one novelty of being back in southern California are the mountains. so accessible! within an hour you can be in the foothills or climbing one of the tallest peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains and hiking the highest peak in the San Bernardino Mountains even sooner! it’ll make for much more interesting trekking as we prepare for our next big hiking adventure.
last weekend we headed out for the summit of Mt. Baldy (or, officially, Mount San Antonio), the highest peak in Los Angeles county. it’s part of the Transverse Ranges that lie along the San Andreas Fault and was likely bestowed the name of Mount San Antonio in the 1840s by a rancher, after his patron saint. indigenous people in the area had other names for it, but today everyone calls it Mt. Baldy.
early entrepreneurs took advantage of the water resources of the canyons, building a sawmill (which burned down within a few years of construction and was never replaced) and starting an ice-hauling business. the steep walls of the canyon preserved snow on the northface slopes well into the spring. in the late 1850s, one-time mayor of Los Angeles, Damien Marchessault, and a partner built an ice house in the canyon (hence its current name) and started hauling ice down from Icehouse Canyon and selling it door-to-door. they also used it in their ice cream parlor in the city – the only one at the time.
it wasn’t until the late 1870s that prospectors tried their luck at gold mining around Mt. Baldy, without much success. water levels at the mines proved uncertain and people living downstream from the runoff filed suit over pollution of the creeks. more importantly, however, there wasn’t that much ore to be found and in relatively short order recreation overtook mining as a primary activity around Mt. Baldy.
the first successful summit of the mountain occurred via Lytle Creek in 1875 by a group of army surveyors and it wasn’t long before the adventurous took to climbing the mountain for recreation, generally via one of today’s common routes (Mt. Baldy Trail and the Devil’s Backbone – which we took). in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps improved and expanded the Devil’s Backbone Trail, to help stabilize and widen the trail, offering better protection from the occasionally precipitous drops on either side.
the first “resort” went up in 1880 and shortly thereafter the owner of one of the mining support stations (near what is now the village of Mt. Baldy) converted it into a rental resort; by the turn of the century, the latter entertained up to 100 guests per weekend (keeping in mind that at this time the canyon was not yet accessible by automobile). on enterprising mountain guide opened up a “resort” some 80 feet below the summit (really just a set of tents), but after damage from a cooking fire in 1913, it was abandoned.
the shift to recreational use of the canyon resulted in bitter disputes between the camp operators and the San Antonio Water Company, which controlled water rights for the area. the Water Company ultimately wrangled control of the road and closed it off to all comers for several years; eventually, however, they decided to profit from the interest in recreation and bought one of the remaining camps (and hiring the previous owner to run it) and reopened the road with tolls. Camp Baldy, as the Water Company renamed it, became a haven for tipplers during Prohibition, though it was subject to periodic raids (agents only found contraband on one occasion). Foster Curry, whose family was known for running the resorts at Yellowstone, came down to help run the resort with the assistance of a woman he met at Camp Baldy and who later became his wife. under their supervision, the resort grew to include cabins built along the creek, a pool (called “The Plunge), barber and beauty shop, post office, casino, dance pavilion, photography studio and a school.
in 1938, a flood swept through San Antonio and Icehouse Canyons, destroying nearly all of the existing structures, including most of Camp Baldy. the Forest Service (which took over land and leases when the area became a a national forest in 1908) did not permit new structures in Icehouse Canyon, but much of Camp Baldy returned as Mt. Baldy Village, which now includes stores, lodges, fire department, school, and Forest Service information center. the Sierra Club built a lodge near Manker Flats (open to club members) and a ski hut on the Mt. Baldy Trail, near the headwaters of San Antonio Creek and named for the first female president of the Sierra Club (Aurelia Harwood, for whom a peak on the Devil’s Backbone Trail is also named). today, in addition to the numerous hikers in all types of weather, there is also the Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts (which operates the closest ski slopes to Los Angeles, and which runs the lift we rode to get to Baldy Notch on summer weekends). as long as the haze isn’t bad, you can see all the way to Catalina from the top of the peak!
we could only see cities to the north of the mountains; above the haze we could see to the horizon … just nothing on the ground.