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A Hike Reveals Renewal From the Fires at Windy Gap

A trek to the La Cañada side of the Angeles National Forest reveals new growth amid the remains of the wildfires.

Often people’s schedules do not afford them the opportunity for hikes of a long duration but this unnamed path offers grand vistas and is a perfect training trek for those with little time to spare.

The wild and unmaintained footpath runs parallel to Highway 2, moves along the ridges of the surrounding mountains before ascending and climbing further into the backcountry of the San Gabriel Mountains.

To get there, take the Angeles Crest Highway from the 210 Freeway and head about 23 miles into the national forest. Once past Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road, look for a huge paved turnout on the right. Park near the right and take the trail leading up and follow as long as you can.

Still recovering from wildfires that ravaged the local flora, the area is ripe with regrowth. Greenery emerging from often dusty and barren grounds contrasts against the haunting remnants of burnt trees, which stand like ghosts in a burgeoning world. 

It’s almost an alien landscape the hiker is thrown into when walking amid the aftermath of the wildfires, which are integral to the area and usher in a period of regeneration. Each step up falls upon burnt bits of wood mixed in with loose rocks, pine cones and new shrubbery.

The most prolific of species in this strange world are the heartiest: agave, yucca and various scrubs litter the landscape. Watch out especially for the unforgiving spines of the agave, which seem to be everywhere and cause a particularly painful sting due to toxins from within the plant.

In a pinch, these plants provide a useful service, in the form of twine and needle, as well as soap, which natives utilized for centuries. The yucca, too, are useful. The root can be boiled and eaten, and their towering white stalks glow against a background of burnt black remains, tan rock and the intermittently lush green of new flora. They can be shaken to harvest their seeds.

Occasional Douglas fir trees and mighty pines stand as stalwarts, some having burned and fallen over the trail at points, some surviving.

The path begins at the base of the mountain near a tank identified as Windy Gap, which is not to be confused with the nearby Windy Gap trail system, and starts off as a well-defined path before disintegrating into a maze of death and new life as new plants struggle to take hold. There’s nowhere to go but up, and at some points it’s a bit steep, but it’s fun to carve out your own path in an exploratory scramble to the top.

It’s not a lengthy climb, but the top at this elevation still feels like a hard-earned accomplishment, especially for those not accustomed to breathing at these heights.

A small plateau lies at the pinnacle, as do views of the San Gabriel Mountains in  the distance in every direction.  Antenna near Mount Wilson are visible, as are other lofty mountain peaks. A short but heart-pounding sojourn to this point, it’s nice to sit here a bit before beginning the descent back down or before continuing onward.

Moving forward, the at-times apparent trail declines toward a patch of burned  trees, forbidding woods, which are surrounded bya  sea of green stalks of new plants. This is probably the most interesting and beautiful part of the trail, with mountain views on either side and dead trees stuck and perpetual winter marking the horizon above.

The path continues to the bottom of this valley, to a small but lush grove of trees. On  the way to those oasis among the burnt hillside were somewhat alarming footprints of what looked to be the giant paw of mountain lions.

Other visitors swooped above in circles, hawks hunting the grounds for a meal. I chose this point to head back up the mountain and back over, an invigorating climb. The journey took about  two hours, with plenty of stops for photographs. 

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