For the first time in 130 years, forest lovers might once again ride public transit into the Angeles National Forest, a vast area of mountains, hiking trails, creeks and pine-shaded picnic grounds that make up almost three-quarters of Los Angeles County’s open space.
Because the only way to reach the 700,176-acre green space towering above Los Angeles is by car. Access is denied to underserved county residents who don’t own a car or have no access to a private vehicle.
To change that, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, presented the nonprofit Nature For All a check for $995,000 on Aug. 28 to begin planning and building the Mount Wilson Express Shuttle, a van or bus service starting from the Metro L Line (Gold) Memorial Park Station in Old Pasadena and connecting to western forest locations.
It is the most money received by the nonprofit in a single grant. Chu also placed a request for $750,000 in the 2023 House of Representatives appropriations bill, which would raise the shuttle program’s funding to $1,745,000, if approved.
Early plans call for a regular, weekend shuttle that will take passengers on the 210 Freeway to Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2), with forest stops at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, the Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center at Red Box, Clear Creek Information Center, and trailheads at Eaton Saddle, Colby Canyon and Gould Mesa, explained Bryan Matsumoto, program manager for Nature For All.
Bryan Matsumoto, program manager for Nature For All, Rep. Judy Chu and Daniel Rossman of The Wilderness Society step off the first test pilot of the proposed Mt. Wilson Express shuttle in the Angeles National Forest on Aug. 28, 2022. Preliminary planning is underway to develop this transit route to connect Los Angeles residents via the Metro Rail system to the San Gabriel Mountains. (photo courtesy of Nature For All).
“It would be a multi-stop route that will give the public a lot of options,” he said. “It won’t only serve the hard-core hiker. You can bring your family for a picnic at Switzer or folks can go to the observatory where they have the Cosmic Cafe.” The observatory also has been holding classical music concerts.
The observatory telescopes were used by astronomer Edwin Hubble to first observe and prove that the universe was expanding. A Hubble Telescope exhibit at the observatory museum ends on Sunday, Sept. 18.
The shuttle service will not be as dramatic as the first public transit venture into the San Gabriel Mountains, namely the Mount Lowe Railway, which operated in Altadena from 1893 until 1936.
The winding train trolley ride hugged the side of the mountain, as white-knuckled passengers clung to the seats and electric cars climbed from the San Gabriel Valley floor to resorts and picnic spots high up in the forest’s front range at Echo Mountain.
“We are talking about creating L.A.’s first public transit to the San Gabriel Mountains since the Mt. Lowe Railway more than 125 years ago,” said Matsumoto. “They managed to do this in 1893, and that included constructing funiculars up the mountain! Surely we can get a bus.”
Long process ahead
But starting the first public transit system in more than a century to reach into the federal forest will not be easy.
First, Matsumoto said the group must hire a design firm to plan the route and design the shuttle stops. These would include benches, shelters and new way-finding signs. Any new structures built in the federal forest must be approved by the U.S. Forest Service. The shuttle would have to get the okay from Caltrans and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, as well as foothill cities, he said.
After designs are created, they’ll get public input from hiking, biking and environmental groups as well as local cities. With approvals in hand, they will have enough money to run a pilot shuttle for about a month, he said. Operations would start around 2025, he said.
Since the Congressional grant is only for capital projects, the nonprofit will need additional funds to operate the van or bus service, he said. The group is talking to the city of Pasadena and LA Metro, and is seeking state grant dollars.
“Adding shuttle stops in the forest creates a whole new element,” he said, and would be a first for the Angeles National Forest and the adjoining San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. The group is patterning the shuttle plan after those in Zion National Park and Yosemite National Park, he said. But since this is a national forest and not a national park, funding for new ventures is scarce, he said.
“This is L.A.’s forest and L.A.’s national monument. But these are not funded at that level because the U.S. Forest Service is not very well funded,” he said. Often, the USFS relies on corporate donations and partnerships with nonprofit groups to raise money, undertake trail repairs and add amenities.
Starts and stops
Some smaller, short-lived van service projects have come and gone.
The city of Duarte began running a regular shuttle from the Duarte Gold Line Station to the Fish Canyon Trailhead north of the city in April 2016. It ran until a fire scorched the canyon and damaged the trail, closing the trail and putting an end to the shuttle service in June 2016.
FILE — Hikers take a shuttle bus back to Encanto Park in Duarte after hiking Fish Canyon Saturday, April 19, 2008. (File photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)
A shuttle from Pasadena’s Memorial Park train station ran for six months that same year, taking forest visitors to the base of the Sam Merrill Trailhead at the north end of Lake Avenue at a site known as the Cobb Estate. That was funded by Edison International who gave $12,000; city of Pasadena, $12,000; and Los Angeles County, $48,000.
A third shuttle began in September 2016 running from the Arcadia Gold Line Station to Chantry Flat, a popular forest hiking spot with a single, overcrowded parking lot that leads to trails that head to Sturtevant Falls, Hermit Falls and even Mount Wilson.
None of them operate now. But many say these so-called “test shuttles” proved that the service could be done and that there was a great interest, although some neighbors in Pasadena complained about shuttle noise.
“The experience you get sitting on the shuttle, talking to other hikers and focusing on nature as you ride up a mountain highway, is just more fun,” said Daniel Rossman, California deputy director of The Wilderness Society. Rossman is also a member of the San Gabriel Mountains Community Collaborative, which supports mass transit that would circulate in the forest and the monument.
Rossman said the Collaborative helped write the monument’s master plan, which cites better transportation as a priority. But the group knew that the Forest Service would not fund the larger system. However, his group is working with the U.S. Forest Service and other partners on restarting the Chantry Flat shuttle, he said.
“We support development of a shuttle for the Angeles National Forest, and it is definitely consistent with the presidential proclamation for the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument,” said the Forest Service in an emailed response.
Nature For All would like to add a shuttle service line that connects with the Azusa L Line station and travels up Highway 39, the main forest entrance route. They’ve tentatively designed several routes as part of the Los Angeles-San Gabriel Mountains Urban Shuttle System. But funding is the big issue.
Seen but not touched
Almost 50% of Los Angeles County is considered “underparked” and one of the most park-poor regions in the country, said Chu in her remarks during the check ceremony in August.
“Access to the San Gabriels cannot be restricted to just those who have a car and can drive to a trailhead or camping area,” she said. “To make these mountains truly open for everyone, we need to connect them to everyone.”
Matsumoto, who grew up in Temple City, says he always saw the mountains yet never visited them until he was an adult and a friend took him to Chantry Flat. Many people from South L.A., southeast L.A. County and parts of eastern Los Angeles have never experienced the cool weather, dark canyons and rushing streams of the Angeles National Forest.
“Like most people, I was able to look up and see the mountains — but no one ever took me to see the mountains. My dad just called them ‘the hills,’ ” Matsumoto said.
When he was hiking in Chantry Flat, his senses were opened to a natural park space he’d never experienced. “I was so shocked. This had been here my whole life? This, the wild rivers and cute stone cabins?”
He envisions families from East L.A,. Highland Park and Koreatown taking a Metro subway or light rail to Union Station, then transferring to the L Line to the Pasadena station to connect with the forest shuttle.
He remembers President Barack Obama’s words when he came to the San Gabriels in October 2014 to dedicate the national monument, a 346,177 swath of protected federal land that overlaps with the Angeles National Forest, stretching from Castaic to Telegraph Peak above Upland.
Obama envisioned the monument as connecting more people of color and families of lower socio-economic status to nature, and suggested improving transportation into the monument as a means of social justice.
“President Obama said something like ‘It is not enough to see these beautiful mountains, you have to access them,’” Matsumoto said.
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