Newcomb Peak LPC
Mt. Zion LPC

Fri, Apr 22, 2011
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


Santa Anita Canyon is a rugged, picturesque canyon on the south side of the San Gabriel Mtns, just east of Mt. Wilson. Chantry Flat is an extremely popular trailhead run by the Forest Service about halfway up the canyon at the end of paved Santa Anita Canyon Road. The road is gated closed in the community of Sierra Madre between 8p and 6a which I found when I tried to drive up it around 1a during the night. Seeing no parking restrictions, I parked on an adjacent suburban street and slept until morning. I was up before 6a to find that the gate had already been opened. Knowing almost nothing about the area except for the location of two peaks I was after, I had no idea how popular the area was until I had made it to Chantry Flat early on a Friday morning. There were already half a dozen other cars parked here, runners stretching or starting off on their morning routine.

My goal for the morning consisted of two LPC peaks, Mt. Zion and Newcomb Peak. The latter was an unofficial name, designated by the Sierra Club for the NEWCOMB benchmark placed there. The combination of the two would require about 3,000ft of gain and 15 miles. The weather was decidedly crummy. Low clouds obscured the surrounding summits with few signs of improving conditions. This would not be a day for views. This was more than compensated for by the sheer beauty of Santa Anita Canyon, a surprisingly lush collection of deep canyons, steep walls and a vibrant collection of flora that seems oddly out of place in the desert environs of Los Angeles. The main canyons are peppered with cabins that date back a century or more, most remaining in private hands to the present day. In a poorly conceived effort at flood control in the early 1960's, some 95 concrete dams were constructed in the various connected canyons, all of them quickly filling with sediment. This leaves nothing in the way of flood control, but everywhere one looks are the waterfalls that remain, dropping 10-20 feet over the ramparts, keeping the canyon alive with the sounds of falling water.

I started at 6:30a, taking the road down to Roberts Camp and towards Sturtevant Falls. There was a brief hope of clearing looking up the canyon as I started my descent into the canyon, but this was short-lived. I passed by the first of the concrete dams where a bridge takes the trail to the opposite side of the creek. At first the waterfalls appear picturesque flowing over the concrete walls, but the sheer abundance of these dams and their uniform construction makes them appear plain and intrusive to the natural landscape. The cabins are generally painted brown or forest green to help them blend with their surroundings, but are almost as numerous as the dams. There is an eclectic mix of trails with signs both new and old, some junctions obvious, others less so. There are cascades, wildflowers, fern grottos and other natural scenes as well, plenty to keep the eye busy while hiking up the canyon. It was odd to see a stray wire or two strung high in the trees, crossing the creek from bend to bend as it made its way up the canyon. These were explained when I came to one of several phone booths I found along the way, an ancient 911 system for emergency use. I have no idea if these phones still work, but they seem to be maintained albeit not modernized in at least 50 years. Using the LPC guide to get me from one trail to the next, I made my way to the junction near Sturtevant Camp, the split point between the two peaks. It had taken a bit more than an hour and a half to go the four miles from Chantry Flat.

Now past 8a, I turned right to follow the trail up to Newcomb Pass. This trail was significantly less-used compared to the ones I had been on, with lots of overgrowth including a non-trivial amount of poison oak. By 9a I had reached Newcomb Pass where I heard the first voices in over an hour. A pair of backpacks were resting atop a picnic table at the pass while their owners were descending the grassy slopes of a nearby hill they had evidently climbed for a view. There was some clearing now, even a bit of blue sky as I found myself nearing the top of the fog layer that pressed in from the coast. I followed an old road from Newcomb Pass heading east towards the unimpressive summit of Newcomb Peak. A large transmission tower sits atop the summit, visible as I hiked along the road past an old water tank described in the LPC guide, and then another ten minutes further to the summit. Disregarding the LPC guide that suggests a longer approach from the southeast corner, I followed a steep, overgrown, but useable road up from the west, bringing me to the summit of Newcomb shortly before 9:30a.

Now above the reach of the fog layer, I could see the higher peaks of the San Gabriels behind me to the north, though much of the view was blocked by trees. The only peak I could positively identify was Twin Peaks to the northeast. Without the fog there would be a fairly good view of the LA Basin to the south, but of course this was lost today. Not wanting to accidently brush against the prevalent poison oak, I didn't look closely for the benchmark and didn't spend much time at the summit. The massive tower that took up most of it was a sore distraction.

An hour later I was at Sturtevant Camp, starting the loop portion to Mt. Zion. Portions of the trail going over Mt. Zion are more than a hundred years old, though this segment was lost for some twenty years starting in the 1960s before being restored by volunteers. The junctions are numerous and well-signed as they pass through Sturtevant Camp and the trail climbs out of the canyon. There is a small sign describing the trail's history at the Mt. Zion junction just before the summit. Lower than Newcomb by some 600ft, I found Mt. Zion completely enveloped in clouds, the view not extending beyond the chaparral that encircled the small clearing at the top.

Back at the junction, I continued down the trail to Hoegees Camp, a hundred year old collection of lodges destroyed by fire in 1953, now just a location on a map with only some rock walls and concrete foundations remaining. From here I followed the Upper Winter Creek Trail back to Chantry Flat along a meandering route that traverses high above Santa Anita Canyon in and out of various side canyons. When I returned to the trailhead at 12:20a the place was packed, every parking space full and a steady stream of additional vehicles slowly circling the various lots looking for folks leaving. Half a dozen folks paused to ask me if I was leaving before I was actually ready to leave five minutes later. It wasn't until I had returned that I came to realize just how popular this place was. I had originally planned to find another hike to do before heading home, but the clouds and lack of view had me throwing in the towel. I didn't really feel like climbing another peak just to do it - better to wait for clearer skies to appreciate them all the more. Time to head home.

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