The Southern Sierras of California by Charles Francis Saunders

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.

Introduction by John W. Robinson
In my teens and twenties I explored Saunders' Southern Sierras extensively, just about every weekend, whether it was up a remote canyon in search of a waterfall or abandoned mine shaft, following the tracks of "The Railway to the Clouds," visiting the ruins of "trail resorts," or huffing it to the summit of some obscure peak (like the top of Vetter Mountain, where I proposed to my then girlfriend (and now my wife) thirteen years ago, at sunset).

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:

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.


  1. Thanks so much for this review. I am almost the excact description of the person you are speaking of in your youth. Although not growing up in LA, I have made it my home and nearing my late 20s have fallen in love with the history of the trails I hike avidly. I was on the fence about this book b/c there was little description online,until I found your review. I think Im going to go ahead of fork over the extra dough for this older book. Sounds really interesting. Any other books on so cal moutain history you can recommend?!?!?! Ive been reading Mines of the San Gabriels and other John Robinson books that are quite good. As well as the Will Thrall biography. Any more would be great though?

  2. What a delightful comment you left, JDB!

    First, before forking over boo-koo bucks for the Saunders book, be sure and check if its being sold in our local national forest visitor centers, which is where I grabbed my paperback reprint for only $8, though granted that was back in the mid-'90s.

    What a charmed life to be in your 20s and exploring our mountains and their history!

    John Robinson, whom you mention, is by far the finest contemporary historian of our local, Southern California mountains. Nobody else comes close. Besides The Mines of the San Gabriels and other similar, slim volumes he's authored on the East Fork and Mount Wilson, his best works are the three beautiful coffee table sized books he's published:

    1. The San Bernardinos: The Mountain Country from Cajon Pass to Oak Glen; Two Centuries of Changing Use (1989)

    2. The San Gabriels: The Mountain Country from Soledad Canyon to Lytle Creek (1991)

    3. The San Jacintos: The Mountain Country from Banning to Borrego Valley (1993), co-authored with Bruce D. Risher and Elna Bakker.

    Those three, replete with their century-old photographs and histories of practically every relevant place name in our mountains, are musts.

    John Muir wrote a chapter in The Mountains of California of his excursion to Eaton Canyon Falls, right around the turn of the century, that is essential local reading too.

    If you ever run across anything by Walt Wheelock also, I suggest grabbing it. The name of the author who wrote a book titled something to the effect of "Railway to the Clouds" on the history of the development of Rubio Canyon/Echo Mountain incline & the Mt. Lowe Railroad, is also a must-have. I'm sure there's more but those are the ones I think of right off the bat.

    Your photography looks great, btw. I will spend some time on your blog for sure.

    Best to you!

  3. Cheers sir! Thank you for the insight into some different sources for mountain history. As much fun as it can be to wander the hills, I find knowledge of the history makes the outdoors much more enjoyable.

    I had been looking into a couple of those San Gabriel books and I had missed the San Jacinto one somehow. I felt strongly that these were some of the core history sources after reading some of the reviews. John Robison really has done a great job dividing and researching the mountains. I often am using his trails book to help find new adventures as well.

    The thin copies of the "Mining" books by Robinson are very intersting, but don't hold quite as much entertaining value. More facts taken from newspapers of the time about mining reports & how much has been taken out of the earth. Though interesting, not quite the fevered gold rush stories that come from first had prospectors. Combined with a good hiking book this makes for fun hunts through the mountains for the old mines.

    You may find the bio about Will Thrall entertaining. It gives amazing history about one mans particular connection to the San Gabriels and how he managed to open the LA community up to the mountains starting before 1900. Also being the founder of Trails magazine & a huge influcen in the "Great Hiking Era". The book at times is a little long winded, overly worded to fill parahraphs I felt, but still entirely engaging. Fun to read about his inertatctions with early settlers & being hired to record the census in the mountains.

    Have you looked into or read this book below that seems to cover all the so cal mountains, Call of the Moutain? The reviews seem to lean more towards coffee table photo book first, then detailed info about the past more so?

    Call of the Mountains: The Beauty and Legacy of Southern California's San Jacinto, San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains by Ann & Farley Olander

    Lastly, I heeded your advice and did some more searching for the Sauders book. I was able to find an old library copy that was used on the internet. Though not having the beautiful cover that is pictured on the net, it still holds all the terrific stories for about $20. Not too shabby.

    It looks like im going to be forking over about $20 to $30 for the other Robinson books, but I know it will be worth it once they are on the bookshelf at home. Thanks agian & thank you for the kind words on my blog. We get out quite often, so there will be more soon.

    Not sure if you & your family are still in the LA area, but about a year ago I recieved as a gift, one of the best books I ever got about the outdoors. It's called Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. These are neighborhood 'hikes' and walks with historical, architectural & just all around wonders of the LA city & hidden neihborhoods most citizens never knew existed. Some challenging and some relaxing, this has proven to be one of the most used, most bought by friends & touted among my others who I meet while out walking.

  4. Forgot to mention, I also found that excerpt of Muir writing you mentioned on a Yosemite page a while back, that was one of the original wirtings that got me researching further into the history. It was so fascinating to read about an account from his point of view.... if only there were more!

  5. I totally agree about how a knowledge of the history of these mountains makes venturing out into them a much more compelling pursuit.

    Trails of the Angeles was my main intro into the local mountains. Great guidebook, as I'm sure you know. Before that, I read John McKinney's column that used to appear in the L.A. Times every week. His column on Trail Canyon Trail and Condor Peak was my first hike way back when.

    Yeah, we're still local hereabouts, just a hop skip and a jump south of Mt. Baldy. I don't hike nearly as much as you anymore, but did make it out to the Devil's Punchbowl a couple weekends back. Beautiful country.

    You know I've had my eyes on that Will Thrall book but have never bitten on it for whatever reasons. It sounds great. I have that Call of the Mountains you mention, and I wouldn't recommend it at all if it's history you're after, as it's just a coffee table book with nice pictures. I will say it has a nice photo of Day Canyon, one of the canyons that drains the south face of Cucamonga Peak, that's interesting as it remains for me the most alluring, trail-less canyon left to explore in the range.

    The $$ you spend on the Robinson are indeed worth it. Just phenomenal amount of information you can't get anywhere else. Wouldn't it have been great to have been around during the Great Hiking Era? I had the good fortune of arriving at Sturtevant Camp one time when the grounds keeper was the only one around and he took me on an impromptu tour of the place. Said there used to be a road that went all the way up to the camp, and that he'd hiked it, bushwhacked it all the way, just because. That must've been 15 years ago. I've no idea how to access that old road or if it's still passable or not.

    Great talking to you! I've got another book at work I'll reference here soon. The name escapes me at the moment.

  6. It's been a few weeks and a few turns of the page. Thank you for your advice on possible choices, I ended up going with the San Gabriels: So Cal Mountain Country for the first purchase along with the Saunders book I found used at a good price. They have both exceeded my expectation with only reading a portion so far! Particularly glad I got the Saunders book.

    It is interesting to read them simultaneously b/c one is about the history of the mountains, while the other is an actual account of the very time and place. A bit too dorky for some of my friends when we hike, while others will smile at the stories I can tell them now.

    Lastly, there is a forum of great information on the San Gabriels, but I mainly wanted to share these two video that star John Robinson & are quite informative and entertaining. Both of them can be found here

    Hope all is well & enjoy the outdoors.

  7. Sounds like you'd make a fine trail guide with your "dorky" observations & knowledge of these mountains!

    Thank you for those videos! How cool is that. Next best thing to being there.

    Hope you're good too. Perhaps our paths will cross sometime out on the trails ...

    Meant to mention that last book I had at work ... it's called The Angeles Was Our Home: Recollections of Life on the Angeles National Forest by Norma Meacham Rowley.

    Take care,



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