With their jagged, vertical profile brooding over the flat, bleached grid of the L.A. Basin, the San Gabriels are a range of superlatives: One of the steepest in the country, they’re also among the fastest-rising (pushed up by earthquakes) and the fastest-falling (pulled down by erosion). They are elemental: Fires consume them; torrents burst from their canyons. Two highways into them have been reclaimed by floods and landslides. Those still open stay that way only at huge cost and constant effort.
Hemmed in by the 15, 210, and 14 freeways, the mountain range stretches 68 miles, from Sylmar to Rialto. But while the San Gabriels may just seem like a pocket-size version of the Sierra Nevada, they are tall enough—rising to 10,000 feet—to contain a full deck of life zones, from desert to arctic, Joshua trees to pines, and deep enough to harbor five federal wilderness areas. John Muir, the bard of California’s mountains, called them “pure and untamable as the sea.” In 1877, on his only trip to the region, he wrote that here “Mother Nature is most ruggedly, thornily savage. Not even in the Sierra have I ever made the acquaintance of mountains more rigidly inaccessible.”
Muir would also rhapsodize about the abundance of wildlife and delicate beauty in the range. That was before so many millions moved into the surrounding area, yet the San Gabriels remain almost stubbornly feral. Each time I travel into them, whether on foot or on a mountain bike or in my car, I experience something similar to what Muir must have felt: genuine awe. It isn’t lessened by the idea that I can reach the foothills with a 15-minute drive from my home in Echo Park and be in wilderness in half an hour. The range is capacious enough for you to ski, go for a hike, a drive, a bike ride, or a swim. Buy a $9.95 Adventure Pass. Wander a canyon. Take in the stunning views. Have a beer in a rustic roadhouse. It’s all in your backyard.