When I moved to California from Louisiana over 25 years ago, I found solace hiking the Garcia Trail – a trail that leisurely swirls along the foothills behind my house and connects the City of Azusa to the San Gabriel National Monument. Over the years, I discovered that the architect who designed our dining room intentionally placed a row of long, narrow windows sky high so inhabitants could quickly spot a bright white cross at the top of the foothill and also watch hikers as they traveled through a narrow and dense chaparral passage.
From our dining room I’d witness morning hikers in joyful exuberance as they reached the top, their ebullient echoes cascaded down the hill – so loud they could be heard even under the bright lights of our chandelier!
Back at the trailhead, a small handmade wooden camp sign with “Garcia Trail” and an arrow can be found. It’s hidden behind a thick planting of Thuja plicata (Western Cedar), Cedrus deodara (Deodar Cedar), Pinus canariensis (Canary Island Pine), Lantana sellowiana (Creeping Lantana) and thorny Bougainvillea ‘Monka’ (Oo-La-La™ Bougainvillea) – a line-up following the slopes along the first switchback.
Photo by Brian Altmeyer / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Further along hikers are met by thick brush of fragrant native plants like, Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon), assorted Ceanothus (California Lilac) and Rhus ovata (Coffeeberry). These bushy plants offer the only shady refuge along the southern side of the sunny and hot foothill. Continuing up the trail, the fire road shrinks into a slippery and steep gravel-laden single lane. The trail becomes regularly worn from all of the constant foot traffic and water flow during the year.
Yet, the white cross at the trail top – perhaps with visions of God beckoning from the distance – seems to help motivate plenty of hikers ever upward. Regarding more earthly concerns: firemen can be seen regularly using the trail for endurance training, so I like to believe there are always earthly angels nearby.
This past Friday, I found myself pondering whether the Garcia Trail is used by the same mountain lion that was spotted in a tree across the street from the local park close by. Occasionally hunters can also be found on the trail; I’ve wondered after crossing paths if they thought we were dinner or just in the way. Into late summer bears, snakes, tarantulas, bobcats, skunks, raccoons, or even coyotes spook/thrill hikers along the trail.
During these instances where a hiker confronts wildlife, who goes first, you or the coyote? I imagine freezing up and whispering to my hiking companion, “What should we do next?” Probably the best advice is to take a deep breath, pause for a moment…then just walk/run down the hillside.
I will never forget when a prospective wealthy neighbor purchased a property with an easement of the Garcia Trail dividing it. He wanted to build his family home against the hillside and spared no expense in attempting to realize his dreams. Urban legend has it that he was afraid animals would invade their homestead. In response the homeowner built the “Great Wall of Glendora” out of concrete blocks and rebar along the steep grade with the help of laborers. Note: large animals can still jump this barrier with ease.
It’s been 10 years since city officials signed off on this project, so it wasn’t like it was done generations ago without any thought of how it could impact the surrounding environment. Ironically, the homeowner was unable to build to his home to desired specifications due to a hillside ordinance, so he moved elsewhere, leaving behind his unintended monument.
Something magical happened in 2007 as the recession began to sink deep into the Valley: locals decided to forgo renewing expensive gym memberships and rediscovered the calling of nature in its place. Or so it seemed from the sights through my dining room windows, where I would regularly watch an ant line of exercisers marching up Garcia Trail.
The Garcia Trail became a singles mecca and a regular activity destination for the Korean Hiking Club, a group that would arrive to the trailhead inside a 55 passenger tour bus. And then there were the cars…rows and rows of cars that eventually wrapped around the streets of Azusa and Glendora. Thieves randomly broke into hikers’ cars while they were busy ascending ever upward. Social media and local hiking professionals alike would tout the trail’s beauty, relishing in the trails demanding level of difficulty. Impressive photographs shared online even generated even more visitors seeking similar experiences. Azusa Pacific University’s annual volunteer trail maintenance team could not keep up with the increase of foot traffic or trash left behind.
The bright lights and loudspeakers of the Glendora sheriff and and Azusa police helicopters took over the surrounding landscape at all hours of the day and night. People were asked to leave. Rescues were a regular occurrence. Hiking around that big “A”, clearly visible from the 210, exuded an excitement not unlike clubbing in Hollywood (except outdoors).
There are over 20 different trails within Glendora and Azusa that offer a similar stellar valley view. But for some reason, the Garcia Trail 2.7 mile distance became the “it” trail. In the end the Garcia Trail was unable to safely handle the influx of traffic, trash, and erosion across its length – a victim of its own popularity.
In 2013 the City of Glendora approved and installed “No Parking” signs along the city streets leading up to the trail. Even afterward, people walked their dogs and even small children in the middle of the road as if Sierra Madre Blvd. was an extension of the trail.
Then on January 16, 2014, the Colby Fire erupted, destroying the Garcia Trail in its scorched path. The multi-year drought turned the area’s naturally dry foliage into an even more potentially dangerous fuel source for raging forest fires. A reckless campfire set by a group of cold homeless men ignited the brush aflame. The surrounding chaparral was so thick and dense with highly flammable growth – the last fire having occurred way back in 1968 – the Colby Fire eventually ended up burning for 10 straight days.
The fire began over a mile and half away, but ended up burning within 300 feet from my home. Powerful canyon winds and the fast moving fire compelled my husband and I to gather our belongings and cat to evacuate in just fifteen minutes. According to hiking enthusiast Dan Simpson’s website, “officials issued an indefinite closure based on an assessment/report of the Garcia Trail condition by the collaborative efforts of the Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team (U.S. Forest Service, L.A. County Fire Department’s Forestry Division, and USGS).”
Online, heated debates whether the trail should, could, or will be rebuilt rages on. As urban development continues into the surrounding foothills, hiking trails have suffered similar challenges. The South Hills in Glendora rides along the edges of the 57 and 210 freeways, with a network of trails once surrounded by a couple of nurseries growing container plants within its boundaries. The Monrovia Nursery Company and Colorama Nursery leased properties from the City of Glendora; both both nurseries have moved their production of container plants elsewhere, leaving 20 acres for development or some other creative option.
April marks the observance of World Landscape Architecture Month, as well as National Gardening Month. Now seems an appropriate time and opportunity to recommend government officials to hire a landscape architect to ensure safe passage through urban and/or historic nature trails. Landscape architects are professionals capable of providing site analysis, review grading, and conduct research. Landscape architects also partner with other related professionals, like grant writers, horticulturalists, ecologists, geologists, architects, engineers, or planners, to ensure an effective and enjoyable trail design for all.
Today, I still enjoy the sounds of happy hikers on the Garcia Trail – even though we rarely use the dining room anymore. But it will take more than a squad of volunteers to repair the trail. The trail will require a professional inventory consisting of site analysis, action, and funding plans to create a safe passage with an exceptionally written maintenance plan that can stand the test of time. If the trailhead is moved, we can only accept that it was done to ensure health, safety and welfare for all hikers, as well as approach the burden of liability and maintenance on the trails.
Those with a deeper interest in the Garcia Trail are invited to express their opinion during next week’s Azusa City Council Meeting on April 17th at 7:30 pm.