A group of friends and I headed north into the mountains above Los Angeles to celebrate the 4th of July this year. After some basic research of campgrounds in the area, we decided to drive a bit farther away from the city in hopes of finding a secluded campsite away from the riff-raff at Buckhorn Campground in the Angeles National Forest. We had a really fun weekend mostly filled with relaxation and partying since I was nursing an IT band issue at the time, so no running for me that weekend.
Fast forward a month – Our trail running crew continues to grow and a fresh batch of trail runners were interested in exploring new sections of trails. I introduced the idea of heading back to Buckhorn to watch the Perseid meteor shower from the darkness of the Angeles National Forest while simultaneously exploring a bit of back-country trails.
I wiggled free of the shackles of corporate employment just before 5pm on Thursday. With just about 2:15 minutes of drive-time ahead of me, I knew I’d be fighting daylight while I set up camp.
When I arrived at Buckhorn, I was surprised how full it was. I thought for sure I would have beaten the rush up to the mountains by arriving on Thursday night, but alas, I was wrong. I’m unsure if it was the allure of the meteor shower or the waning summer vacation that caused the rush, but as I drove through the campsite surveying available sites in the glow of dusk, I was becoming worried there would be none.
Buckhorn campsite has a main street that takes you from the entrance of the campsite to the Buckhart Trail head and there are 3 small roads that branch off to access additional campsites – 36 in total. I was hoping to secure two sites because we had about 10 people confirmed and a couple of “maybes” coming up after work the next day. It became clear that finding two sites side-by-side was not going to happen, so I claimed the one of three available sites that had the most real estate – campsite 16.
As day turned to night, I began to unload the car and set up camp. With the guiding light of my brand new Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp, I popped my tent, unloaded the cooler, started a campfire, and cracked a cold one.
No longer than a hour after setting up camp, relaxing in my chair and staring into the flames of the campfire, the welcome surprise of a familiar Jeep drove past and shined a flashlight at me – it was my buddies Chris and Jenny!
I helped them unload as they set up camp, and we ate beneath the stars, sharing wine and stories and planning for the next day’s run – the Mt. Waterman Loop. Before long, it was bed time and we retired to our tents for some shut eye.
Friday morning we slept in a bit and got up for breakfast about 8am. We were planning on hitting the Mt. Waterman trail loop, a route which I had researched before heading up to camp and started and finished across Angeles Crest Hwy (Highway 2) from the Buckhorn Campsite entrance. It was a fun loop with some decent climbing and unique trails as you ascend the Mt. Waterman ski slopes past the lodge and into the Angeles wilderness. You can read about the Mt. Waterman Trail loop here.
We returned from our morning run around 11am. Chris and Jenny had to head back to Burbank to pick someone up from the airport, so I spent the afternoon relaxing around camp, stacking cairns around the site, reading a bit from John Muir’s “First Summer in the Sierras” and napping (and maybe enjoying a beer or two).
The weather was a bit warm this weekend, and driving up I quipped to myself, “this seems like fire weather.” When two more friends arrived at camp they informed me of a large plume of smoke that overpowered the horizon as they snaked their way up Angeles Crest. The smoke had just made it’s way over the hilltops and pine trees on the south eastern side of camp as they rolled up. I had initially thought it was a thunderhead building in the desert, but unfortunately that was not the case. The smoke built mightily over the next 20 minutes, to the point where we discussed breaking down tents and packing up cars in case the rangers were to evacuate the campsite. It seemed that the fire was very close, although we could not smell smoke.
Luckily, the rangers did not evacuate the campsite and we were able to set up their tents and settle into camp within the hour as we awaited the arrival of the rest of the gang.
Buckhorn campground is nestled below Angeles Crest Highway about 55 miles above La Canada Flintridge. This is a first-come-first-served campsite, so it behooves you to arrive earlier in the week to ensure a prime location. Other campers came and went over the course of the weekend. so there are definitely chances to grab a site as folks vacate.
The campsites along the periphery of the campgrounds offer the most privacy, but even those in the middle area are relatively secluded. Campsite 16, which we stayed at for this weekend, had neighboring sites to the right and left, as well as neighbors across the road, but we were able to enjoy ourselves without much noise and annoyance from other campsites. If anything, we may have been the rowdiest bunch on Friday night as the rest of the group trickled in and we played board games, played music, enjoyed some cocktails and sat around the fire.
Saturday morning a group of 4 of us set out to explore the Buckhart Trail to Cooper Canyon and PCT extension. I was familiar with sections of this trail, but had not run any part of the Buckhart or PCT into Cooper Canyon Campground. The beginning of the route was really nice and shaded as it descended to the PCT juntion. We hung a left here towards Cooper Canyon which left us rolling on an exposed section of the PCT, climbing 1,300 ft. over about 3.5 miles to Cloudburst Summit. At this point we decided to cross Angeles Crest and continue on the PCT (also the Silver Moccasin trail at this point) towards Three Points.
As the miles ticked off, the thermometer rose and I began to feel the ill effects of the previous evenings beverages.
We descended the next 2.5 miles down to Camp Glenwood, where we all agreed to turn around and make our way back to camp. We were 7.5 miles from camp at this point if we backtracked our route, but as we began the long and steady ascent of this rocky and exposed section of the PCT, my body decided it wasn’t having it. I was reduced to a hike/jog for most of that 2.5 mile climb back to Cloudburst Summit (7,018 ft. altitude). Playing the part of caboose in this trail train, we regrouped at Cloudburst and I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only one suffering. We all agreed to return to camp via Angeles Crest Hwy., effectively trimming 3 miles off our run and getting us back to food and water that much quicker.
Back at camp, we changed, ate, and relaxed for a bit before deciding to take a field trip to the Mt. Waterman Ski Lifts, which are open on weekends during summer months for visitors to explore the mountains summit, mountain bike, or play a risky round of disc golf on the mountain top (you’d better be a good shot or you’re not likely to see that disc again). It costs about $15 (if I remember correctly) for a ski lift day pass which provides you unlimited rides. Once we got to the top of the mountain, we meandered a bit and explored the all-but-defunct ski patrol huts, helipad, reservoir with frogs and tadpoles, and of course, got a beer at the lodge.
With temperatures in the mid to high 90’s, we decided to head back to camp in search of shade and relief from the sun. We played a rousing game of King’s Cup to jump start the party and had a grand old time.
Unfortunately, it was around this time that I fell pretty ill. I’m not one to have stomach issues often, and I rarely experience any altitude related issues, but I think a combination of a hangover, dehydration and some questionable food choices led me to retreat to my tent for an extended nap. That extended nap ended up lasting from about 6:30pm until 6am Sunday. I was clearly in need of some rest.
We took our time that morning enjoying some coffee before heading down the mountain to Red Box ranger station for the second run in the Fleet Feet Burbank Trail Series at Stawberry Peak. We ran and enjoyed the company of our fellow Fleet Feeters, then headed back to camp to break everything down.
As we did on our way back to Burbank from our first Buckhorn camping trip, we stopped at Newcomb Ranch for some delicious breakfast treats! This place is really great, though sometimes extremely crowded, and the servings are enormous. It’s definitely worth the stop there for the good food as well as the great photography of the San Gabriels along the walls. This place is a really popular stop for the motorcyclists that zip along the Crest every weekend.
All in all, this was a great weekend with good friends. Many of them had little camping experience before this, so it was a great way to introduce them to running in the wilderness and being self sufficient – an essential skill for the Fastpacker!