Here’s a 200-mile-roundtrip sojourn where you can discover for yourself how, in Southern California, you can drive along a Mojave Desert highway, past landscapes of Joshua trees, tumbleweed and roadside diners so vivid in their isolation and blazing light that painter David Hockney memorialized them in watercolors; yet within half an hour, following the same road, you’ll find yourself by a pine-forest lake, gazing out over snowcapped mountains.
And it can all be done in one day on one tank of gas. You could take a picnic lunch — there are gorgeous places to lay out a spread — or stop at some exotic places to eat en route. (To be law-abiding, if you picnic in the Angeles National Forest, you need to purchase a day pass at any ranger station.) Start by heading north toward Sunland along the San Fernando Valley’s Vineland Avenue. (From Pasadena, take the 210 west to Sunland Boulevard, which is the northeastern extension of Vineland, then proceed along the boulevard toward the mountains.)
In Sunland, you’ll find remnants of an agricultural past yielding to new apartment houses and condos, one-story storefronts and a dense array of fast-food outlets. Watch for the Jack in the Box on your left, which adjoins Oro Vista Avenue, where you make a left (to the north). A narrow residential street will take you to the base of the Big Tujunga Wash. This route follows the water — even in the desert, the roads adjoin the California Aqueduct — so that the mountain vistas are about as lush as any in the county. Oro Vista shoehorns right into Big Tujunga Canyon Road, which slithers into the Angeles National Forest, then across two bridges, past waterfalls and the river below. The Canyon Road keeps climbing to the intersection of Angeles Forest Highway, where, less than an hour from Hollywood, all you can hear are bird song, the wind, a running creek and the occasional distant jet.
A left onto Angeles Forest Highway takes you north on a winding path down the mountain into a meadow. Go slowly when you enter a tunnel, because, after emerging, immediately to your left is a picnic area called Hidden Springs. A 100-foot trail takes you down to a creek bed, where you can swim or wade.
Resuming north along the Angeles Forest Highway, you’ll soon come to a quaint diner on your left called Hidden Springs Cafe. It’s been a family-owned business for 40 years, and you might find one of the family, Jim, standing in the middle of the horseshoe counter, wiping it down. Jim serves up a pretty good hot dog, plus burgers and melts, coffee and sodas. For barbed-wire fans, there hangs a framed display of different barbed-wire samples.
Jim said that in the early days, customers were sparse — hikers and fishermen and the occasional prospector. Then came the bikers, who still hang out at the café. But since the housing boom in Palmdale and Lancaster, the Forest Highway has become a route for 3,000 cars a day crossing the mountains between the Antelope and San Gabriel valleys. Jim’s not complaining about the business that’s landed at his doorstep.
You’ll notice the landscape getting drier as you wind north over Mount Gleason, then down into the Antelope Valley, a magnet, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, for homesteaders and, a century earlier, a trade route for the Serrano, Gabrieleno, Mojave and Chumash Indians. When the road straightens, hang a right at Mount Emma Road and a right at the first stop sign, where Cheseboro Road will take you to the old Littlerock Dam, completed in 1924, with its scenic reservoir used for fishing, boating and swimming. You can also find the dam in two Roy Rogers flicks: The Far Frontier (1948) and Bells of Colorado (1950).
Return to Mount Emma Road and make a right (resuming east), then make a left on 87th Street. At State Highway 138 (the Pearblossom Highway), turn left. About two blocks along on your right is the Valley’s most famous emporium, Charlie Brown Farms, where you can get just about any chocolate-covered sweet or nut, plus honeycombs, ostrich eggs, ceramic cows, talking presidential dolls (push his belly button and Bush Sr. says, “Read my lips”), Confederate-flag pins emblazoned with “redneck,” hot chili in a loaf, and bottles of root beer and cream soda manufactured by Rat Bastard, Vernors, Sioux City, Sparky’s, Moxie and Sarsaparilla, among other, lesser-known brands.
Head back east on the Pearblossom Highway (the direction you just came from), out of Littlerock and into Pearblossom. Hidden past the Alliance Truck Stop on the left is the junction on the right for 126th Street. Make a right and follow the road to Avenue W, turn left and the road turns into Valyermo Road and takes you to the driveway of St. Andrew’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery that relocated to California in 1955 after the original abbey, founded in 1929 by a Belgian monk in China, was evicted by the Communists in 1952. The grounds are beautiful, with olive and peach groves and a garden that’s, well, heavenly.
About a half-hour southeast along Valyermo Road, after having merged onto Big Pines Highway, you’ll find yourself winding back up into the San Gabriels. There’s a glorious pit stop on the right at Jackson Lake, which freezes in the winter and provides boating and swimming in the summer. You’ll eventually ascend to the intersection of State Highway 2 (Angeles Crest Highway). Make a right, keep climbing, and, past the 7,300-foot-altitude sign, pull off the road into the first siding for Grassy Hollow Recreation Center. It’s a big parking lot, two restrooms and a trail head. Hike up that trail for about 200 feet, and on your left you’ll find the pinnacle of this trip, the most spectacular park bench in Southern California.
From this bench, above the clouds, you look south over a cliff’s edge, across the highway, onto a mountain vista including the north side of majestic Mount Baldy, seasonally snowcapped, and down into the Blue Ridge Canyon — which indeed contains a bluish haze and often a blanket of fog.
Returning down Highway 2, you’ll descend into Wrightwood, which has one upscale restaurant (the Blue Ridge Inn) and a novelty shop, plus a couple of bars and diners. Beyond Wrightwood, make a right onto Lone Pine Canyon Road, which offers a back-road exit from the town and plunges you at a 10-degree grade, straight shot down the mountain, from forest to desert, past the cathedral-like Vasquez rocks, named for a 19th-century outlaw who hid there for 20 years. A right on Highway 138 takes you to the 15 freeway, where you’re 90 minutes from downtown L.A. The landscape’s transformation to the city is a history lesson — from rustic canyons, past abandoned 20th-century vineyards and the tractors that continue to tear them up for sparkling mega-suburbs, earth-toned gated commuter communities of identical two-story homes. Looming signs for Lowe’s and Home Depot, like church spires, announce the shopping centers that serve these sprawling new empires.