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Fall Colors: Visit the Aspens of the San Gorgonio Wilderness

Photo by David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in LA
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By David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in LA / Special to LAistHow about a trip to Aspen this weekend? Even better, you don't have to get on the plane or pack your skis or fight your way through the crowds at an overpriced hotel.

There's only one condition, however. You won't be in Aspen, Colorado, but right here in southern California. In the San Gorgonio Wilderness, near Big Bear Lake, a rare grove of quaking aspens provides spectacular colors in October. It's unusual to see the trees this far south, but with a long drive and a short hike, residents of the L.A. area can do just that.

Named for Southern California's tallest mountain, the San Gorgonio Wilderness is the type of forest land that many assume they have to travel to the Sierras to see. With no paved roads and virtually no signs of civilization, the large area provides peace, quiet and natural scenery of the kind at few associate with life in L.A.

The grove can be reached by driving 33 miles northeast on highway 38 from Redlands. Look for an unsigned dirt road near mile marker 33.48, turn right and drive 1.3 miles. (The road is usually in decent condition and should be passable for most vehicles.) Turn right on the next dirt road, signed 1N05, and continue 1.6 miles to the parking area. A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 for the year) and a free wilderness permit, both available at the Mill Creek Ranger Station on the way up, are required for parking here.

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From the lot, head downhill, cross Fish Creek and enter the wilderness. On the other side of the stream, the trail splits. The left fork heads toward Fish Creek Meadows and ultimately San Gorgonio Mountain, and makes a very enjoyable excursion, no matter how far you go. The right fork is how to reach the aspens. A short walk will bring you to the grove.

There are several other short hiking trips in the San Gorgonio Wilderness that are well worth taking, and the Adventure Pass will allow you to park at these trail heads too. Farther southwest on highway 38, the Ponderosa and Whispering Pines trails, less than a mile each, are located on opposite sides of the road. A short drive brings you to Jenks Lake. Down the hill, in the tiny community of Forest Falls, a half-mile round trip hike brings you to Big Falls, one of Southern California';s tallest year-round waterfalls. On the other end of the spectrum, the wilderness also offers many challenging hikes, including the 12-mile round trip to Dry Lake, the 16-mile climb to San Bernardino Peak, and San Gorgonio Mountain itself.

Who needs Colorado?