San Gabriel Mountains: So close to Los Angeles, yet surprisingly wild!

California Lilac. Photo by Annette Kondo.

In wilderness, one expects a stunning vista or two. You anticipate the spicy aroma of towering pine and fir. And, if you are lucky, the fleeting sight of an endangered species, maybe a Nelson’s bighorn sheep scuttling up a rocky peak.

This time, though, our hike in California’s Cucamonga Wilderness in the San Gabriel Mountains began with a humbler sight.


Not one or two spotting a wildflower. But thousands convening a ladybug convention, and cloaking trailside boulders with their orange-red bodies.

Ladybugs. Photo by Annette Kondo.The air was vibrating with tiny red barons flitting by, seeking their sisterhood on the ground and in bushes. A few wrong-way aviators dotting our hair and shirts.

Neo-Impressionist painter George Seurat, who saw life through his pointillist lens, would envy this scene of uncountable rouge pixels.

But a jaded entomologist might shrug them off as common Convergent Ladybugs — Hippodamia convergens — their taxonomy hinting at their social nature.

For our seven hikers, the crimson beetles were the first of many ways wilderness can reveal itself — if you just slow down.

On this outing, our pace was so leisurely we actually stopped to smell the ceanothus (If you take a whiff of its heady, sweet perfume, you’ll understand why its nicknamed “California lilac”).

One woman in our group — she was at the front of the pack — met her first rattlesnake, up close and far too personal, her shriek piercing the silence. But, as is typical, the rattler was more terrified of us, slithering swiftly into the brush.

Higher up on the trail, we paused to run our hands across a boulder. It had me fooled as a stump of petrified wood. But the more knowledgeable hiker-geologists saw the taffy-like layers and whorls as clear signs of a metamorphic rock.

“It’s a F-R-D-K,” one pronounced confidently. ”Funny Rock, Don’t Know.”

This easygoing pace was the perfect way to explore Icehouse Canyon, an alpine panorama of 100-foot sugar pines with a cold and clear creek tumbling through it. By taking it slow to reach Icehouse Saddle (elev. 7555 feet), we could savor the sights and smells so easily overlooked on a faster trek.

Creek in Icehouse Canyon, California. Photo by Annette Kondo.Our hike was really all about the journey, not the destination.

By slowing down, we could immerse ourselves in some of the subtler rewards of wilderness. And better appreciate the gifts from these mountains.

Many would be surprised that this virgin slice of wilderness is in the Angeles National Forest, one of the busiest forests in the country. Instead of driving 5 hours to the Sierra Nevada, here is a spectacular and pristine wilderness, just 90 minutes from the gridlocked freeways of downtown Los Angeles.

This proximity, to the teeming masses of 17 million Southern Californians, is no guarantee, however, that the Angeles National Forest gets its rightful respect. And it should.

It provides more than 70 percent of Los Angeles County’s open space. The forest’s pure rivers give the region more than one-third of its clean drinking water. And if you are worried about climate change, well the forests are already hard at work: they absorb carbon gases, instead of allowing them to emit into the atmosphere.

Yet this spectacular range needs our help. San Gabriel Mountains Forever, of which The Wilderness Society is a partner, is dedicated to preserving this incredible natural resource. The mountains should be preserved with three additions to existing Wilderness areas, as well as their first Wild and Scenic River protections. The Angeles forest also must have enough funding and staffing to better serve its more than 3 million annual visitors.

People return often to the Angeles Forest because each visit offers a new lesson, a new take on nature.

Just the day before, a few trails over, on top of Mt. San Antonio — better known as Mt. Baldy, the tallest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains and in Los Angeles County — a longtime hiker told me why he kept coming back to bag the peak.

“Each climb, it’s a different experience,” he said of the 10,064-foot peak.

On this day, the treeless summit was completely overcast, rain clouds were approaching and not a speck of urban LA was visible.

He said his most memorable ascent on Mt. Baldy was when he was greeted by a huge crowd.

“There were thousands of ladybugs up here,” he said, smiling at the memory. “Maybe millions, covering my face and my body.”

“Ladybugs?” I questioned, not really believing his answer. “Up here?”

Yes, he insisted, matter-of-factly.

One day later, in Icehouse Canyon, it all made perfect sense.

California Lilac. Photo by Annette Kondo.
Ladybugs. Photo by Annette Kondo.

Creek in Icehouse Canyon, California. Photo by Annette Kondo.