Before I moved to Mariposa County this past October, I was spending a good majority of my free time in Southern California exploring the countless hiking trails in the Angeles National Forest and the San Bernardino National Forest.
When I say a lot of my free time, I mean 78 hours and 12 minutes to be exact (not including the much-needed breaks I always take), accounting for 163 miles, with an overall total elevation gain of 35,942 feet. A big thanks to the AllTrails app for recording my adventures and providing me with my end of the year 2020 stats, and also letting me know I burned 21,536 calories along the way.
I know 163 miles may be a lot to some, and a minuscule amount to others. To me it’s impressive; I had never hiked so much in my life before.
I think the main reason I was dedicating most of my time going out and hitting the trails was of course because I had an interest to do so, but it was also because of the pandemic giving me more free time than I knew what to do with. It was something I could do safely because people don’t tend to get too close to each other on the trail. The occasional smile and head nod, or the exclamation of “good morning!” was the extent of which people usually interact, as hiking a trail is a personal mission for most.
To be clear, I didn’t just start hiking last year. I just racked up more trail time in 2020 than I ever have before.
I still remember my first hike that was longer than five miles. It was with one of my coworkers from my first job at a buffet. Her name was Lupe and she was definitely a hiking addict. Not that it was a bad thing, I admired her for it and I still do.
Before work, after work, in between weekdays — give Lupe an open day and she’d most likely be gearing up and heading out.
To this day, I’m still not sure which trail she took me to exactly, but I know it was somewhere in the Angeles National Forest. I was 17 with my drawstring backpack, one plastic water bottle and a thin zip-up hoodie as my gear, trying to keep up with my coworker who, at that point, could have been hiking the trail blindfolded and backwards and she still would have been miles ahead of me. There Lupe was, with a thick, insulated jacket, durable hiking shoes that spoke of the experience she had, plenty of water and a small backpack as well — except hers was most likely filled with items we may have needed if an emergency situation arose.
The hike was awesome, to say the least. She slowed her pace down for me and if I’m being honest, I’m not sure what we even talked about but I do remember that exhilarating feeling knowing that I was being led by a pro.
Once we reached the top, the clouds prevailed over the sunlight, accompanied by dense fog creeping in. Even as we were surrounded by the thickness of the fog blocking any chance of a view, I couldn’t help but still feel so elated that I had actually done it. I kept up with someone who I admired. I’m sure Lupe didn’t mind the fog either, although I think she thought maybe I was let down because we didn’t have the spectacular view I was hoping for. But that was definitely not the case.
Heading down the mountain, it began to turn dark really fast. Being surrounded by fog and trekking underneath the overhanging clouds didn’t help our light situation, either. But there Lupe was, prepared as always as she pulled out a small flashlight and led us back to the car. The darkness probably didn’t phase her either, but to this day I still only go hiking with others when it’s dark out.
After that first, longer hiking venture with a pro, I was hooked. OK, maybe I didn’t go hiking as much as Lupe did, but anytime someone I knew wanted to hang out, my first response would be, “do you like hiking?” to see if they were even slightly interested in the idea.
My mom always thought I was crazy. She didn’t like the idea of her teenage daughter hiking to watch the sun rise or set. Even today if I tell her I’m going to go hiking she always tells me to look out for bears and mountain lions. It’s a valid concern. At the same time, I think both she and my dad were happy I was putting my time into something I was actually interested in. My dad has even bought me a couple of flashlights, tasers and pepper spray (mostly for stranger danger) to give him some peace of mind as well.
Mostly hiking with my friends and coworkers, I soon began building up my endurance and was itching to do longer hikers with higher elevation gains. To be clear once again, I’m not out here doing miles and miles of backpacking hiking trips. I was, and still am, looking to do hikes between five to 15 miles. I do want to start completing even longer trails, though. But I’ll get back to that later.
A couple of years after my first five-mile hike, I started hiking with one of my coworkers, Julia, who soon became one of my closest friends. She and I stuck to the smaller trails as the role was almost reversed for me at that point. Julia’s forte was the ocean. Her older sister lives in Newport Beach so she spends some of her free time surfing and enjoying the water when she wasn’t working as a lifeguard at her city pool.
With the San Gabriel Foothills a new venture for her, I took her to some of the trails I knew best and I loved every minute of it. I think she did too. Then it got to the point where we were exploring new trails together, with our last newly explored trail in the Santa Monica Mountains where we had captivating views of the mountains folding into each other, with the Pacific Ocean sitting pretty in between.
To date, my two favorite hikes that I’ve completed so far have to be the Bridge to Nowhere hike and Switzer Falls.
Julia accompanied me on the hike of Switzer Falls. It’s at most an eight mile hike if you take the extended route to the Bear Canyon Campground — which my friend Emmanuel and I did eventually. Sadly, the extension wasn’t the prettiest hike due to the obscured paths and stagnant water attracting mosquitoes from left and right.
Switzer Falls, appropriately named, is a four-mile hike that features a waterfall in the end. Julia, myself and our friend Danny even built up the courage to climb the little cliff side by clutching onto the roots of a tree hanging over the edge of the falls, inching forward grip by grip until we reached the upper pool and slid down the waterfall into the little reservoir below.
The image of the tiny valley the trail encloses is still my laptop wallpaper. I think it’s a beautiful area of Los Angeles County that no one really knows is there.
My second favorite hike, the Bridge to Nowhere trail, is a 10-mile round-trip hike that crosses through rapid streams that tend to get higher and lower depending on the rainfall. I completed this first with my friend Elizabeth, who is also a journalist, and I’ve been back three more times since.
During our first venture out there, our feet were soaked as we were holding onto rope strung from tree to tree or holding hands as we crossed through the fast-moving water. This hike took us a good majority of the morning until we reached the famous bridge.
Once again appropriately named, Elizabeth and I learned, the trail was a construction project that was built in 1936 that was meant to connect the city of Azusa to Wrightwood, as they are separated by the San Gabriel Mountain range. Due to the great flood of March 1938, the rest of the roadway was never completed, but slabs of asphalt can still be found throughout the trail as pieces of the past.
Now hikers can take a much-needed dip in one of the many pools the streams offer below the concrete overpass before gearing up and bungee jumping off of the top of the bridge. I plan to jump off of it too, one day. Sadly, I don’t know the current condition of this trail as the Bobcat Fire that burned 114,963 acres in the Angeles National Forest reached this area too.
Now all of this takes me to the longest trail I’ve done to date: the intensive, 15-mile round-trip trail to the top of Cucamonga Peak. Although he said he was excited to go, I’m pretty sure I dragged my friend Emmanuel into this, and we had no idea what we were getting into.
To set the scene a bit, Cucamonga Peak is 8,862 feet tall and is one of the highest peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains. To give even further context, in eyesight from the trail is Mount Baldy, the 10,066 foot mountain which is the tallest in that range. Mount Baldy, otherwise known as Mount San Antonio, is the same snow-covered mountain you see in the background of famous pictures of the city of L.A. Once again, I plan to trek up this mountain one day.
Starting our day at 5 a.m., Emmanuel and I began hiking the Ice House Canyon Trail. We even reached snow near the top of Cucamonga, which was surprising considering it was the middle of May and we were in Southern California. Unfortunately, I would later find out the snow gave me an intense sunburn on my face.
Once Emmanuel and I reached the crest of the mountain, we were more than exhausted. Now above the clouds overlooking the Inland Empire and L.A., we took a nap right there on the large boulder hanging over the edge of the cliff. It probably wasn’t our brightest move, but the persistent breeze and the overwhelming silence was just so soothing that it felt like a need to close my eyes to absorb everything for just a moment.
Our total trip was well over nine and a half hours, in which Emmanuel and I persevered the whole way despite our swollen ankles and sunburnt skin.
To this day I’m forever thankful my friend stuck with me the entire time. This leads me to my current aspirations; It’s my new year’s resolution to hike up to Half Dome and to go further and pull myself up the cables to reach the top. Even more enticing, Emmanuel wants to come with me, too.
After living in Mariposa County for a little over four months now, I’ve done some of the smaller trails in Yosemite National Park and the surrounding areas. I’ve already hiked Upper Yosemite Falls and Vernal Falls. But I feel I’ve now settled in enough to really start planning my big hiking trips to the park with my friends as I need to take advantage of this beautiful area of the world. I’d love for Julia, Elizabeth, Emmanuel and even Lupe to come and join me out here and see the beauty that is the Sierra National Forest. I think they’d love it.
Writing this inspires me even more as I’m reflecting on some of the hikes I’ve done. It makes me realize how lucky I was, in the midst of my hiking frenzy, to move to this county and have Yosemite National Park in our backyard.
I hope to write a future column sometime this year, for those of you who are keeping up with me, to give an update on both Emmanuel’s and my accomplishment of completing Half Dome.
I also still keep up with Lupe on Instagram and of course, she’s posting all of the beautiful pictures she takes from her new hiking adventures. I want to one day let her know of everything I’ve accomplished, as she was my inspiration from the start. Without her leading this 17-year-old line server — who cleaned the sneeze-guards above the buffet lines at work — up that five-mile trail, I’m not sure how the passion I have for hiking instilled in me today would have come to be.
Christina Manuel is a staff writer for the Mariposa Gazette and can be reached at Christina@mariposagazette.com.