San Bernardino and Angeles National Forests

When Nick pictured, and when most people picture, southern California, he thought of smoggy Los Angeles surrounded by sunny beaches. While there are beaches, the truth is that the vast majority of the geography looks quite different.

On the road at Mt. Baldy
On the road at Mt. Baldy, inside Angeles National Forest

There’s more land devoted to national forests, and national parks, than beaches. And, unlike the beaches, this time of year the forests are quiet. Best of all, hiking in the forests is free!

On this trip we didn’t want to spend too much money, or go to the usual tourist attractions. For one, we already spent our time at the beach on our honeymoon in Florida. We also didn’t feel drawn to Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World, or any other amusement park, because we’d like to bring our family there some day. And, as we explained to the woman who suggested we go to Las Vegas, we don’t gamble, like shows, or even drink (Nick not at all, I only once in a blue moon.)

Sometime back in February I got the idea that I wanted to see the Pacific Crest Trail. I can’t remember, but I must have seen a picture online that inspired me. I mean, the Pacific Crest Trail is kind of a big deal, it can take you from Canada to Mexico – it’s like the Appalachian Trail of the West. Just to say I’d hiked on it would be cool. I was overjoyed to find out that we could get on the trail from the San Bernardino National Forest at Bear Valley, where I’d been once before as a kid.

We picked the perfect day to go into the mountains, with temperatures in the upper 60s and plenty of sunshine (the next day it snowed!) Although driving in the mountains makes me nervous, I figured if I can handle it in Honduras, where traffic laws seem non-existent, then I can survive a nice, scenic drive up a well-maintained highway. At the top, we parked at the Big Bear Discovery Center, and set off on the Cougar Crest Trail, which winds its way up toward the PCT. On the map it looks tiny, but doesn’t reflect the 5.2 miles hiked, the 750 elevation gain, or the one-of-a-kind views.

Looking down on Big Bear Lake from about 7,000 feet
Looking down on Big Bear Lake from about 7,000 feet, with snowy peaks on the other side

I got slightly anxious the higher we climbed, as the path became narrower and rockier, and the cliff sides seemed steeper than ever. I was so determined to get to the top, though, that I didn’t look back. Once at the top, Nick and I agreed that hiking that mountain was probably one of the coolest things either of us has ever done. Up at that altitude on the mountain, the air is fresh, aromatic, and invigorating.

As my high school World History teacher says, "Always go to the top."
As my high school World History teacher says, “Always go to the top.”

As soon as we made it back down, which took much less time than going up, we were already scheming to come back and hike more trails in the future. (And I also started daydreaming of training for a race at altitude, like Olympian Ryan Hall, who incidentally ran at Big Bear High School.)

For this vacation, we had to settle with another shorter trip into the mountains. Later in the week we drove north from where my Nana lives up to Mt. Baldy, which is in the Angeles National Forest. This time we were only at about 4,000 feet elevation. We didn’t do much hiking here, but we did enjoy the views once again.

Taking in the sights, sounds, and smells at Mt. Baldy
Taking in the view at Mt. Baldy

This is the kind of adventure we opted for in SoCal. While the beaches are relaxing, if you’ve got an itch to get out and explore (and may be on a fresh-out-college budget), I’d recommend checking out any of the national forests, too.



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