During one of the heat waves last summer, we sought out a hike near water that wouldn’t leave us fully exposed to the hot sun. Jeff picked this hike, after reading reviews that indicated we would do more than half of the hike under forest covering, and then climb up and along a canyon wall that would only leave us exposed for short periods of time. Adding icing to the cake for this history buff, the area is packed with local history.
The reviews were accurate. This is a great hike even during summer. We want to try to do it again this spring to check out the wildflowers and the creek after this winter’s heavy rain storms. Plus, our GPS tracks from this first hike bit the dust, so we want to go back and re-track our route for an updated trail map.
This loop hike is split between the Lower Winter Creek Trail and the Upper Winter Creek Trail, which join up at the Chantry Flat Recreation Area. Chantry “Flats” is a highly popular spot in the San Gabriel Mountains, which includes a big public picnic area, a historic pack house, and access to a handful of trails — including the eastern trailhead for the 28.5 mile Gabrieleno Trail (not listed on the Greene Adventures hiking wishlist…yet).
As this was our first visit to the Flats, we had absolutely no idea how crowded this area gets on weekends (Disneyland crowded). Although there is a decent sized parking lot at the Flats, cars were parked for miles down narrow windy Santa Anita Canyon Road (aka “Chantry Flats Road”), wedged into every possible space along the sections of mountain and canyon walls that weren’t designated as No Parking zones. Jeff and I calculated that we had to park a good mile from the Flats, adding an additional two miles to our round-trip hike (this is not factored into the trail distance noted above).
After our 1 mile trek up to the parking lot, we hit a gate that marks the official starting point of our hike (as well as the start of the Gabrieleno Trail), a paved road that descends into the canyon. This road gets really crowded with hikers, baby strollers and mountain bikes since it also serves as the starting point for the much more popular Sturtevant Falls hike.
Fortunately for us, we only had to follow the road for a few minutes to the Lower Winter Creek trailhead (0.2 miles), which is located on your right (next to bench) just as the paved road makes a sharp turn to the left.
Lower Winter Creek Trail is a narrow dirt singletrack trail that quickly descends down to a cool shady protected canyon area that used to be named First Water Camp.
The creek canyon is dotted with a series of check dams consisting of massive cement “logs” that help keep potential flood waters under control (built in response to the great flood of 1938).1 Despite their unnatural look, the dams, which are overgrown with vegetation, and release trickles of waterfall-like spillover, are quite picturesque and soothing.
The approach to the first of these check dams proved a bit confusing for us, because the trail isn’t well marked here. The trail — very well cleared and worn — appears to head straight towards the dam, resulting in what would be a scramble up the left bank of the dam. After a bit more analysis of the area, we realized that the real trail actually crosses the creek prior to reaching this dam and picks up again on the opposite bank.
Historic rustic cabins, built during Southern California’s “Great Hiking Era” — which took place between the real estate boom of the late 1880s and the great flood of 1938 — can be found throughout Big Santa Anita Canyon, along both the Lower and Upper Winter Creek Trails.1
Like the cabins in Holy Jim Canyon, these are privately owned recreational residences, on land leased through the Forest Service.
Continue along Lower Winter Creek Trail for 3/4 mile until it climbs to re-join the crowded Gabrieleno Trail, which is packed with people headed to Sturtevant Falls.
This trail junction marks the site of Roberts Camp (1912 – 1931), one of many trail camps that sprang up in the San Gabriels during the great hiking era.1
The camp, once one of the busiest tourist resorts in the mountains, was so popular that it housed a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library as well as a post office. The abandoned lodge was destroyed in the big storm of 1938.
The trailhead to Upper Winter Creek is on the other side of the Gabrieleno Trail, almost directly across from where you climbed up from the lower trail.
Upper Winter Creek Trail continues to meander through more historical cabins and concrete dams, with some additional water crossings. Note what appears to be wiring strung through the trees, this is a phone line that connects scattered old crank-style emergency phones to the rangers at the pack station.
At approximately 1.5 miles from the Gabrieleno Trail junction, you reach Hoegee’s Campground, a primitive hike-in trail camp that occupies the former site of Hoagee’s Camp, yet another popular trail camp that was in operation from 1908 to the 1950s.
From Hoegee’s Camp, it’s approximately 3 miles back to Chantry Flats, continuing along the Upper Winter Creek Trail. You will pass the junctions for both Mount Zion and Mount Wilson. This section of trail starts to climb steeply up the canyon wall, and gets a bit narrow at times.
Upper Winter Creek Trail dumps you on to the paved access road that services the popular picnic grounds and the pack store. Follow it through the picnic area to return to the Chantry Flats parking lot.
If you’re not in a hurry, wander over to the pack store. There’s fun historical memorabilia on display, and listings of any historic cabins for sale. It’s staffed by friendly folks who grill big burgers made-to-order, and they sell cold drinks as well as ice cream and snacks. We spent a little time there relaxing and enjoying some of that cold cold ice cream…the perfect way to end a hike on a hot July day.