Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Other California: A Canyon as Deep as the Grand, and a Road for no Reason

OK, not quite as deep as the Grand, but who's to quibble over a few hundred feet? That's what I love about California: it has a lot of famous places that everyone has heard about, places like Yosemite, Death Valley, and Big Sur, but it also has many corners that are known locally perhaps, but are not all that prominent in the public consciousness. They are parts of state parks or national forests, sometimes private lands, and they offer geologic treasures that would be national landmarks in any other setting. That is the theme of my sporadic posts on the Other California, a description of these unheralded places.

The beautiful skyline in the photo above comes from the high point on the Glendora Ridge Road, a paved highway with no picnic areas, no campgrounds, no signed overlooks, and no particular destination or purpose that is obvious. The road connects Baldy Village at the east end of the San Gabriel Mountains with roads rising out of the San Gabriel River and the urban sprawl of the Los Angeles Basin around Glendora and San Dimas.
For such an unpublicized road, the Glendora Ridge Road is spectacular. It winds across the top of a high ridge, a fault block caught between the now inactive San Gabriel fault and the highly active Sierra Madre-Cucamonga fault system along the steep mountain front. The rocks include beautiful exposures of Proterozoic gneiss and schist, some of the oldest rocks in California, along with Mesozoic or early Cenozoic granitic rocks (some gneiss is shown in the photo at the end of this post). To the north, the road provides a bird's-eye view of one of Southern California's more dramatic wild areas, the Sheep Mountain Wilderness. It always seemed inconceivable to me that such a place could exist just 10 miles as the crow flies from the urban sprawl of the Los Angeles basin. The wilderness encompasses nearly 8,000 feet of vertical relief from the bottom of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River to the summit of Mt. San Antonio (Mt. Baldy). The canyons are immense, with depths exceeding 4,000 feet in a few places. The rivers (another SoCal rarity) are so rugged that few trails reach them, and at least one of them is a natural trout fishery (Upper Fish Fork). The wilderness is an ideal habitat for the rare Nelson's Bighorn Sheep. I was lucky one year while hiking on the boundary of the wilderness; I chanced upon a herd of a dozen or more. Being who I am, I fumbled in my pack for a camera (one of the old-fashioned kind with this stuff inside called 'film'). They heard the noise and skittered away. I got a great picture of a dust cloud...

Mount San Antonio (10,064 feet) is the highest point in the wilderness. The summit is hidden by clouds in the pictures below, but the mountain is one of the most familiar sights on the Southern California skyline. Thousands of people hike to the summit every year along a trail that starts at the Mt. Baldy ski area. There are two other approaches to the summit, but the number of hikers every year on those routes probably numbers in the dozens. A long and rugged trail approaches from the north part of the wilderness over Dawson Peak and Pine Mountain. Perhaps one of these days my brother will guest-blog about the time we, uh, "misplaced" him on this trail during an Explorer Scout backpack trip...

The other trail to the summit starts at Baldy Village and climbs almost 6,000 feet to the summit. To call this a difficult trail is nearly an understatement, but climbing it was one of the great adventures of my youthful days. Hot and dusty in the lower reaches, and spectacular views the whole way up. It's a good place to catch sight of the bighorn sheep.

There is no official Sheep Peak, by the way. It is the informal name of the prominent peak in the center of the wilderness area, 8,007 foot Iron Mountain (the prominent peak on the right in the picture below). I've never had the privilege, but the climb to the summit is said to be one of the toughest hikes in the south state, with great views and a chance to explore some old gold mines along the way.
Glendora Ridge is paved and well-maintained. That it exists is kind of a mystery to me, and I welcome any explanations as to why it was built. According to Russ Leadabrand (a travel author and Sunset Magazine contributor in the 1960s and 70s), the road was constructed in the early 1930s. I have thought of one possible reason. After my comments a few weeks back about the hazards of living in Southern California, especially adjacent to the high mountain ridges, it occurs to me that Baldy Village would have but a single access road if Glendora Ridge Road wasn't there. A single way out in the event of a major earthquake, a major flood, a major fire, or big landslide. The same problem applies to the developments in San Gabriel Canyon off to the west, a highway that also connects with Glendora Ridge. It looks to me like Glendora Ridge Road is the evacuation route... Whether it is or is not the escape route, it is a great road to drive. Unfortunately the local kids with their newly minted driver licenses know about it too, and a Google search on the subject of the road is likely to turn up stories of tragic car crashes as much as anything else (one of my high school buddies survived a 400 foot plunge off the highway). But for us last month it was uncrowded, and with the clear December skies, a beautiful excursion looking towards the high mountains, and the crowded valleys below.

There are some great rocks exposed along the highway...
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