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Southern California's ten most controversial hikes

Barbed wire around the Hemet Maze Stone
Barbed wire around the Hemet Maze Stone
David Lockeretz

The presence of many spectacular natural areas so close to a city as big as Los Angeles is a double-edged sword. Though L.A. is not often associated with nature, the diverse topography surrounding the city--ranging from ocean to deserts to forests to mountains towering over 10,000 feet--fosters many great opportunities to explore the outdoors. With these resources, however, come challenges. Because so many natural parks, trails and other recreational destinations in the L.A. area are so easily accessible, they are also easily victimized by irresponsible visitors whose behavior jeopardizes the enjoyment and safety of themselves and others. With news stories about fires, missing hikers and fatal canyoneering accidents seeming more and more common, people who otherwise might want to explore nature might find themselves deterred.

This list profiles ten hiking destinations in the L.A. area that, for one reason or another, have infamous reputations. Some of these hikes can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. Some travel near--or through--private land and have histories of conflicts between the property owners and the public. Some have been inundated with trash and graffiti and consequently have had access curtailed--or, in extreme cases, cut off altogether. This list has two purposes: first to provide accurate information about these hikes and perhaps to dispel some urban myths associated with them and second to help Angelenos appreciate the luxury of having a climate that supports year-round recreation and many excellent outdoor areas to explore. The Santa Monica Mountains, Angeles National Forest and all of the rest of the Southern California outdoors are ours to lose.

10) Hemet Maze Stone

Not so much a controversy as an oddity, this petroglyph-carved rock sits northwest of the city of Hemet in Riverside County. Just how long ago the mazes were carved into the rock, or who did it, is a matter of debate. Sadly, two barbed-wire fences encircle the rock, making it difficult to get a good view. Other than a swastika etched on the rock, it shows little sign of defacement. While the website describes the area as "neglected and somewhat dangerous", the stone and the road leading to it are currently under the jurisdiction of Riverside County Parks and Recreation. Though the area gets hot during the summer and the hike is on an abandoned paved road, it's short enough that it can be done year-round.

9) Acorn Trail

This steep hiking trail in the eastern end of the Angeles National Forest links the town of Wrightwood with the Pacific Crest Trail. Because of its location on private land, a half-mile walk on a paved road is required to reach the trail head. While there have been reports of conflicts between property owners in the area and hikers, by following the directions listed in the link, you should be fine.

8) Anacapa Island

Anacapa doesn't make the list because of any political or safety-related controversy surrounding it. Anacapa Island--as is the case with the other four islands in the Channel Islands National Park--can be, depending on your expectations and preparations--a very enjoyable or a very unpleasant experience. The islands offer virtually no resources for tourists. Everything packed in must be packed out. The smaller islands, such as Anacapa, do not have running water or shade trees. The boat ride across the Santa Barbara Channel can be rough. That said, for hikers who want a true sense of isolation, the Channel Islands National Park is a unique and special place. Spring is the best time to visit Anacapa, when the giant coreopsis flowers bloom so brightly that they can sometimes be seen from the mainland, twelve miles away.

7) Galster Wilderness Park

This seemingly innocuous park, smack in the middle of a suburban Covina neighborhood, has a reputation as a hot spot for paranormal activity. While the park suffers from graffiti and trash--and while would-be ghost hunters supposedly sneak into the park after sunset through a hole in the fence--it can be an enjoyable place to walk or hike if you're in the area. A short but steep climb up a ridge yields great views of the San Gabriel Valley and Puente Hills.

6) Bonita Canyon Falls

In the eastern end of the San Gabriel Mountains, Bonita Canyon Falls roars through a canyon, towering about 150 feet. Beyond this lower tier are two more, and the total height of all three is said to be over 500 feet, making it So Cal's tallest waterfall. Sadly, this potentially spectacular site is covered in graffiti, though at least some of it does help with navigation (the short hike from Lytle Creek Road to the waterfall is entirely off trail.) Still, Bonita is a sorry example of why sometimes we just can't have nice things.

5) Fish Canyon Falls

Also in the San Gabriel Mountains, Fish Canyon Falls is the stuff of So Cal hiking legend. The 90-foot waterfall is a show-stopper, especially during wet winters and springs--but because access to it has been blocked by the Vulcan Materials quarry. This led to the 1998 construction of a trail bypassing the quarry--by climbing about 1,500 feet up the side of a hill and dropping back into the canyon. Thankfully, as of June 21st, 2014, access has been restored the original, easier trail. Fish Canyon Falls' fate--at least so far--has been fortunate, although there are other waterfalls in the San Gabriel Mountains that have not been as lucky.

4) Castro Crest

Castro Peak (elevation 2,824 feet) is the highest point in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains and the fifth tallest summit in the whole range. However, the owner of the radio towers on the summit, James A. Kay, Jr., has not only blocked off public access to the peak but has engaged in ongoing legal battles with the park service and other entities. It was once possible to do a scenic loop through Upper Solstice Canyon, utilizing the Backbone Trail and the Castro Motorway. Now hikers most content themselves with an out and back trip on the Backbone portion of the loop.

3) Eaton Canyon

The recent death of a high school senior--the fifth Eaton Canyon fatality in the last two years--has put this hike near Pasadena in the spot light. The lower waterfall in the canyon, which can be reached with little effort, is one of Southern California's most popular hiking destinations. A second waterfall farther up in the canyon, requiring skill and expertise to reach, is also popular--but has claimed lives. Following the most recent tragedy, Eaton has been officially closed above the first waterfall, but whether hikers will respect this ruling remains to be seen.

2) Black Star Canyon Falls

Located in a remote corner of Orange County, Black Star Canyon Falls is one of So Cal's most popular--and notorious--hiking destinations. The unusually shaped waterfall, which has water flowing through a man-made mine shaft, has long captured the imagination of hikers, but the area is also the subject of many cautionary tales, ranging from paranormal sightings to gang activity and crime to confrontations between hikers/bikers/equestrians and land owners. While the hike is challenging--and poison oak in the canyon is a major obstacle--common sense and decent planning will likely make your trip to Black Star an enjoyable and successful experience. The road to the canyon does go through private land but it is on an easement in the Cleveland National Forest, so as long as you focus on your destination you should not have any problems with the nearby land owners. As with most hikes, hiking in groups during daylight is recommended. As for allegations of the paranormal - perhaps we'll leave that discussion for another time.

1) Sapphire Falls

The most controversial--and most unfortunate--of all Southern California hiking destinations is this waterfall in the Angeles National Forest foothills north of Rancho Cucamonga. For years Sapphire Falls, a series of cascades and swimming holes, was a scenic and understandably popular place to escape the notorious summer heat of the Inland Empire. Unfortunately the canyon below the waterfall became the target of vandals, prompting the city of Rancho Cucamonga to block public access, requiring a more difficult hike up a ridge and down to the uppermost waterfall. From there, intrepid hikers could venture down canyon, navigate the waterfalls and climb up the steep walls and back to the main road, completing a loop. However, that approach has since been closed as well so legal access to Sapphire Falls has been suspended indefinitely. In addition to the concerns of graffiti, trash and disruptive behavior in the residential neighborhood, Sapphire Falls has also attracted notoriety due to several deaths of hikers who underestimated the difficulty of negotiating the waterfalls. Like Bonita Canyon Falls, Sapphire Falls could potentially be one of the most attractive spots in the San Gabriel Mountains and hopefully its proximity to the suburbs will one day be an asset, not a liability. Perhaps the story of Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, which was once similarly smothered with trash and graffiti but has since been cleaned and re-opened to the public, might be repeated with Sapphire Falls. Whether that happens, Los Angeles hikers can serve themselves and others well by respecting the land, taking the appropriate precautions and appreciating the luxury of having so many wonderful hiking trails so close by.

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