One of my goals for 2016 was to explore the local mountain ranges called the Angeles National Forest located north of the San Gabriel Valley. I’ve avoided this area because, in order to explore these mountain ranges, we would have to traverse higher elevations to reach any existing campground. Not to mention, there are only 2 ways to get up there – one way is on quiet, but steep, gravel roads. The second way is on Highway 2, which snakes across the mountain range starting from La Cañada, California and is frequently visited by speeding cars and motorcycles, along with weekend riders who are brave enough to spin up and down the mountainside. All these conditions have made it very difficult to include the Los Angeles Self-Supported Bicycle Touring MeetUp group to join in on this adventure.
So on May 27th, the Friday before our ride, our healthy group of riders shrank down to only 3 riders who were ready to do the ride up to Henninger Flats Campgrounds for our May monthly bike tour. They were Sang Hyun, Wesley, and me, who were ready to accept the challenge of climbing up 2500 ft to the campgrounds.
The Challenge – Getting Up to Henninger Flats
Wesley started his trip from the North side of the mountain range at Acton, California one day before Sang Hyun and I departed from the REI at Arcadia on May 28, 2016. While Wesley was descending down from his campground on Saturday, Sang Hyun and I were navigating the busy streets of Arcadia, Sierra Madre, and Altadena before we made our way to the trailhead entrance.
Our route was just a straight uphill battle on the paved roads and then an even greater uphill battle on gravel road. Both of us were equipped with our knobby tires to help with the gravel portion, but the tires were perfectly comfortable rolling on fully inflated tires on paved roads as well. The elevation was over 1,000 feet when we got to the trailhead.
The next 3 miles were as brutal as brutal can get. The elevation peaked all the way up to 2,500 feet within that distance. Then there was another 1,500 feet to climb to make it into camp. As you can imagine, it was a tough drudge spinning up. Sang Hyun actually had to give up his lunch on the side of the road because it was so tough. I saw my speeds dip down to 2 miles per hour as I navigated the uneven terrain.
The temperature started to get warmer as I slowly made my way up on the bike. Sang Hyun opted to join the other hikers on foot. There were many hikers on this fire road and most of them were very encouraging. They would yell out, “You can do it!” or “You got this!”. Others were curious and asked us if we were planning to camp, in which we confirmed.
I also saw someone carrying backpacking gear come down the hill, and so I asked him if there were any available camping spots. I was encouraged when he said there were plenty of spots. The only challenge at that point was to make it into camp before the group of Boy Scouts, whom we spotted earlier behind us. They never did make it into camp.
When I made it to the last resting bench on the side of the road, a mountain biker who had pedaled ahead of me circled back and said, “There’s a Western Diamondback sitting at the side of the road so make sure you ride in the middle.” So naturally, I got off my bike and leaned my bike against a tree and went to investigate by foot. This was my first ever encounter with a rattlesnake in the wild. As I approached where the mountain biker said it would be, I heard the rattler get louder and louder as I got closer. I never did see him in the brush, but the loud warning from its tail kept me at bay.
I spent a few moments to call Sang Hyun to warn him about the dangerous reptile and saw hikers get spooked as they walked by the noisy snake. I then repeated the warnings to other oncomers before I made my way past the snake by bike.
When I reached the Henninger Flats Campground sign, I was relieved to see that my ride was done. All I had to do was roll into camp and check in at the fire station/museum up there as directed.
Just like he said he would be, Wesley was already there setting up camp at the Lower Campgrounds. I dropped off my bike and gear with him while I walked into the fire station to check-in and get our fire permit. The fireman who was there said Wesley had taken care of checking us all in and we were all set.
Sang Hyun eventually arrived about 30 minutes later. We spent a few minutes recalling the tough journey up and the rattlesnake story. We rehydrated and snacked before we setting up camp.
Once camp was done, Sang Hyun and I decided we should explore the Upper Campgrounds and the Fuji Campgrounds by foot. We walked up a single track road that led up to the campgrounds.
The Upper Campground was smaller than the lower, but it had probably the most beautiful view overlooking Pasadena. Our campsite at the Lower Campground was just 1 spot away from the site with the best view. Unfortunately, it was already occupied by a group of hikers.
The Fuji Campground was smaller and higher up. It is certainly peaceful up there with even fewer campgrounds. The view was towards the Arcadia side of things, but that was limited by tall trees obstructing the view.
We spent the rest of the day and night just relaxing and preparing for dinner. We were very careful not to use up all of our water as there was no running water at camp. Sang Hyun used the fire-box at our site to cook up an aluminium foil meal that he had prepared ahead of time. What was once frozen, was now ready to be cooked in the wood burning box.
The meal was delicious considering it was just meat and potatoes with Worcester sauce. We snacked on other things we had brought and was looking forward to the sunset. Unfortunately, the fog started to roll in and our view of the city was completely obstructed. The fog pretty much enveloped the entire site. It got so thick that it started to drizzle in the middle of the night.
We all woke up with wet camping gear. I was the only person in our group with a tent, while both Wesley and Sang slept on tarps. We had to shake out our things in an attempt to dry things out. It helped just a little bit.
We had our quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee before we packed everything up and began the highly anticipated descent out to the paved roads. The fog did not burn off at all, so our riding conditions weren’t very good. We were able to see maybe 10 feet in front of us and had to ride our brakes all the way down on the wet dirt layer. Despite the chilly conditions, there were still hikers making their way up.
We made it to the paved roads after only about 21 minutes of riding. The remainder of the ride was through Altadena and Pasadena in search of a restaurant. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a place that was sit down and had a view of our bikes, since no one packed a bike lock. We defaulted at McDonald’s for our second breakfast.
Breakfast was short and satisfying. We all rolled down Lake Avenue with traffic. Both Sang Hyun and Wesley caught the Gold Line back to their destinations, while I continued riding back home.
I have to admit that upon coming up to Henninger Flats, I was a bit apprehensive as I knew it was a tough climb and the campgrounds seemed to be really primitive. I didn’t know if I would enjoy it after a hard ride like that, but…I absolutely loved it!
The fact that there was a challenging uphill made the camping experience a lot sweeter when you reach your destination. The campgrounds are very nice and offer pretty basic amenities. Having no running water was tough, but doable. It just means you need to carry it all in. The pit toilets were probably the low point of the campgrounds, but on the other hand, the incredible view was certainly a high point.
Getting in and out of camp was very straightforward even if you needed to share the road with hikers and horses (I did not see one). It is worth the effort for this little gem of a campground. Best of all, it was entirely free!
I think this one is going to stay on as an annual ride for years to come; such a great place to go to for a quick getaway.
Have you ever been here on a bikepacking trip or even a backpacking trip? I would love to hear about your experiences. Leave them in the comments below.