The Real Nature of California'We simply need that wild country available to us. … For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.'
"An afternoon drive from Los Angeles will take you up into the high mountains, where eagles circle above the forests and the cold blue lakes," wrote British novelist Christopher Isherwood, an L.A. transplant, in his 1966 book "Exhumations." He urged readers to visit such places often, as he believed the local wilderness is where one would find "the real nature of California and the secret of its fascination." The "untamed, undomesticated" landscape, he reasoned, "reminds the traveler of his human condition and the circumstances of his tenure upon the earth."
That's pretty serious business. But if there's anywhere in the Los Angeles area that could inspire such an epiphany about both humankind and the allure of California, it would be the Angeles National Forest, a vast wilderness of 655,387 acres on the city's fringes encompassing nearly the entire San Gabriel Mountain range.
Scenic roads for an afternoon drive? Check. Just hop on the Angeles Crest Highway, a two-lane ribbon of asphalt that winds 66 miles through the forest. You can pick it up at its western terminus in La Cañada Flintridge, just 15 miles outside of downtown Los Angeles, and travel all the way to the alpine town of Wrightwood. Along the way, you'll zoom through magnificent, unspoiled scenery with few signs of civilization, save for Newcomb's Ranch Bar & Restaurant, a good lunch stop.
High mountains? Check. Mount Wilson (5,710 feet) is home to the Mount Wilson Observatory, a center for astronomy research. Standing at 10,068 feet, Mount San Antonio (known to locals by its nickname, Mount Baldy) is the San Gabriel Mountains' highest peak and the highest point in Southern California. Experienced hikers may want to try their hand at the taxing trail to the top — jaw-dropping views are a sweet reward. In winter, the mountain's slopes are open for skiing.
Soaring eagles? Check. The golden eagle and the bald eagle can be spotted here. But there are ample opportunities to view all sorts of wildlife. Squirrels, bobcats, mountain lions, bears and even Nelson bighorn sheep all call this place home. Various areas are expressly recommended for wildlife viewing; check the forest's website for updated details.
Cold blue lakes? Check. In the Santa Clara/Mojave Rivers Ranger District, both Elizabeth Lake and Pyramid Lake offer recreational boating. Swimming, waterskiing and Jet Skiing are also allowed in Pyramid Lake. While boating and water sports aren't permitted in Crystal Lake, it's a lovely spot for quiet contemplation.
Untamed, undomesticated wilderness? Check, check. Though it's undoubtedly rewarding to enter the forest with an itinerary that includes such activities as cruising, mountain climbing, wildlife viewing or boating, it's equally gratifying to have no plan beyond gazing at the chaparral-covered hills, meadows of wildflowers, or towering pines.
Novelist Wallace Stegner also waxed poetic about the experience: "We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."