Big Santa Anita Canyon
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Sturtevant's Camp

Oldest surviving USFS Ranger Station in th USA - built in 1903

By Chris Kasten

There was once a time, not long ago, when the San Gabriel Mountains were still fairly roadless
and the primary mode of travel was either on foot or horseback. Before the completion of the Angeles Crest Highway to Wrightwood, one could hike for days on interconnecting trails located between the San Gabriel Valley and the Swarthout Valley and not see pavement. Contrasting markedly with the pine covered slopes of Blue Ridge, the front country areas of the range located southwest of here is made up of very steep and narrow canyons separated by a myriad of ridgelines and peaks. A variety of deciduous and broad leaf trees cluster along canyon watercourses, while chaparral clings tenaciously to the hot, dry south facing slopes. This front country area of the Angeles National Forest was the scene of the "Great Hiking Era"(1880's through the early 1930's) in which thousands of people hiked into the local mountains with packs on their backs. Roadless travel was the name of the game and a unique form of outdoor recreation had come into being.

Trail resorts began to spring up in many canyons through out the mountains as demand for overnight accommodations increased. The Big Santa Anita canyon boasted five resorts alone. Sturtevant's Camp was a popular gathering spot from the start. Built in 1892 by Wilbur M. Sturtevant, the resort was situated on a gently sloping bench in the upper Big Santa Anita Canyon under a canopy of big cone spruce, big leaf canyon maple, canyon live oak and laurel bay. A gurgling mountain stream runs year-round along side the camp and fills the air with its song during the winter and spring. Rainbow trout swim in tranquil pools surrounded by stands of white alder. This camp is located four miles from the trailhead, making this unique scene all the more pristine. Sturtevant Camp is the last survivor from this colorful era.

And in this same canyon, one can still see the last remaining pack train carrying supplies up the narrow and winding trail to not only the camp, but to over eighty privately owned cabins that dot the canyon. One must also hike to these historic structures which were built back in the teens and twenties in an era when the U.S. Forest Service promoted recreational residence throughout the front country canyons.

Yet the camp itself and the cabins aren't the only things from the past. A crank telephone system still operates between Sturtevant's and the Pack Station at Chantry Flat. A thin copper wire runs from tree to tree down the canyon and it still carries voices after sixty years on this party lien. And as if this weren't enough, a ranger station made of hand-hewn logs still stands at the entrance to Sturtevant Camp. This structure was constructed in 1903 by Louie Newcomb and other early rangers of what was then referred to as the San Gabriel Timberland Reserve. Patrol cabins, like this one, were built in various locations and temporarily housed rangers on multi-day patrols.

During Sturtevant's early years, many amenities were added for the enjoyment of guests. An open-air dining pavilion was constructed of native materials in 1898 which still stands today. A maple dance floor was installed just a few years later. Tent flats, croquet and tennis courts were graded by using burros that dragged flat- bottomed scoops. Hammocks were placed between the trees and food for groups were kept chilled in a metal box that was placed in the center of the stream.

Originally, all the supplies and construction materials that couldn't be gathered locally had to be hauled by pack train from Sierra Madre, a distance of eight miles. Fresh produce along with mail was typically brought into camp daily by the mules and burros.

Sturtevant's offered a variety of activities for its guests. During the teens and 20's, masquerade parties and dances took place in the evenings. There was even a dark room available for photographers! Fishing for native rainbow trout was another pastime for those willing to hike an extra four miles over Newcomb Pass into the West Fork of the San Gabriel River. If one was in the mood for higher places, trails radiated to places like Mt. Wilson and Monrovia Peak. Families would often spend a week up at the camp in the absence of clocks and cars.

The camp has operated under a succession of owners. After World War II the United Methodist Church purchased the site, made many improvements and opened the site to camping in the summer of '47. One can hike into camp and enjoy such amenities as hot showers and f1ush toilets along with heated cabins and a fully stocked commercial style kitchen at the lodge.

And yet the charm of a bygone era still remains for those willing to seek it. There's still no road and the sound of the stream and the wind rustling through the trees is the same as it's ever been. Everything up here in this canyon setting still takes a lot of time and maintaining a trail camp can be very labor intensive! You think differently about how to do things when you know that all that is here must be carried by someone over miles of trail and that there is no store just "down the road".

Every week I leave my family in Wrightwood, drive down to the trailhead at Chantry Flat and put on a backpack. I hike up the trail that thousands before me have enjoyed and toiled on. Sometimes I arrive at camp in the dark and let myself into the snug cabin and light a kerosene lamp and watch its warm glow push shadows off the rafters. I hear the stream in its eternal murmur as a gentle down canyon breeze moves through my curtains. And is I fade off to sleep, I think about my family at home in Wrightwood and the miles of twisting canyons and ridgelines that connect them with me right now and how the San Gabriel mountains have meant so much to so many people over the years. As Will Thrall, San Gabriel Mountains historian and protector, put it: "There is no exercise so beneficial, physically, mentally, or morally, nothing which gives so much of living for so little cost, as hiking our mountain and hill trails and sleeping under the stars."

If learning more about the San Gabriel mountains and the history contained within them is of interest to you, read John W. Robinson's The San Gabriels for a portrayal of the trail resort period.

And if you'd ever like to see Sturtevant Camp first hand, you can contact
Bill Webster at 562 652-8952 or write to:

Sturtevant United Methodist Camp
P.O. Box 847
Sierra Madre, CA   91025

or visit their web site -
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