Thursday, October 14, 2010

Non-Hike to the Aspen Grove

I'm pretty sure my total walking today (Thursday, October 14) was less than my arbitrary 3-mile cutoff for qualifying as one of my 100 hikes, so I'm not counting it. Today was mostly driving.

I'm still thinking about maybe trying to go back to Great Basin National Park for the aspen, but that IS a long drive, so the odds are diminishing. Instead, I took a shorter drive (still a good two hours) into the San Bernardino National Forest. There's a small remnant aspen grove in there, the southernmost in the United States.

To get here, I took I-10 east to CA-38/Orange Street (the first off-ramp after passing the 210 junction). Follow the signs for CA-38, turning where directed. Most of the way through Redlands, the speed limit is 40 mph.

CA-38 changes street names several times as it passes through Redlands and Mentone. After (roughly) eight miles, CA-38 veers to the left, heading into a canyon. Bryant Street splits to the right. The Ranger Station (open Th-M) is located here.

I inquired, and was told I didn't need a wilderness permit to visit the aspen grove. Technically, part of the aspen grove is within the San Gorgonio Wilderness, but I guess they figure it's a fuzzy line. But that's getting ahead of the story.

At the mouth of what I assume is Mill Creek Canyon, you're at about 2,000 feet. Over the next 30 miles or so, you rise above 7,000 feet. About 7 miles after Barton Flats Campground, after passing Jenks Lake and South Fork campgrounds, be on the lookout (on your right) for a sign directing you to Heart Bar campground and equestrian area. This is Forest Road 1N02. The pavement ends after less than 1/2 mile. Continue on the washboarded road until a split. An arrow points to 1N02 as being to your left. You want to turn right, towards Fish Creek. This is Forest Service Road 1N05, but that designation does NOT appear on the sign at the fork. For now, just look for the sign above.

After turning on to 1N05, the quality of the road soon diminishes. Nonethe- less, with care and low speed, it is still navigable by two-wheel drive passenger car. However, I imagine when there's weekend traffic, this gets a little hairier.

The road first dips as it crosses a streambed (dry when I went), then bends towards due west and climbs into the hills. I didn't measure the distance from the split, but eyeballing it on Google Maps suggests it's only a mile or so from the there (the split) to the parking area for Aspen Grove.

The actual walk is very brief. After about five minutes, you can already get some peeks at the aspen. Another five or ten minutes and you're there. Actually, you're at a small (in October) creek crossing. On the other side of the creek is a sign announcing entrance into the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

Technically, you need a wilderness permit to cross that river. However, since I specifically asked the person at the USFS Mill Creek Station whether I needed a wilderness permit and was told I did not, I pushed on ahead.

You don't need to go too far past that creek, because the aspen grove is very small. It's probably no more than 2 or 3 acres where the aspen are found. Amazing, and wonderful that they somehow managed to hang on in just this little corner of the San Bernardino National Forest. Several large conifers tower over them in spots, so you sort of figure that if "nature" is left to her own devices, the conifers will crowd out the aspen within a few hundred years, at most.

Conversely, some of the tall conifers are scarred by fire. It's my understanding that frequent fires would kill the conifers, while the aspen would quickly recover. Depending on the frequency of fires in the area, the aspen may survive somewhat longer.

There's a trail that runs parallel to the stream on the other side. This is probably Fish Creek trail, but I'm not sure. It also looks like you could catch this trail from down on CA38, which would add a mile or two of walking but would obviate the need for driving on a narrow an bumpy road. It would also make you feel like you earned the right to see the aspen grove, if you're into that way of thinking.

However, I'm not too happy with the way the Forest Service publicizes (or does not publicize) trails in this area, so I'm not sure about accessing the aspen grove via an alternative route.

After getting back to my car, I returned the way I came. Mine was the only passenger car I saw on this road, but, as I said, it was doable. Wouldn't want to have been forced to backup if I ran into on-coming traffic, and I wouldn't have wanted to do this drive in twilight. But in good light, avoiding the occasional boulder or eroded section of road was not difficult.

After returning to CA38, I stopped a few times at some nature trails along the highway, and at an unsigned ravine. In most ravines, sycamore (I think) were also in full autumn color. There were also some nice views of the San Bernardino National Forest at the turnouts.

Once you get back to the Mill Creek ranger station, a sign indicates you're just eight miles from Oak Glen, one of my favorite weekend "getaways." Well, it's not so much a place to get away to as a place to get massive and tasty apple pies and fresh pressed cider. Well, and apples, too, if you want your fruit completely unprocessed!

I mention this because I love their apple pie and cider, but also because this "hike" alone is too short to make the long drive from the LA area worthwhile. You can combine it with a drive on into Big Bear, or back down towards Oak Glen, or even on over to San Manuel Indian Casino. What ever your taste in entertainment, there are choices available out this way.

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