Friday, February 6, 2015

Road Trip: Sierra Madre, CA

The faces of everyone in the car were tense and screwed into all manners of of contortions. White knuckles were visible in my peripheral vision as my passengers gripped the handles scattered throughout the cabin. Not a word was spoken as I danced the nose-heavy sedan down the twisty canyon road, deftly dodging small patches of slippery sand and oncoming cars to make it into the relative safety of the freeway where everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. It is hard to imagine that not three hours ago, we had been strolling down the few blocks that comprise the tiny town of Sierra Madre, set in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. As we pulled the car into a parking spot just outside of Pasadena city hall, the adrenaline having drained from my system, I reflected on the rather eclectic day that had just passed.

Billed as a modern town with all the charms of a bygone era, the small center of Sierra Madre houses a number of artist galleries and local restaurants along with the obligatory Starbucks. Walking around on a quiet Monday at noon, there were hardly any people, giving the town a quaint character. Architecture is largely composed of buildings with restored facades from all throughout the last century and someone had kindly parked their classic Generation 1 Corvette along the street to lend that extra air of authenticity to the small town feel. With the warmth of the sun cutting through the autumn air, we sat outside of a small local restaurant and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, settling into the rather lackadaisical pace of life that seemed to be the norm.

The only problem with visiting such a small town is that it does not take much time to visit all of the little shops, which seem to carry the same handful of curios along with a few unique items. While we did not spend a ton of time in the stores, only a couple hours of walking around and we had seen what we were interested in seeing in town, so we took the opportunity to go for a hike out at nearby Sturtevant Falls. It was, of course, this decision that led us to drive up Chantry Flat Road, a winding two lane highway that leads up to the Adams Pack Station from Sierra Madre. Going up, I kept the pace a bit more sedate as the road was unfamiliar.

We parked the car at the pack station and started the roughly 4 miles hike down to the falls along a well marked trail. On both sides of the trail, as we followed the Santa Anita Wash, cabins dotted the landscape. A quick bit of research uncovered that these are cabins that are privately owned and are available for rent as vacation homes. Some of the cabins look to be in fantastic shape, with modern looking amenities, while others were a bit rougher and likely would offer a more rustic feel. Either way, it was pretty cool to see how people had updated or decorated their cabins and it did appear that a few people were around and staying in them during this fine autumn weekday.

The trail descends quickly from Chantry Flat and while generally pretty easy, does offer a bit of elevation change and at least one slightly precarious crossing of Santa Anita Wash. Still, it was a peaceful hike, with many opportunities to enjoy the scenery of the mountains and the crisp fall air kept us alert and moving. As we neared the falls, the landscape changed from the hard-packed dirt and dense covering of trees to loose rock and a much thinner canopy. Given that Southern California is still under drought conditions, we had been told not to expect much of the falls, which turned out to be a good thing because it set our expectations pretty low. As we arrived, a gentle flow of water splashed down about 30 or 40 feet of rock face to land in a wading pool just a couple of feet deep. Other hikers sat and caught their breath as at least one dog splashed around in the water. It certainly was not anything impressive, but it felt nice to just relax a few moments and enjoy the view.

As we were unprepared to hike in the dark, we did not stay long and started our return hike, which felt significantly shorter, despite being a lot more of an uphill climb. By the time we returned to the car, the sun was just starting to set off in the distance. A bit hungry from the long walk, I jumped behind the wheel of the Sonata and hustled it at a brisk pace down the mountain, feeling confident in my abilities to dodge any obstacles that might present themselves. Of course, this made for a much more hair-raising experience for my passengers, even though I was keeping myself to within a few miles per hour of the speed limit. On a day when there are few cars, this rather short stretch of road must be great fun to do on a motorcycle and there was at least one group of cyclists we had passed on the way up who seemed to be enjoying themselves as well.

Hidden gems like Sierra Madre, which is an otherwise unassuming bedroom community that probably feeds into the employment bases of nearby Pasadena and the slightly further away Los Angeles, can be amazing places to visit, especially when there are fewer people around. They offer a lot in the way of unique character and while small, frequently offer opportunities for other activities nearby, such as the hike to Sturtevant Falls. The fact that it is in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains certainly does not hurt as it provides access to roads that would be fun on two or four wheels. It is places like this that remind me of why Southern California is such an amazing place to live for those of us who love to ride and drive.