The title of Charles Francis Saunders' regional outdoor classic is a misnomer: The Southern Sierras of California refers not to the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains farther north in Central California, but to its lesser (elevation-wise) mountain nieces and nephews surrounding what have now, ninety-seven years removed from publication, become the greater Los Angeles / Inland Empire / and San Diego suburban megalopolis.
|The BIG SANTA ANITA HISTORICAL SOCIETY ed., 1984
Introduction by John W. Robinson
Saunders' Sierras include the following mountain ranges: The Santa Monicas above Point Mugu and Malibu; the San Gabriels (my favorite So. CA range) though now so fire gutted as to be nearly unhikable, including Mount Baldy, described aptly by Saunders as the "desert island in the sky," and it is (I've been to the top five times); the San Bernardinos, home to Big Bear and the largest population of year-round residents in any national forest in the United States, whose "Greyback" (San Gorgonio Mountain) towers over every mountain in the south half of the state (been to the top of it too!) at 11,502 feet, so high that it's the only mountain in So. CA whose snow melt forms a seasonal lake (a "tarn"); the San Jacintos south of Palm Springs; the Santa Rosas; and then the back country peaks in San Diego County, best represented around the rustic town of Julian.
That's a mouthful of mountains forming an aerial triangle-view over Southern California, stretching some two hundred miles in length. And Charles Francis Saunders, traveling on foot (sometimes horseback) wrote about every scenic nook and cranny of it, circa 1913, in The Southern Sierras of California.
Into San Andreas canyon he went (south of Palm Springs) and its hidden oasis of a waterfall framed by palms.
Up the water polished rocks and natural water slides of The Narrows in the East Fork of San Gabriel Canyon. Great place to skinny-dip, by the way, if you're still young, in the summer after a hot backpack in, in the refreshing boulder-walled swimming holes (though beware of rattlesnakes that swim!).
Along idling Malibu Creek in the heart of the Santa Monicas, trekked Saunders, the future site of several Hollywood film productions.
A harrowing journey to the top of "Greyback" during a thunderstorm -- with no place to hide -- a trip in which one member of the traveling party died:
"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." - from the Higher Peaks chapter.
Saunders "vacationed" also at most of the San Gabriel Mountains long forgotten "trail resorts," -- Camp Colby, in particular, Saunders writes about, where a hot home cooked meal and a bed and good company awaited the intrepid traveler. Only one such trail resort from the "Great Hiking Era" (1890s - 1930s) so popular among weekending Los Angelenos during Saunders' day, remains in operation, Sturtevant Camp. See this link for details: http://www.sturtevantcamp.org/
Saunder's prose is a bit more flowery than his more famous contemporary, John Muir (maybe because Saunders was a botanist?), but even though he's less poetic and philosophical than Muir, he was still a fine writer. If Muir was Leo Tolstoy, then Charles Francis Saunders was Ivan Turgenev. Apples and oranges.
If you're a hiking addict (as I once was) living in Southern California as I've lived here since I was a kid, how fascinating is it walking the same trails Saunders walked (and John Muir too) observing, based on his vibrant descriptions of the scenery, how little has changed in the undeveloped swaths of wilderness over a century. And it's just plain fun, also, exploring the stone block ruins and foundations of "trail resorts" from a bygone, almost forgotten era in Southern California History, in which Saunders, now a relatively unknown figure, overshadowed by outdoorsmen more famous than he, once slept and unwound from a long day on the trail. Days when the mountains around Los Angeles were as wild and isolated as the Alaskan wilderness.