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Estimated trip mileage: 95 miles
Estimated trip time: 4-5 hours (doesn't account for extended stops)
To start the trip, take your favorite route to Wrightwood. For those that have not been to Wrightwood, here are the directions: from the SVL entrance, turn right (west) onto Bear Valley Road. Head to I-15 and take it southbound towards San Bernardino. Take the next exit, which is Main Street, and then turn right (west). From I-15, continue on Main Street, through the town of Phelan, for 11.8 miles. Then, turn left (south) at the traffic light at Beekley Road. You will reach the next traffic light in about 1 mile which will be Hwy 138. Turn left (southeast). Stay on Hwy 138 for 1.9 miles or until the next traffic light – the junction with Hwy 2. Turn right (west). Continue on Hwy 2 to the town of Wrightwood.
This section explains the entire road trip excluding the hike to the Big Horn Mine.
Once in Wrightwood, you may wish to explore the two block downtown area. This is located on Park Drive, the wide street on the left of Hwy 2 just after passing the Jensons market on the right. By the way, just like the Jensons in Lake Arrowhead, this Jensons has a great deli and bakery section where you can buy a sandwich to take with you and eat at any of the picnic areas along the way. There are also numerous eateries on or close to Park Drive.
For more information on Wrightwood, see:
Continue on Hwy 2. The county line is soon crossed and you will next see the first ski area on the left. This is Mountain High East. This resort was originally known as Holiday Hill. A short distance later, the Big Pines recreation area is reached and you will pass through what remains of the Davidson Arch. What remains looks like a small castle. The arch used to span Hwy 2 [see picture] with a castle-like structure on both sides. The arch was removed to widen Hwy 2. Located here is a visitor’s center, however, as of this writing, it is only open Friday thru Sunday from 8:30 until 4. There are also restrooms available which seem to be open all the time. This spot incidentally is the highest point along the entire length of the San Andreas Fault.
Big Pines was originally developed by the Los Angeles County park system in 1922. By 1925, it became the biggest attraction in the San Gabriels and crowds became a problem. You wouldn’t believe it, but Big Pines was going to be the site of the 1932 Olympic Winter Games. However, not enough snow fell that year and it was moved to Lake Placid, New York. Big Pines was taken back over by the Forestry Service in 1940.
Just after passing by the arch site, a five-point intersection is encountered. Taking the first right goes to the former resort of Ski Sunrise, now known as Mountain High North, and also JPL’s Table Top Mountain observatory. The second right is the east end of Big Pines Highway and, if you follow our entire trip, will end at this spot. Taking the first left leads into the former resort of the Blue Ridge ski area, now known as Mountain High West. The second left is the continuation of Hwy 2 which ends up in La Canada and the 210 Freeway in 55 miles. Our trip continues following Hwy 2 (the second left), but you may wish to explore the road to Table Mountain as it offers great views of all the ski areas and the high desert to the north.
Past the five-point intersection, Inspiration Point (also known as Lightning Ridge) is reached in 1.8 miles. This is one of the largest viewpoints along the entire length of Angeles Crest Highway. Turnouts on both side of the highway allow you to park your vehicle and enjoy the vistas. When we visited here in July, we were able to see Catalina Island – some 80 miles distant. The large canyon just to the south of the viewpoint is the east fork of the San Gabriel River. A significant gold rush occurred here starting in 1870 and dragged on until 1940. An information sign here points out all the places of interest. The large peak to your right is Mt. Baden-Powell, named after the founder of the Boy Scouts, and is the second highest peak in the San Gabriels. The highest “bald” peak to the left is Mt. Baldy, the highest peak in the San Gabriels. Both peaks are easily visible from SVL.
Just before reaching the turnouts, look for the turnoff to East Blue Ridge Road (F.R. 3N06) on the left. This is our first side trip off of Hwy 2. This narrow forestry road ventures about 12 miles into the rugged San Gabriel Mountains. The first 3 miles is a mixture of broken and good asphalt, whereas the remaining distance is dirt. As its name implies, the road follows what is known as Blue Ridge. Along the way, there are great views in all directions. The road also passes through two of the Mountain High ski resorts as it passes underneath chairlifts [see picture]. You can actually drive on the same spots where snow-skiers dash downhill during the winter months. The road will continue all the way to the bottom of the San Gabriel River Canyon, but the forestry service doesn’t always have this last portion open.
Blue Ridge Campground is the first campground encountered at three miles in from Hwy 2. It is located in a heavily forested area next to the top of the Mountain High East ski area. There are usually more people camping here.
Guffy Campground, about six miles in, is a great spot to have a picnic. This campground typically has fewer inhabitants than the first. A half mile past Guffy, a fork in the road is reached. Going left (F.R. 3N06) will continue the drive along Blue Ridge. Going right (F.R. 3N39) will descend into the San Gabriel River Canyon and to a place labeled Cabin Flat on the map. 3N39 is often closed with a locked gate a short distance from the fork. If you continue on 3N06, the infamous Wrightwood slides are encountered 1.5 miles from Guffy. These large scars on the north side of Blue Ridge were created by a series of large landslides. The last one occurred in 1969. A significant slide occurred in 1941. These slides, which are still active, were triggered by both heavy rainfall events and movement along the San Andreas Fault. Similar to the warning we always hear about earthquakes, it is only a matter of time when Wrightwood experiences another devastating landslide. The slides are visible from Wrightwood [see picture]. 3N06 ends about a mile past the landslide. There is a trailhead for a strenuous hike to Mt. Baldy along the way.
For more information on the Wrightwood slides, see:
The entire length of East Blue Ridge Road from Hwy 2 is also a great route for mountain bikes. If you are a mountain bike aficionado, you may wish to consider parking your vehicle at Inspiration Point and then using your mountain bike to explore Blue Ridge. As you can see from the topographical map, the first mile or so climbs considerably, then loses and gains altitude along the rest of the road, making this a great trip for bikers in medium athletic shape. Just remember that the road is mostly above 8,000 feet and the air will be thinner then what most people are used to.
The hiking trail to the Big Horn Mine can also be a challenging mountain bike route. There are several rocky portions along the way where you would most likely need to dismount and walk your bike. The last portion of the trail is fairly steep.
When you are done exploring Blue Ridge, return to Hwy 2 and turn left (west). In 0.6 miles, the Grassy Hollow visitor’s center is reached. Here is another picnic area, campground and restrooms. As of this writing, the center is open Saturday, Sunday and holidays from 10 to 4. The rangers that work here can certainly provide you with a lot more information than we can!
Continuing west on Hwy 2 from Grassy Hollow, Vincent Gap is reached. If you wish to take the hike to the Big Horn Mine, park your vehicle in the parking lot on the left. Hwy 2 was closed due to serious road damage from this point starting in 2004 and travel to La Canada was not possible until just a few months before this writing (July 2009).
Hiking opportunities from the Vincent Gap parking lot include the Big Horn Mine (explained under The Hike section), a thigh-burning jaunt to 9,399 foot Mt. Baden-Powell or a trail down to Mine Gulch. Baden-Powell is an 8 mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 2,800 feet. Mine Gulch is typically 4.5 miles one way, but backpackers take it all the way down to the San Gabriel Canyon, spending one or more nights. It offers access to the various mines and ruins from the aforementioned gold rush.
Named after the founder of the Big Horn Mine, Vincent Gap was an important pass that was originally used in the later half of the 1800s. It was an alternate route to the mines in Mine Gulch and the San Gabriel River Canyon and later a haul road for the Big Horn Mine. The road came up from Palmdale and followed the path that you will later take along Big Rock Creek Road. At Vincent Gap, it crossed what is now Hwy 2 and then followed the hiking trail used to get to the Big Horn Mine.
Big Rock Creek
When you are finished with the Vincent Gulch area, cross Hwy 2 from the parking lot and head down the dirt road labeled 4N11. This dirt road lasts for just under 2 miles and is very steep. When we traveled it, it was passable for normal automobiles but it had quite a bit of washboard on it, so remember to go slow unless you would like to turn your vehicle into a rattle-trap! As this road descends into Fenner Canyon, be sure to look up to your left to see the engineering efforts used to attach Hwy 2 onto the side of the mountains. You should also be able to spot the new bridge for Hwy 2 built during its closure in 2004.
4N11 ends at Camp Fenner, which is a State Prison used for housing inmates that are used by the forestry service for various tasks. Here, the road turns to pavement and is called Big Rock Creek Road. Continue on this road down the canyon. You will notice that the mountainous vegetation slowly changes to desert-like.
About 2 miles from Camp Fenner, the small village of Paradise Springs will be seen on the left. There are several residences located here and a Christian retreat camp. From the 1920s until the ‘60s, Paradise Springs was a retreat for the Hollywood elite. Famous actors such as W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne frequently stayed at this hidden encampment.
For more information, see:
A dirt road leads to the left about 1.3 miles past Paradise Springs (3.3 miles from Camp Fenner). It is a sharp left turn. The road leads south back into the mountains and up a canyon. The road ends after about one mile. This area offers a campground and some nice hiking trails that goes further into the canyon or to neighboring Devils Punchbowl Park. You cannot drive to Devils Punchbowl from here; only hike.
Continuing down the canyon, between 3.6 and 5 miles from Camp Fenner, the road passes through a forest of sycamore and cottonwood trees starting at the appropriately named Sycamore Flats Campground. This is a wonderful spot to drive through in November when these trees are bright yellow. A good-flowing creek can be seen on the left side of the road. In many places, people have dammed the creek with rocks so that they can be enjoyed as small swimming holes.
Big Pines Highway
Big Rock Creek Road ends 5.6 miles from Camp Fenner on Big Pines Hwy. Turn right (east). This road heads back to Big Pines, near where the trip started. The road follows a long narrow valley which is the San Andreas Fault rift zone. Several small lakes will be seen along this portion of the trip and were formed by the fault. Geologists refer to these lakes as “sag ponds”. They form when spring water cannot penetrate the impermeable clays inside the fault zone, so the water simply surfaces and accumulates into the lakes seen now. Caldwell Lake, a sag pond, is reached 4.3 miles from the last turn.
Mile High, a small village with a restaurant and a few ranches, is reached at 4.8 miles from the intersection. The elevation here is 5,280 feet – hence the name. Here, if you are tired of the mountain driving, you can turn left (north) onto Largo Vista Road which will quickly take you to Hwy 138 where you can turn right and then follow Hwy 18 into Victorville and on to SVL. Otherwise, continue straight on Big Pines Hwy.
At 3.6 miles from Mile High, Jackson Lake is reached. This is a fairly big sag pond compared to other sag ponds along this portion of the San Andreas. Jackson Lake is a popular attraction and is popular to fishing pole owners. Unfortunately, it also has claimed many lives over the years as people visiting the lake in the winter venture out onto the frozen lake and promptly fall through the ice.
Our trip ends 6.5 miles from Mile High at the five-point intersection at Big Pines. From here, retrace your original route through Wrightwood, Phelan and back to SVL.
For more information on the San Gabriel Mountains, the book The San Gabriels by John W. Robinson contains a wealth of knowledge on this mountain range between I-15 and I-5. It is available at local bookstores and on-line at various websites.
The hike to the Big Horn Mine is easy to follow as it is on a former mining road used by trucks. Hiking distance is 1.8 miles one way with an elevation gain of about 350 feet. The hike offers more wonderful views of the wild San Gabriels and, at the end of the road, the hiker is rewarded with views of a well preserved mining structure. Big Horn Mine is on a private claim, so realize that you are not on public lands when visiting this site.
From the Vincent Gap parking lot, locate the large white locked gate to the left of the restrooms [see picture]. Begin walking on this road past the gate. As mentioned earlier, this was an old wagon (and later truck) road used to transport goods to Mine Gulch and the Big Horn Mine, so the hike is mostly on a wide and level path.
About a quarter of a mile in, a fork in the trail is reached. When we visited, there were two signs at this fork, but they were covered in graffiti and the original information was not visible. The trail to the left, which goes down, follows the bottom of the canyon on the left, which is named Vincent Gulch, goes past Mine Gulch and continues down the San Gabriel River Canyon. For our hike, continue straight on the main road.
On the trail to the Big Horn Mine (the one you are following), a second gulch or canyon will be seen just before reaching the mine itself after the trail makes a big right turn. Appropriately, this is named Mine Gulch. This is the canyon that many mines were located during the aforementioned gold rush. In this gulch and much of the San Gabriel River Canyon, most of the gold was found along the banks of the river's drainage. So it was only logical that the gold originally washed off quartz veins located on the east slopes of Mt. Baden-Powell - the place where the Big Horn Mine is located.
Along the hike, you will pass under a lush canopy of various conifer and oak trees. There are plenty of good views of the mountain peaks and the canyon below. When you find yourself out of the canopy, be sure to look up (to the right) at the rugged face of Mt. Baden-Powell to appreciate the ever-changing geology, which mainly includes the erosion and massive debris flows (slides) that occur due to the steep slopes.
There are a few places along the route where the debris flows have destroyed the road. Over time, hikers have established a new but much narrower trail. Be careful when hiking over these slides as footing is rough and you can easily slip and fall. The slides are very steep and go on for hundreds of feet, so you don't want to fall down! By the way, when snow accumulates on Mt. Baden-Powell in the winter months, these same slides become avalanche channels. You may wish to look for evidence of avalanches on the side of the slides. The evidence appears as broken trees and tree limbs. During winter, there has been occurrences of people being killed by avalanches in this area.
After hiking about two thirds of the way to the mine, you will encounter one of the three entrances to the mine [see picture]. The entrance is gated off, but you can easily look into the straight tunnel (adit). When we visited, there was quite a bit of water running out of the adit.
The last three-quarters of a mile before the mine, the road becomes fairly steep. Soon, the trail makes a sharp right turn as it rounds the ridge that separates Vincent Gulch from Mine Gulch. Here, you will see various terraces on the left. This is the location of the old town that sprung up to support the mine in 1905. If you venture off the trail to explore these terraces, you will find a few remaining foundations.
Continuing up the trail, you will shortly pass through a chain link fence that used to be locked many years ago and prevented people from getting closer to the mine. The trail makes one more bend and then the mill building comes into view.
On the right is the second entrance to the mine. If you wish to get closer to the mill building, it is a bit difficult and involves a precarious rock scramble across a slide. If you complete this scramble and get into the building, just remember that it is fairly unstable and not safe. So watch where you step and don't stand or lean on anything. If you are able to walk through the other side, you will see a railroad trestle used by ore cars that turns into the third entrance into the mine.
We have heard stories from several people that have entered the mine through these two entrances and walked through the fairly extensive tunnel system. However, as with most mines, entering the tunnels are very dangerous as this mine has several "levels" which are connected with vertical shafts that go straight up or down. When walking through the tunnels, these vertical shafts can be encountered unexpectedly which will cause a fatal fall. Hundreds of people have been killed while exploring abandoned mines over the past few decades from this activity.
Once you are finished looking over the Big Horn Mine site, retrace your steps back to the Vincent Gap parking lot using the same trail you hiked in on.
History of the Big Horn
Perched at 7,000 feet on the east face of Mt. Baden-Powell, the Big Horn is the “granddaddy” of all mines in the San Gabriel Mountains. Prospector and mountain man Charles Tom Vincent discovered the gold-bearing quartz vein in 1895 while hunting big horn sheep. He named the mine after the animal he was hunting.
The long story of this mine is very similar to so many gold mines that operated in California from 1850 to 1940. A “rich” vein was discovered by a poor prospector, he sells it to mine promoters for "next to nothing", the promoters rave to the public that it is the biggest gold strike ever, stock is sold to investors to raise cash, enough money is raised to build a mill and dig shafts to reach the ore, once the ore is worked it is found to be worthless and the mine operation ends up far from turning any profit.
The Big Horn was worked and then sat idle several times. Starting in 1902, enough money was raised to dig some tunnels and build a two stamp mill. By 1904, more tunnels were completed and a ten stamp mill was constructed. In 1905, the mill burnt down and was promptly rebuilt three months later. This is the mill building we see today. By now, a small town with a general store and post office was established near the mill site. But by 1907, it was realized that the ores were not as rich as the promoters said plus litigation brought all work to a halt. Work resumed by another owner in 1914 and then changed ownership several times until 1966. From 1914 to 1966, the various owners only did exploratory work but never mined gold. The current owner, Hanna Mining Company from Cleveland, Ohio, the one that bought it in 1966, attempted to start up the mine in the middle 1980s, but discovered it was too costly to do so and there was considerable objection from the residents of Wrightwood concerned about the increase in truck traffic along Hwy 2.
Click on picture to enlarge
Click on picture to enlarge
Last updated November 06, 2011.
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