03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Angeles Crest Highway Reopens: A Bittersweet Trip Through The Barren San Gabriel Mountains

Just three months after the devastating Station fire scorched 160,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest, one of the main roads through the mountains is now open. Angeles Crest Highway, or State Highway 2, is a popular road for Los Angeles city dwellers to make a quick trip into nature and to hiking trails into the forestland. The road is also a favorite of motorcyclists, of which I'm one.

The second day it was open I hopped on my Ducati Monster and headed for the hills. The mountain road starts in La Canada and winds its way up through the San Gabriel Mountains. My exuberance to again ride the twisty turns through nature was hard to contain. But as I rode over the smooth new blacktop and was stopped intermittently by dedicated Caltrans road crews and private construction workers who were putting the finishing touches on the asphalt, sorrow swelled up into my throat. The mountainsides are completely barren now. I had heard the fire had annihilated trees, shrubs and wild animals living along the highway, but until I saw it up close, I never imagined the immense toll it had actually taken. At each turn I hoped to see an oasis of green, but for the first ten miles of roadway there was nothing but charred trees and brown landscape.


Finally, at a popular hiking destination spot I saw trees and bushes unharmed deep in a ravine. They were at the start of the Switzer Falls trail. It is a favorite stop for families like ours, where the kids run along the trail and play near the creek. Then at Mount Wilson there were more living trees, because fire crews fought successfully to save the Mount Wilson Observatory and the trees around it.

Except for some new greenery sprouting up along a few stretches of roadway, there was mostly devastation the entire 27 miles to just before Newcomb's Ranch. Again, fire crews battling the Station Fire fought off flames there. The café is a popular stop for car travelers going to Wrightwood and for motorcyclists who often make the coffee shop and bar a destination.

That's where motorcyclists who've been driving the road for years ate lunch and shared their mixed feelings.

"I've never seen devastation like this," Jeff Ferrin told me. He'd ridden his Goldwing motorcycle up with friends from La Mirada. "In our life time, we'll never see it the same," he said.

"It's so sad to see the burned out trees," Ruth Pierce, of South Pasadena said, "It looks like a lunar landscape."

Wallis Esholar drove up from South Pasadena to Highway Two with Ruth on his Motoguzzi.

He said he's missed the quick access to the mountains during the three months the road was closed, calling it his paradise. He's optimistic because he saw sprouting green Manzanita shrubs in some burned out areas, saying it was, "a regeneration of life where there's been death."

If the Station fire is the Grinch that stole Christmas, than the tireless road crews are the Whos who helped return the spirit of holiday giving. The road is smoothly paved and there are new steel guard railings along the perilous edges. Crews worked around the clock to clear, repair, and renew the roadway. Driving back down the highway, state workers were still cutting and removing hundreds of burned trees alongside the roadway.

Chuck Wolfe, a motorcyclist from La Mirada, said, "It impresses me that the state spent the money to re-do the road. They're spending money where they should."


While the road is accessible, hiking trails are not. The trailheads are marked with signs describing dangerous conditions for hiking and stating that the trails are currently closed.

For the first time since 2001, when I began making trips to hike in these mountains with my family, I could see across all the mountain ranges. There were no heavy tree lines blocking my views. But often what I saw was more destruction from the fire across each valley where I looked.

All that being said, it was good to be back in those mountains so quickly after the fires took their toll. And it was good to be there with other nature enthusiasts and fellow motorcyclists who are optimistic about the forest's future. Some of nature's renewal has already begun. And human effort has already restored access to the mountains via Angeles Crest Highway. Angeles is after all, the Spanish word for angels.