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On the eastern Angeles Crest, not far above the L.A. Basin's smoggy blanket of air, lies Big Pines Recreation Area -- a designated year-round recreation zone in Angeles National Forest. Blanketed by a heterogeneous mixture of pines, firs, and oaks, Big Pines boasts the clean, dry, evergreen-scented air and crystalline blue skies characteristic of the melding of mountain and desert environments. Winter and spring skiing (sometimes aided by the labors of snow-making machines) is offered at three sites in the Big Pines area. Several trails lace the area, including one of the finer interpretive trails around: Lightning Ridge Trail.

From San Diego, the direct route to Big Pines takes you north on Interstate 15 past San Bernardino to the Highway 138 exit at Cajon Junction. Drive 8.6 miles west on Highway 138 to the junction of Highway 2 (Angeles Crest Highway). Turn left there, and continue uphill into the pine-clad San Gabriel Mountains and through the sprawling mountain town of Wrightwood. At a point 10 miles from Highway 138 you'll come to Big Pines, where you can drop by the Forest Service's Grassy Hollow visitors' center. The facility, open Wednesday though Sunday, offers leaflets, maps, interpretive brochures for nearby trails, and reference materials such as a wildflower identification guide. At this elevation of about 7000 feet, several kinds of flowers are still in bloom.

Lightning Ridge Trail, two miles farther west from the visitors' center, starts opposite a roadside stop known as Inspiration Point. On the 0.8-mile-long trail, you'll start by contouring through the cool precincts of a wooded northeast-facing slope. You'll see Jeffrey pines, sugar pines, and white firs, and you'll pass right through a beautiful glade of black oaks called Oak Dell. These oaks are in a summer-green stage right now -- and they'll look even nicer in October when their leaves turn crispy gold.

Now you're zigzagging upward. As you approach the exposed ridgeline ahead, note the stunted and distorted trees. They're battered by occasional fierce winds and flattened by snow drifts that can pile up ten feet high.

On the crest itself you'll meet a segment of the 2600-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail. At this locale, some 14 percent of the PCT's winding course leads south to the Mexican border, and about 86 percent leads north to the Canadian border.

On the crest, the view of nearby high points in the San Gabriel Mountains is similar to that from Inspiration Point below, only a bit more panoramic. Mount San Antonio, a.k.a. Old Baldy, is the tallest of those summits, at just over 10,000 feet.

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