american west, california, Camping, Hiking, national parks, outdoors, Travel, writing

Backpacking the Angeles: Hoegees Camp and Spruce Grove

zion view
The view of Mount Wilson from Mt. Zion.

I love the great outdoors.  As I hike over five miles at least once a week, I can probably consider myself an avid hiker.  There isn’t much that I enjoy more than being out in nature. That said, I haven’t spent that much time backpacking. I have been on many camping trip, but I haven’t many adventures that involved strapping to my back the essentials for surviving a weekend in the outdoors. This past weekend was one such trip, when I accompanied my daughter’s Venturing Crew on a backpacking trek. And it was all within 13 miles from home in the mountains above the San Gabriel Valley.

I have mentioned Chantry Flat in a prior post. Hoegees Loop (the Upper and Lower Winter Creek trails) is a regular hike for us in the early summer months. Sturtevant Falls and Hermit Falls are both fun day hikes and are fun hangouts with the kids and the dog during school breaks. Chantry Flat is also a great base for hikes to Mount Wilson or, even as in our case, a backpacking trek.

Big Santa Anita Canyon, part of the Angeles National Forest, boasts over 40 miles of trails, including the Gabrielino trail and those to Devore, Mount Wilson, and more. The canyon has a long history harkening back to the “Great Hiking Era” of the 1890s and early 1900s. There are cabins for rent at Sturtevant Camp, complete with running water and flush toilets if one desires a more glamorous outdoors experience. Hoegees Campground and Spruce Grove Campground are two campgrounds within the canyon and the two spots where we camped out.

The Crew ventured out on Friday late afternoon after school let out and hit the Upper Winter Creek trail to Hoegees Campground. I stayed behind as I had an educational foundation event I had to attend that evening and set out before sunrise on a chilly, early Saturday morning. The boys (who hiked with me to “drop me off”) and I took the familiar Lower Winter Creek Trail down to get to Hoegees Campground. Turns out the Crew was the wiser in taking the Upper Winter Creek with fewer stream crossings, as the water was higher than usual thanks to the heavy rains earlier in the week.  True to my typical clumsy form, I slipped on the first rock in the first stream crossing.  Without the assistance of trekking poles, and unused to the added weight of a full pack, this isn’t too much of a surprise. Fortunately, I didn’t go all the way in and was wet only ankle-deep, but on a longer trek, wet boots are more than an inconvenience; they can become a hazard. The rest of the hike to Hoegees consisted of my getting used to the weight and awkwardness of the pack, which belonged to Jacob, and some encouragement from the boys. We made it to the camp 2.5 miles up in just under an hour.  Not bad for someone who doesn’t do this much, wet boots and all.

When we arrived, the campers were awake but not yet up, and our arrival signaled breakfast time.  After shooting the breeze for a bit, the boys left and continued Hoegees Loop back to the parking lot. I took off my wet boots and socks in an attempt to dry, and I’d been camping enough that if I were to overpack anything, socks are the one thing to overpack. Dry socks and hot chocolate helped to warm up in the low 40-degree temps. After about an hour’s rest for me, and breakfast for the campers, we packed back up and hit the trail again, this time heading to Spruce Grove, with a 0.1-mile detour to Mt. Zion.

The short detour was a worthwhile one.  Mt. Zion offered views of Mount Wilson, the peak in the San Gabriel Mountains recognizable by the famed Mount Wilson Observatory and the many radio and television towers that broadcast to the Greater Los Angeles area. To the south, you can see the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles Basin in the distance. Saturday’s view of the valley was partially obstructed by cloud formation, but that in itself was a lovely sight.

clouds forming

 Another three miles or so took us past Sturtevant Camp and finally to Spruce Grove Campground. We set up camp and had a simple trail lunch, then we all just hung out. The kids, a group of three teenagers including Emily, explored the area around the campground, collected water, and made friends with some of the dogs who were camping. As dusk began to fall, dinner was made, and a pleasant evening was had. No campfire skits were performed, though we poked fun at some of the ones we’ve seen in our respective Cub Scout and Boy Scout groups.

who needs a tent
Who needs a tent?

Morning arrived after dreams of PTA and work (really, you head out to get away from that), and it was a cold one. The temperatures had dropped down into the 30s and I could feel it when I poked my head out of the tent. I was glad that my lightweight down jacket was enough to keep warm and that my behemoth of a sleeping bag was indeed warm, though it was bulky and definitely not a backpacking bag. I tried to stay wrapped up as long as possible, but breakfast wasn’t going to walk to me, so after enjoying the view of the stream from the tent, it was time to get up.

Too soon it was time to break camp and head back to real life. We took the 4-mile trail back to Chantry Flat, going above Sturtevant Falls then following the stream and heading back up to the parking lot.  We had a slight delay as a packer came up with her team of five mules hauling propane and other supplies, presumably for the cabins.  It was fun to watch, though we were on a pretty narrow part of the trail. I snapped a photo for Sami, my animal-lover. We saw more hikers as we passed Sturtevant, mostly day hikers heading in to enjoy the falls. After the arduous ¾-mile hike up Cardiac Hill to the trailhead and parking lot, the excursion ended with ice cream at the busy Adams Pack Station, which services day hikers and backpackers alike.

The ‘caboose’ of the mule train.

This excursion is a good intro to backpacking. It’s not overly strenuous, even for one who has little experience backpacking. And it is not in a remote area. Chantry Flat is within thirty minutes of the city of Arcadia, which has a top-rated hospital should an emergency arise. I got in about ten miles of hiking and was able to have the adventure of relying mostly on what was in my pack for the weekend.

After returning home and unpacking, I finished off the weekend with the 5.6-mile torture trek up to Henninger Flat with the boys Sunday afternoon. After backpacking all weekend, what’re a few more miles…

Some things to consider:

  • An Adventure Pass is required to park in the lots. The lots fill up quickly on the weekends, so plan to arrive early. We arrived at 6:20 am and there were only a few spots left. Parking is allowed on portions of the road leading up, but be sure to park within the white line, and do not block the flow of traffic.
  • If you are overnighting, proper food storage is a must. The Angeles National Forest is home to much wildlife, including bears, so bear canisters are highly recommended. Bear bags can also be used but are not always as effective. We saw a tattered plastic trash bag slung over a tree branch with the remains of food wrappers on the ground beneath it when we arrived at camp. This was not a good technique for keeping bears or even squirrels out.
  • There are pit toilets at Hoegees and Spruce Grove. The ones at Spruce Grove were tolerable, but Hoegees were pretty gross. One of the outhouses had a sign indicating that it was closed by the EPA.
  • Dogs are permitted if they are on leash. As mentioned in previous posts, if you take the blacktop trail down from the parking lot, be aware that it is not shaded and can get dangerously hot depending on outside temperatures. There have been dogs who have been seriously injured and one even died as a result of burned paws and heat exhaustion.
  • There is no trash service at the campgrounds, so be sure to leave no trace and pack out what you pack in.
  • There are fire rings for campfires. However, during dry conditions with a risk of fire danger, campfires are not allowed. Be sure to check the Angeles National Forest site for current conditions and restrictions.
  • We didn’t have an issue with insects on this particular trip, but there are usually plenty more insects out. I recommend bringing along some insect repellant, insect bite remedies, and wear long pants.

Remember to have fun and leave only footprints, take only photos, and kill only time. Happy trails!

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