Manzanita Trail (High Desert National Recreational Trail)

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      • Location: Outside the South Fork Campground, high desert, north slope of the San Gabriel Mountains. From the 14 Freeway, take the Sierra Highway exit (30) and head northeast for 0.8 mile. Stay straight onto Pearblossom Highway and go 1.4 miles to Barrel Springs Road Turn right and follow Barrel Springs Road for 3.5 miles to its ending at Cheseboro Road. Turn right and go 0.6 mile to Mt. Emma Road. Turn left and go 3.5 miles to Fort Tejon Road. Bear right and follow Fort Tejon Road 7 miles to Pallet Creek Road. Turn left and make an immediate right onto Valyermo Road Go 2.7 miles (Valyermo Road becomes Big Pines Road) to Big Rock Creek Road. Turn right and follow Big Rock Creek Road for 2.4 miles to Forest Service Road 4N11A. Bear right and follow this dirt road 0.9 miles. Park in a dirt turnout on the right side of the road, opposite the signed Manzanita trail head, just before the campground entrance. Alternately, you can cut through the Angeles National Forest by taking Highway 2 northeast from La Canada for 9.3 miles, heading north on the Angeles Forest Highway for 20 miles to Mt. Emma Road and following Mt. Emma Road for 10 miles to Fort Tejon Road and continuing as described above. This hike can also be done in reverse (down then up) by starting at Vincent Gap (Adventure Pass required). Check road conditions before driving to this hike from any direction.
      • Agency: Angeles National Forest/Santa Clarita and Mojave Rivers Ranger District
      • Distance: 11.4 miles
      • Elevation gain: 2,600 feet
      • Suggested time: 5.5 hours
      • Difficulty rating: R (Distance, elevation gain)
      • Best season: March – June; September – November
      • Dogs: Allowed, assuming they are used to long hikes; exercise caution on hot days
      • Cell phone reception: None for most of the route; weak to fair in some spots
      • Restrooms: Vault toilets at trail head and at Vincent Gap
      • Water: Several creeks may be flowing year round, providing water that can be filtered
      • Camping/backpacking: Camping is available at the South Fork Campground. There aren’t many spots on the route that lend themselves to remote camping, but it may be an option for those who don’t mind roughing it.
      • Recommended gear: sun hat hiking poles insect repellent
      • Recommended guidebook: Trails of the Angeles
      • More information: AllTrails report here; trip descriptions here and here; MeetUp description here
      • Rating: 8

Like the neighboring South Fork Trail, the Manzanita Trail (a portion of the longer High Desert Recreational Trail) links the high desert of Los Angeles County with the high country of the Angeles National Forest. The Manzanita Trail is similar to, but more challenging than the South Fork Trail: it is longer, requires more elevation gain and is more prone to erosion and washouts, especially during wet winters when it absorbs runoff from the north slopes of Mt. Lewis, Mt. Baden-Powell and other peaks in the area. Conversely, in the summer, temperatures can be too hot for safe hiking. Fortunately, much of the route is shaded.

While the South Fork Trail write-up is described as a “reverse” hike (starting at Islip Saddle and descending to the campground) this post assumes a up-then-down route starting from the campground. Vincent Gap, the trail’s upper terminus, can sometimes be inaccessible due to road conditions on Highway 2 during the winter months. Highway 2 is often closed from Vincent Gap to Islip Saddle, meaning a longer drive for L.A. hikers – through the Cajon Pass on Interstate 15 and Highway 138, approaching from the west.

Begin on the signed trail just before the campground entrance (the mileage to Vincent Gap is listed as 5 miles, but 5.7 is more accurate). The trail climbs the ridge on the east side of the campground, offering panoramic views as it negotiates several switchbacks. At one switchback, a short spur leads to a jumble of weathered rocks that provides a nice vista point. The trail continues east/southeast, paralleling Big Rock Creek Road far below, weaving in and out of mixed woodlands of black oaks and pines. A few retaining walls have been placed to help contain the erosion.

At 2.8 miles you cross a stream at Dor Canyon, a tributary of Big Rock Creek. This is about the halfway point, although the majority of the elevation gain (including 250 feet on the return) is still ahead of you. The creek crossing should be pretty easy, although if water levels are high, exercise caution. The route can be a little vague so keep an eye out for trail ducks.

On the opposite side, the trail begins a more pronounced ascent through the woods. The trail is loose and steep in a few spots but overall the grade is still moderate. You cross another seasonal stream at the top of a small waterfall and soon come to a rocky wash (just under 5 miles from the start.) The route can be ambiguous here so keep an eye out for the trail heading through the woods on the opposite side. You will also see Highway 2 above you at this point, a reminder that you are nearing Vincent Gap.

About one more mile of climbing brings you to the upper end of the trail. Across the road are restrooms and a picnic table and you can enjoy a great view of the deep canyon carved by the San Gabriel River’s east fork, with Pine Mountain and Baldy looming above. From here, retrace your steps for a 11.4 mile round trip. Hikers with more gas in the tank can continue to Big Horn Mine while the truly ambitious can climb to Mt. Baden-Powell and return via the Pacific Crest Trail and the South Fork Trail. This is known as the High Desert or Angeles Crest Loop, weighing in at an intimidating 23 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain.

Manzanita Trail, Angeles National Forest
Start of the Manzanita Trail

Manzanita Trail, Angeles National Forest, Ca

Manzanita Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA
Pines and desert geology on the Manzanita Trail
Manzanita Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA
Erosion on the Manzanita Trail
Manzanita Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA
Sunlight and black oaks, Manzanita Trail
Manzanita Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA
Crossing Dor Canyon
Manzanita Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA
Getting close to Vincent Gap
Manzanita Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA
View at the beginning of the descent from Vincent Gap

Text and photography copyright 2017 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

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