The trip to the local mountains seemed doomed from the start.
COVID-19 cases in California were on the rise. Testing requirements had changed from anyone with or without symptoms to those most at risk. Then there was a fire at the trailhead that temporarily shut the area mere days before our 4-mile hike in. Going to camp in the San Gabriel Mountains wasn’t going to be easy.
I got the idea after a previous long hike to Sturtevant Falls in the Angeles National Forest in late May. I emerged feeling refreshed. We didn’t have cell service the entire hike. We wore masks during the hike and ate sandwiches by the falls at a safe distance from everyone. We stopped at the local mule-pack station on our way out and asked about the cabins dotted along our trail. Could people rent those?
No, but there is a camp with cabins where you could spend the night, the helpful woman behind the counter replied. After we left the trail and drove down Santa Anita Canyon toward the city, toward cellphone service and emails and a steady stream of notifications, I was ready to plan my next escape.
The more-than-a-century-old camp
Sturtevant Camp looked like a typical sleep-away camp, according to the online photos. There’s a lodge with a cafeteria and cabins with twin bunk beds. It was founded in 1893 and eventually sold to a Methodist church association, which ran the camp until 2011. Now it’s run by volunteers with the Sturtevant Conservancy, said board member Deb Burgess, who runs the board.
The bliss upon arriving was like none other. There’s absolutely no cell service near Sturtevant Camp. There’s a small nature trail that leads to a helipad overlooking the canyon. If we were truly the hiking type, we could have used our Saturday to hike to Mt. Wilson or Mt. Zion.
Instead, we spent our time mostly luxuriating in the quiet. We watched young bucks and fawns come right through the camp, unbothered by our presence. We walked down to the creek and counted butterflies. We tried our hand at archery and played card games.
Photos inside the lodge show black-and-white images going as far back as women wearing prairie dresses. In that way, it was not like a typical sleep-away camp. Sturtevant Camp was founded 12 years prior to the founding of the Forest Service. In the early half of the 19th century, Angelenos would stay for the entire summer as their big getaway.
Just a half-hour from downtown Los Angeles, Big Santa Anita Canyon remains a reprieve for many. Day hikes to Sturtevant Falls and Hermit Falls are popular even on weekdays, with an often overflowing parking lot at Chantry Flat. (During the pandemic, hikers are turned away when the lot fills.)
In 2015, Burgess purchased the camp for “a whopping $25,000.” With a small team, she and others spent months painting and making repairs to the camp and formed a nonprofit organization to run it. “Until COVID happened, it [was] not unusual for that camp to be completely full,” Burgess said.
How the pandemic changed camp
Like everything else, the camp was closed through April and May. In the last two months, volunteers worked toward a slow reopening, with just a couple of cabins in rotation and more rigorous cleaning measures.
The lodge, typically open to any hikers passing through for coffee and water, now is closed to passers-by. People usually first encounter Sturtevant Camp on a day hike and then follow up by booking a spot. “We just want to keep Sturtevant Camp alive,” Burgess said.
I planned the trip with friends at the end of May, when cases were trending downward and it looked like the city was gearing up to reopen by July 4. As the trip came closer, and cases began to rise, we started making compromises and rationalizations. Could everyone get tested the week before? Could everyone isolate themselves as much as humanly possible prior to seeing each other? What precautions could we take to ensure we could remain socially distanced — aside from sleeping?
Then I learned the Forest Service was closing down the Chantry Flat trailhead because of a small fire. How would we get there? I sent several panicked emails to our volunteer counselor, who assured me we would be allowed in the canyon because of our reservation.
Finally it was time to go. I prepared our meals and packed them in bags. The day before, we dropped everything off at Adams’ Pack Station. Burgess said Sturtevant Camp is the No. 1 revenue driver for the last remaining mule-pack station in L.A. County. On Fridays, mules make the slow climb to camp loaded down with groceries, gear or duffel bags. The pack station charges $1 per pound, as it has for more than 100 years.
Then it was time to go. The hike to Sturtevant Camp can be deceiving. The fire road at the start of Chantry Flat slopes downward, giving a false sense of hope that the hike is long but not challenging. Though the website noted it is a difficult hike, it also said even small children can make it. “Maybe kids in California,” a friend quipped as we made our first ascent.
The views nearly made up for the grueling climb.
“It’s one of the very, very few canyons in the Angeles [area] that has a really nice canopy and has water running through it. It’s a beautiful place, nearly 10 degrees or plus cooler than Sierra Madre,” Burgess said.
The last half-mile is the most unforgiving, with switchbacks and a near-constant climb up to an elevation of 3,200 feet. When I arrived at the final sign — with Sturtevant Camp 1/10 of a mile away, out of water and out of breath — I nearly gave up.
Burgess called the last mile a tease. “The sign says it’s a half-mile — it’s a mile.”
Once we arrived, we were met by a volunteer camp counselor who takes care of the property on weekends. Electricity comes on every evening from 5 p.m. till dusk, and refrigerators run on propane. We were able to keep our distance from the other couple staying at the camp, and we used separate bathrooms to keep risks low.
Our two nights passed quickly by the fire. Our volunteer camp counselor, Teah Vaughn, spent much of the weekend working through a to-do list of items to repair or check on around the camp. She also found time to bake cookies and brownies after dinner and made breakfast pastries in the morning.
“There’s something special about the fact it hasn’t changed much in almost 130 years of folks being there,” she said. “There’s a lot of hard, dirty work that goes into maintaining a very old, off-grid camp, but there’s never any complaints.”
Later, Vaughn said she realized our weekend trip was her one-year anniversary as a volunteer counselor. Though the volunteer counselors don’t often see one another, they do all share one cabin. Vaughn described different pairs of hiking boots under the bed and extra jackets from other counselors.
“There is something so unique but so familiar in the whole experience, and I can’t imagine not being a part of it.”
When The Times wrote about Sturtevant Camp in 1986, the location boasted many of the same amenities that exist today, including its biggest draw: seclusion.
“The adults really know how to enjoy it — there are no phones up there, no way for them to be bugged,” Gary Keene, a Methodist minister who worked at the camp from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, said in the piece.
The appeal of seclusion
More than 30 years later, I could relate. The relentless barrage of news notifications on my phone over the last four months left me tired and burnt out. The seclusion was the biggest and only motivation for planning the trip in the first place.
Because of the fire a week prior, the canyon was closed to everyone except for cabin owners. There are just 81 cabins, built at the turn of the 20th century, which have a laundry list of requirements for the owners. One such requirement is that owners cannot reside there year-round. The few people we ran into warily asked how we got into the canyon. Without the steady stream of day hikers, the canyon felt more like the wilderness than the woods.
On Sunday, refreshed from the silence, we retraced our steps to head out. It felt like seeing the journey for the first time. As we made it down to the little dams that are part of many day hikes in the canyon, we heard a rustle in the bushes.
A small brown bear climbed out. We made our presence known, and rather than running away, the bear took a dip in the creek. It took its time, and eventually climbed up the sloped mountain. I had never seen a bear in my life, let alone one a mere 40 feet away from me. Rather than fear, I was in awe.
I don’t think I’ll ever become much of a true camper. The idea of carrying a tent with me and sleeping on the ground has never been appealing. When my parents sent me to a two-week sleep-away camp as a child in Pennsylvania, I wrote daily letters filled with grievances.
But in a time period of deep uncertainty, where renting an Airbnb or going to a hotel room feels unsafe, a cabin in the woods was enough.
How to go
You can book a trip to Sturtevant Camp at its website: sturtevantcamp.com. We stayed in the Retreat Cabin, which sleeps up to six and costs $270 per night. The honeymoon cottage for two runs $90 per night, and guest cabins that sleep up to eight are $320 per night. You’ll find a pack list of what you need to bring, directions to the trail head and other information.