Posted on June 1st, 2010

By Shelton A. Gunaratne © 2010

 Those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of sprawling Greater Los Angeles from time to time can do so by retreating to the Chilao Campground in the Angeles National Forest, an open space of 1,000 square miles, lying amidst the San Gabriel Mountains. The campground, located along the 66-mile-long Angeles Crest Highway (SR 2), is just 40 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles (or about 70 miles north of Fullerton, where we lived in 1983).

Having had the experience of two long-durƒÆ’†’©e camping trips in July and August, we””‚my 3-year-old son Junius, wife Yoke-Sim and I””‚decided to try out Chilao on a late October weekend (29-30). We entered the Angeles Crest Highway from its western terminus (I-210 in La CaƒÆ’†’±ada Flintridge), and drove northeast toward its eastern terminus (Mountain Top Junction at SR138 in Wrightwood). Chilao Campground lies just 26 miles from La CaƒÆ’†’±ada Flintridge.

 Wikipedia clarifies that the Angeles Crest Highway was originally envisioned in 1912 as “the most scenic and picturesque mountain road in the state [California],” but the need for a road for fire fighting was at least equally important. “Funds were allocated beginning in 1919, construction began in 1929, continuing piece by piece until 1956.” 

One good reason to spend a weekend in Chilao is to explore the scenic splendor that SR 2 itself has to offer. However, it is typically closed to car traffic and unplowed between Islip Saddle and Big Pines, a 16-mile stretch some 15 miles east of Chilao Campground, after the first snowfall (typically October through December) until May or June.

On Angeles Crest Highway

Upon entering the Angeles National Forest on a Saturday (29 Oct.) afternoon, we visited the Mount Wilson Observatory located on the 5,715 foot (1,742 m) peak bearing the same name,

Founded by George E. Hale circa 1904, the observatory housed the 60-inch (1.5 m) reflector, which “became one of the most productive and successful telescopes in astronomical history. Its design and light-gathering power allowed the pioneering of spectroscopic analysis, parallax measurements, nebula photography, and photometric photography. Though surpassed in size by the Hooker telescope nine years later, the Hale telescope remained one of the largest in use for decade” (Wikipedia)

Mount Wilson also accommodates the Hooker Telescope Infrared Spatial Interferometer and CHARA array. We visited the small astronomical museum, as well as the adjacent Skyline Park.

Camping overnight at the Lower Chilao Campground cost us a mere $5. Today, the facility offers 110 sites located on three loops. The National Forrest Service has increased the site fee to $12. My diary entry for that night says, “Except for some loud music from the neighboring tent, we enjoyed the serenity of the San Gabriel Wilderness.”

Sunday (30 Oct.) morning, when we stopped by at the Chilao Visitor Center, we tried out a little bit of hiking on the very tempting Silver Moccasin trail. Then, we proceeded driving eastward to complete the scenic tour of the entire Angeles Crest Highway stopping at outstanding scenic spots to pay our obeisance.

We stopped at Inspiration Point to get a closer look at Mount Barden-Powell and Mount San Antonio (Old Baldy Peak). We also stopped at the Big Pines Visitor Center perched on the highest point (6,862 ft.) along the San Andreas Fault. We walked through the nature trail behind the visitor center. I noticed the verse/words “In the Pines” (attributed to one William Bristol) on the large rock tower.

We crossed LA County into San Bernardino County as we entered the settlement of Wrightwood (pop. 4,000), just to the east of which is Mountain High Ski Resort, the most-visited resort in Southern California.

On to Ontario

Then, we left the National Forest to visit several offbeat attractions in two cities on the southern rim of the forest.

First, we drove on I-15 and I-10 to Ontario (pop. 170,400), a city in San Bernardino County, where we stopped for an industrial tour of The Graber Olive House (315 E. Fourth St.) a producer of olives. The place is a city historical landmark and one of the oldest institutions in Ontario. We watched the canning of olives.


Then, we crossed back to LA County to visit two places in Claremont (pop. 37,400), nicknamed the “City of Trees and PhDs” because of its tree-lined streets and the seven top-notch higher-education institutions.

A six-mile drive northwest from Graber Olive House brought us to the first place of our interest: Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG), an 86-acre garden devoted to California native plants (currently some 70,000 representing 2,000 species).  Admission to RSABG was free for 58 years until 2009.

Then, we drove south to visit the second place of our interest: the Claremont Colleges””‚a consortium of seven schools of higher education, viz. Pomona College, Claremont McKenna College, Scripps College, Harvey Mudd College, Pitzer College, Keck Graduate Institute, and Claremont Graduate University. The British Oxford model inspired the consortium. Each college is independent in the sense that each college has its separate administration and admissions departments; and students receive their degrees from the one college in which they are enrolled. However, they all share the large or expensive facilities and programs. We strolled on the impressive one-square mile of campuses for more than 30 minutes.


We planned the Chilao camping trip so that we could also visit the super attractions in   Pasadena (pop. 150,200), the cultural center of San Gabriel Valley. So we spent a good part of the preceding day (29 Oct.) in Pasadena, located just six miles southeast of the western terminus of Angeles Crest Highway, on our way to Chilao.

To cite Wikipedia: “Famous for hosting the annual Rose Bowl football game and the Tournament of Roses Parade, Pasadena is the home of many leading scientific and cultural institutions, including the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena City College (PCC), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Art Center College of Design the Pasadena Playhouse, California School of Culinary Arts Pasadena, the Norton Simon Museum of Art and the Pacific Asia Museum.”

Our first stop was to see Tournament House  (391 S. Orange Grove Blvd) in Wrigley Garden. Once owned by the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame, this Italian Renaissance style mansion (built in 1914) was ceded to Pasadena city in 1958. It is the operational headquarters of the Tournament of Roses Association.  This is the starting point of the annual Parade of Roses on New Year’s Day that started in 1890.

Our second stop was the Ambassador Auditorium (300 W Green St.) on the campus of what was then called Ambassador College (1947-1997) operated by the Radio/Worldwide Church of God until a doctrinal split caused its demise 1997. Built under the guidance of radio evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong, the 1,262 capacity auditorium was used for religious services and concert performances. The architecture resembled that of a Jewish temple.

Our next stop was the Rose Bowl stadium, where a large crowd was waiting to watch the football game between UCLA and Washington. Opened in 1922, it became the site of the annual college football bowl game, the Rose Bowl, held on New Year’s Day. In 1982, it became the home field of the UCLA Bruins college football team of the Pac-10 Conference. The Tournament of Roses reports the stadium’s capacity at 92,542.

After leaving Pasadena, we visited the 150-acre Descanso (Botanic) Garden in La CaĮՠձada Flintridge. E. Manchester Boddy, owner of the Los Angeles Daily News, ceded the premises he started as a commercial camellia garden to LA County in 1953. The county developed the property to include a Rosarium, a Japanese teahouse, a lilac garden, a bird sanctuary, and a Xeriscape (to emphasize landscaping possibilities with drought-resistant plants to promote water conservation). Its Enchanted Railroad takes the visitors to a section of the gardens in a diesel train.


We had already explored the two main attractions of the “rim” city of Arcadia (pop. 53,100), just east of Pasadena, two weeks before (15 Oct.) the Chilao trip. Today, the city has gone through a remarkable demographic change from an almost-all-white community three decades ago to one with 45 percent Asian Americans. We visited:

  • The 320-acre Santa Anita Park, which opened in 1934 for thoroughbred horse racing. It is the oldest racetrack in Southern California. Its 1,100-foot-long grandstand is a historic landmark that seats 26,000 guests. The grandstand bears an Art Deco style and is the original facade from the 1930s. Moreover, its 61 barns accommodate more than 2,000 horses eligible for treatment at the equine hospital on the premises.
  • The 127-acre Los Angeles State and County Arboretum (301 N. Baldwyn Ave.) jointly operated by California State and LA County since its inception in 1954. Plants in the arboretum are grouped by geography with gardens for South American, Mediterranean, South African, Australian and Asiatic-North American plants.

The arboretum/botanic garden, neighboring Santa Anita Park, kept us busy for hours. Yoke-Sim was enamored by the Sunset demonstration home gardens and the plant displays at Ayers Hall.  We passed through Garden for All Seasons, Greenleaves, Herb Garden, and Aquatic Garden; we liked the serenity of the man-made waterfall and the two lagoons next to Meadowbrook. In the historical area, we visited the Queen Anne Cottage, the Hugo Reid Adobe, the Corn Barn, the Indian Wickiups, and the Santa Anita Depot. Finally, we went through the Prehistoric and Jungle Garden.

Next: Hollywood and the Studios

(The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead)

 Figure 1: Angeles Crest Highway and Vicinity. A=Arcadia, B=Pasadena, C=La Canada Flintridge, D. Chilao Campground, E=Islip Saddle, F=Big Pines, G=Wrightwood, H=Devore Heights, I=Ontario, and J=Claremont.


Picture 1:  Angeles Crest Highway (SR2) on San Gabriel Mountains
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 Picture 2: Tournament House in Pasadena, Calif.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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