wall to bypass a dam, then returns to the canyon floor. The trail widens to a dirt road and passes a couple more picnic areas. Near its end, the pathway is asphalt and you're apt to encounter cyclists and parents with jogger-strollers. Your hike concludes at the parking area off Windsor Avenue.

If you're unable to make transportation arrangements for a one-way trip down Arroyo Seco from Angeles Crest Highway, I'd suggest hiking from the city side of the arroyo to Oakwilde--a 10-mile round-trip hike, with a 900-foot elevation gain. The nine-mile round-trip hike from Switzer down to Oakwilde is a beauty, too, but you'll have a 1,400-foot elevation gain on the return leg.

To reach the bottom of the trail from the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) in Pasadena, take Arroyo Boulevard north to Windsor Avenue and travel three-quarters of a mile. Just before Windsor's intersection with Ventura Street, turn into the parking lot on your left. From the small lot, you can look down into the bottom of the Arroyo Seco and see the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and JPL's huge lot.

Gabrielino National Recreation Trail

WHERE: Arroyo Seco, Angeles National Forest.

DISTANCE: Switzer Picnic Area to Jet Propulsion Lab/Pasadena, 9 miles one way, with 2,200 footelevation loss.

TERRAIN: A sylvan scene, shaded by oaks and sycamores.

HIGHLIGHTS: The wild side of Southern California's most famed canyon, plus historic trail camps and good picnicking.


PRECAUTIONS: Switzer Picnic Area closed due to budget cuts; some flood damage to trail, but passable.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Angeles National forest, Supervisor's Office, at (818) 574-1613, and the Arroyo Seco Ranger Station at (818) 796-5541.