After getting our first article published last week, we have part two of four this week. Click here to see it in the online edition of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and click here for the first article. Thanks for reading!
Hiking the many National Monuments of southern California
The rich odor of incense-cedar trees filled the warm air as we ascended the rocky trail from the historic Big Pines Visitor Center. This soulful smell may be more familiar to you than you think since its wood is commonly used to make pencils. It was a sunny November afternoon at 7,000 feet in elevation on the Angeles Crest Highway, which traverses the steep-sided San Gabriel Mountains that rise above southern California’s infamous smog. The partially shaded path was lined with interpretive signs that introduced the trees and shrubs growing on this dry, south-facing hillside. Across the narrow valley, a ski resort was cut into the dense stands of conifers on the shady north slope. Further down the trail, my wife and I stopped to sniff the orange, platy bark of a Jeffrey pine for its pleasant vanilla scent which brought back memories of our time spent living in the state.
My hike in Angeles National Forest marked number 153 in my quest to hike in all 155 National Forests. The trail was located inside the boundaries of San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, established in 2014 and managed by the U.S. Forest Service north of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The National Forest gets its name from the city, which since 1781 has officially been titled El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula, which must be why most people call it L.A. Despite this region’s reputation for sun and surf, the high elevations (topping out at 10,064 feet on Mt. San Antonio) regularly get snow in the winter. The paved Angeles Crest Highway used to go through to Glendale, but closed due to damage from the 2020 Mission Fire, and this after the 2009 Station Fire burned about one-quarter of the National Forest.
Angeles National Forest is registered as a California Historical Landmark since it became the first protected woodland in the state as the San Gabriel Timberland Reserve in 1891. Its 661,565 acres serve as a major recreation area for the large population center with 697 miles of hiking trails, several lakes, and two alpine ski areas. The vegetation ranges from chaparral to oak and mixed evergreen forest. Most of the shrub and tree species are adapted to periodic fire, including the familiar lodgepole pine. Many species commonly found in this National Forest only grow in this region and nowhere else on Earth, including California black oak, canyon live oak, bigcone Douglas-fir, knobcone pine, and Coulter pine (famous for its massive pinecones that weigh up to 11 pounds).
National Monuments like San Gabriel Mountains can be created by proclamation of the President of the United States or an act of Congress. The Antiquities Act of 1906 states that the President may set aside “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” Within three months of its passing, Theodore Roosevelt used that power to establish Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, followed by many others that later became National Parks, including Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon.
There are currently 128 National Monuments in the U.S. managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other government agencies. That number is constantly in flux as designations are changed, such as when New Mexico’s White Sands became a National Park in 2019 after nearly 90 years as a National Monument. On the other end of the spectrum, South Carolina’s Reconstruction Era (est. 2017) was a National Monument for only two years before it was redesignated as a National Historical Park.
Wyoming had another historic moment involving National Monuments during World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt controversially proclaimed Jackson Hole National Monument after Congress declined to incorporate lands acquired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. into Grand Teton National Park. In 1950, those two parcels were combined, but that law also barred future Presidents from using the Antiquities Act in Wyoming for areas larger than 5,000 acres. Since then, Fossil Butte has been the only National Monument created in the state and that was by Congressional act in 1972.
The court system has continually approved the President’s power to use the Antiquities Act in this way, although it has not always been popular, especially with industries based on natural resource extraction. After 56-million acres of land within Alaska were set aside by President Jimmy Carter, a federal law in 1980 limited designations in that state to under 5,000 acres, similar to Wyoming. More recently, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah have been the subject of political Ping-Pong.
Other National Monuments
We also visited Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Monument while in Angeles National Forest. It was established on March 12, 2019 to commemorate the 431 lives that were lost when a concrete gravity dam failed in 1928 only two years after its construction. The death toll is second in the history of California to the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. There are plans to build a memorial at the dam, but currently it is a pile of rubble heavily spray-painted by local teenagers. The site is located in a scenic canyon where the leaves were just turning yellow for winter in mid-November. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. Forest Service cleans up the area in the future.
Many other National Monuments are not well developed for tourism and some are nearly inaccessible. Those that do offer visitor centers and guided tours are typically managed by the National Park Service, such as Montana’s Little Bighorn Battlefield (est. 1940) and New York’s African Burial Ground (est. 2006). The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management tend to take a more hands-off approach, as we experienced on our trip while stopping at Sand to Snow National Monument in southeastern California. Established in 2016, the two federal agencies co-manage this area along with other landowners in the San Bernardino Mountains north of Palm Springs. We took a pleasant hike through Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, which was mostly on a boardwalk shaded by tall cottonwood trees, an unexpected ecosystem in the Mojave Desert.
Our trip through southern California also included a ferry trip out to kayak the sea caves in Channel Islands National Park, a day trip that we highly recommend. Our journey will continue next week as we visit Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument and Mendocino National Forest, the second to last in our quest to hike in all 155 National Forests.
Scott Sink has visited 106 National Monuments, although that number has been decreasing due to re-designations. He writes his travel blog (RavenAboutTheParks.com) from Cheyenne, Wyoming.