Tucked amid a lovely grove of pines on the remote north ridge of the San Gabriel Mountains you can find tiny Messenger Flats Campground, an Angeles National Forest facility available on a first-come, first-served basis. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the 2650-mile "gorilla" of all hiking trails in the West, passes right through, and you can use a section of it to piece together a viewful 3.3-mile hike overlooking the vast Mojave Desert, which lies to the north.
There are no short ways to reach the campground from San Diego, but the route from Antelope Valley Freeway (State Highway 14) is at least quite simple. From that freeway, five miles south of Palmdale, follow Angeles Forest Highway south into the San Gabriel Mountains. After about ten miles of uphill driving you reach Mill Creek summit, where you turn right (west) on Mount Gleason Road (aka Santa Clara Divide Road). After another ten miles on this mostly paved, but narrow, national-forest roadway, you'll arrive at Messenger Flats Campground. (A National Forest Adventure Pass is required for day-use parking here.)
For hiking purposes, find the PCT, which parallels Santa Clara Divide Road at a point 20 yards north of the campground entrance. Go left (west) and follow the trail as it veers away from the road and starts to descend along steep, north-facing slopes. Along this narrow, rough-cut, lesser traveled section of the PCT, scattered conifers and oaks provide welcome shade at frequent intervals. Far below is Soledad Canyon, the broad, east-west gash separating the main block of the San Gabriel Mountains from outlying ranges to the northwest. In the hills beyond Soledad Canyon, the tilted sedimentary slabs known as the Vasquez Rocks glow a bright beige on the otherwise muted gray-green and brown Mojave Desert floor.
After 1.5 miles, the PCT dips into a shady ravine and crosses Moody Canyon Road. Leave the trail and follow the road 0.2 mile uphill to Santa Clara Divide Road. Turn left there and return to Messenger Flats, uphill all the way.
Note: If you're mountain biking here, be aware that you must stay on any of the numerous forest roadways in the area. The PCT is off-limits to all mechanized transport, including bicycles.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.