It's a small wonder the Angeles National Forest isn't crawling in bumper-to-bumper traffic, considering it resides within inches of Los Angeles, California, and offers more than 600,000 acres of wilderness for hiking, camping, skiing, biking, fishing, hunting, and four-wheeling.
Perhaps it's because the flora gives way to dry mountain desert, with seasonal lakes and streams taking up a meaningless percentage of the Forest's total area. Or perhaps it's the urban legends regaling it as an ideal place to hide incriminating evidence and that gangs and cults run amok. Or maybe it's just too close to the city to make a convincing argument there's nowhere better for a weekend escape. The fact is the Angeles National Forest can be an ideal--and accessible--place for which to pack up and leave the madness.
There are more than a dozen ways to enter its San Gabriel Mountain Range, the most popular being the Angeles Crest Scenic Byway (Highway 2) that begins in La Canada and winds along postcard mountain vistas dotted by picnic areas, hiking trails, and falling rock for 66 miles to Wrightwood Village. Seclusion of the forest campgrounds here makes pitching a tent worthwhile, notably in the Chilao Recreation Area (three campgrounds with tables, BBQ and fire pits, and those notorious nonflushing toilets). Chilao is open all year 'round and offers private burrows, surrounded by shady pine trees and scenic plateaus, in which to build a fire, cook a hot dog, and peruse starry skies. Hard to believe the pulsating Hollywood foofoora is just over the hilltop.
If you're hankering to play Jeremiah Johnson, roll back the flaps at Buckhorn. While smaller than Chilao (38 sites compared to 111), and a bit more cramped, Buckhorn lies far from the highway in a dense, boulder-strewn forest along a shag of thick leaves and fern. Wildlife in these areas is in no short supply, either. But the animals--bears mostly--won't steal your picnic basket if you don't leave chicken bones and potato salad lying around and you lock food in the car, or hang it from a tree, before bedtime. Rattlesnakes are on the prowl, too.
Driving is where a trip to the Angeles National Forest pays off. Winding in and around the mountains like loose strands of wire are over 364 miles of challenging four-wheel roads that'll give your senses--including arms and legs--a workout. Take a side trip up Big Tujunga Canyon and head west along Santa Clarita Divide (3N17) past Mt. Gleason (maps are available at all ranger/visitor stations) to Highway 14. Numerous hairpin turns, precarious drops into hazy ravines, and paint-by-number scenery will give you enough mind candy to last for days. Take heed to wear sunglasses to alleviate glare from washed-out dirt trails that can make you somewhat lethargic after a few miles (see sidebar). There's also not a lot of room for passing. As one ranger noted, "You make do! Sometimes you have to back up as much as a quarter mile to let a vehicle get by." Caution signs are posted at off-road entrances, and you probably don't want to take your Honda Civic up here for a dusty mountain drive, regardless.