The cabin community in Big Santa Anita Canyon and along neighboring Winter Creek has been called “a rustic Xanadu, where groceries come by burro.” On foot is the only way in for the owners of the 82 cabins, dating from the early 1900s. Many of the residents are weekenders from the nearby L.A. metropolis. Some settle for amenities typical of a century ago: kerosene lamps, drinking water carried in by the jugful, and one-hole privies.
On this rambling loop hike to Hoegees Trail Camp on Winter Creek, you’ll get a good feel for the riparian splendor that attracted early residents and day-trippers, and that still attracts legions of hikers today. Native alders, oaks, bays, and willows cluster along the bubbling, cascading streams. Ivy and vinca, planted by the early settlers, have run rampant in some areas, climbing high into the trees in a fashion reminiscent of the kudzu-vine invasion of the American Southeast. Both canyons have been plugged in many places with crib dams — flood-control dams constructed of precast concrete logs — but more than 40 years of steady regrowth have softened their visual impact.
To get to the trailhead from San Diego, first navigate to the San Gabriel Valley community of Sierra Madre. Take the Santa Anita Avenue exit off Interstate 210, and drive north as far as that road goes.
You arrive, after several twisting miles, at the popular Angeles National Forest trailhead/staging area known as Chantry Flat. Post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car, then hit the trail by heading north down toward the bottom of Big Santa Anita Canyon on a paved drive that doubles as the initial segment of the Gabrielino Trail. After rounding the first sharp bend (0.2 mile), veer right onto an obscure (possibly unmarked) trail, the First Water Trail. Descend on precipitous switchbacks (watch your step!) to the stream below, where an appropriately named First Water Camp welcomed hot and footsore hikers in the 1920s and ‘30s. Turn left (upstream) and follow the rudiments of a trail amid streamside cabins and boulders to the confluence of Big Santa Anita Canyon and Winter Creek — the spot where the paved drive comes down from Chantry Flat. Today, only a small restroom building occupies a flat area nearby, where the largest resort of the area, Roberts Camp, sprawled in the early 1900s. During the peak of its popularity, a branch of the L.A. County Library and a post office were established here to serve guests and passing hikers.
From the confluence, head west into the steep-walled confines of Winter Creek. The well-traveled trail snakes upward, sometimes along the stream, otherwise up on the canyon walls in order to bypass crib dams or to swing by cabins. After 1.5 miles (from the confluence) you come to Hoegees Trail Camp (tables, stoves), tucked into a shady nook on Winter Creek’s south bank. Today, Hoegees is one of the more popular trail camps in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Your looping return is by way of the Upper Winter Creek Trail. From Hoegees, continue upstream on the north bank, passing the Mt. Zion Trail on the right. Presently, the trail swings left to cross the stream and climb obliquely up Winter Creek’s south canyon wall. In a short while you reach a signed junction — right toward Mt. Wilson, left back to your starting point a crooked 2.6 miles away. About 0.3 mile from the end, the trail joins a paved section of San Olene Fire Road; it will take you down past the picnic area to the upper parking lot at Chantry Flat.
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.
Explore a sparkling stream and an anachronistic cabin community in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 130 miles
Hiking length: 5.4 miles
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous