The Southern Sierras of California by Charles Francis Saunders: A Second Look at a Forgotten, Outdoors Classic



The book's title is a misnomer:  The Southern Sierras of California, by regionally revered botanist, naturalist, and outdoorsman, Charles Francis Saunders, isn't referring to the majestic southern Sierra Nevadas encompassing Yosemite Valley and Kings Canyon National Park — rugged alpine terrain of gigantic granite domes, gargantuan Sequoias centuries old, and Tolkien-like, multi-tiered waterfalls, made famous by the writings of John Muir and photography of Ansel Adams — but to the less celebrated, less elevated, and lesser traveled trio of mountain ranges flanking the cities and suburbs of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Palm Springs.

First printing, 1923
These three ranges, the San Gabriels (or, "Sierra Madre," as they were called in Saunders' day at the dawn of the Twentieth Century), San Bernardinos, and San Jacintos, are instead the focus of The Southern Sierras of California.  What John Muir did for the Sierra Nevadas, promoting their conservation, Charles Francis Saunders did for the mountains of southern California. Both writers enjoyed relaying their adventures in exciting, sometimes melodramatic, prose.  Not long after the shelterless, sub-zero night of exposure John Muir survived on Mount Whitney (elev. 14,495 feet) by "dancing" all night on the summit to ward off hypothermia and to keep himself halfway warm, Saunders wrote about the harrowing time he barely survived on the summit of "Greyback" (a.k.a., "San Gorgonio Peak," the highest point in southern California, at 11,502 feet).  Greyback is a mountain I can see from my house on clear days.  I made it to the top of the peak during a fourteen hour day hike in 1995 that also happened to be the same day O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double-homicide. On what had been an otherwise uneventful hike to the summit of Greyback, in the "High Peaks" chapter of The Southern Sierras of California, Saunders described how the weather turned traitor on him:

"Suddenly there was a crash of thunder and a blinding flash.  The bolt stunned the guide, and sent him plumb crazy, so I had to hold him by force to the ground for half an hour, or he would have thrown himself off the mountain.  A second bolt that followed killed Wheeler instantly, ripping his clothes to shreds and leaving him almost naked.  Then a third bolt struck close to me while I was struggling with Dobbs, who cried like a baby and was calling for his mother.  I couldn't make him realize what had happened.  Other bolts followed striking here and there on neighboring buttes, and I was with a dead man and a lunatic on my hands, and no help so far as I knew within a dozen miles, and the mountain wild with storm."

While Saunders survived the ordeal, I wish the same could be said of his legacy.  For unless one is a botanist with an obsessive interest in the history of all botanists from yesteryear, or an intrepid hiker such as yours truly, obsessively interested in the history of his local mountains, the name, Charles Francis Saunders, will inevitably elicit blank stares.  And yet his naturalist's prose could be just as poetic, just as impressive (though rarely as reflective or philosophical), as John Muir's — that eccentric and wildly vivacious mountain man who danced barefoot all night long in the snow one night in order to stay alive, and to this day remains universally known.  Which as far as criticism goes, is like claiming Maxim Gorky wasn't as great or influential a writer as Tolstoy.  Yet as much as I identify with and respect the profound legacy of John Muir, I much prefer reading Charles Francis Saunders, because the mountains Saunders traveled, I too have traveled extensively.  What were known as "trail resorts" in Saunders' time —essentially backcountry bed-and-breakfasts run by hearty Mom-and-Pops, accessible only by hiking in or riding horseback, their rustic accommodations constructed from the sun bleached bones and exposed ligaments of weathered wilderness itself — are now the eroded foundations of stone cottages, fascinating ruins that I have set up camp upon numerous times for a night in the woods.  Fancy that — the exact spot where I've hammered tent spikes into the ground, Charles Francis Saunders lodged in cozy comfort, a century ago.

Consider forested Orchard Camp, the former "trail resort" in the hulking shadow of Mount Wilson, a mere three miles north of, by historic footpath, the encroaching mansions of Sierra Madre's, Arcadia's, and Glendora's arson-prone canyon cul-de-sacs; imagine a night there under oaks and alders and the spell of a sylvan stream, reading what Charles Francis Saunders wrote about Orchard Camp by candlelight, in the mosquitoey hologram of your flashlight. . . .

I have.

Orchard Camp: Then
Orchard Camp: Now