Peering into the Chasm: Vanished Canyon Resorts of L.A.

Lloyd and Bertha Austin in Switzer-land's Christ Chapel | Source: photobucket/cougarmagic


The quickest way to lose Los Angeles is to slip into the canyons of the San Gabriels. Fortified by impenetrable mountain walls gushing into the sky, these chasms are sanctuaries of verdant vegetation, striking cascades, and spectacular waterways. They are a world removed from the drumbeat of the metropolis. During the "Great Hiking Era" of the early 20th Century (see SLIDESHOW), they were home to resort hotels offering weekend travelers the chance to trade the ever expanding city for the cloistered confines of the canyons. Unlike the opportunities afforded by the summit resorts high above them, these rustic camps -- and one county park -- revealed the adventures to be had in the shadows of the mountains.


Switzer-land: "The Hikers' Mountain Mecca in the Royal Gorge of the Arroyo Seco"

The first tourist resort built in the San Gabriels boasted one of the most incredible -- and precarious -- sights in Southern California: the Christ Chapel. Lloyd B. Austin, Switzer-land owner and former educational director of the Los Angeles Y.M.C.A., spearheaded the bold development of this house of worship in the Arroyo Seco Canyon. Dedicated in June 1924, the resort chapel was erected on a cliff 200-feet above Switzer Falls. According to John Robinson's "The San Gabriels," the building was designed by Arthur B. Benton, architect behind Riverside's Mission Inn, and featured an iron bell, reed organ, and stained glass windows -- all hauled up the canyon trail by hand. The chapel amphitheater seated 200 and, outside of Sunday morning services, was well-used for weddings and youth retreats.

Exterior view of the Switzer-Land Chapel below Mount Disappointment near Mount Lowe, 1926 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Exterior view of the Christ Chapel of Switzer-land | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Evidence of Austin's tenacity stretched beyond the successful completion of his iconic cliff-side chapel. During his 24-year tenure as proprietor, Switzer-land was transformed from a financially struggling camp -- founded by Los Angeles carpenter Commodore Perry Switzer in 1884 -- into the one of the most thriving resorts in the mountain range. A brochure boasted a ten-mile trip from Pasadena along the "Trail of a Thousand Wonders" that guests would undertake through the Arroyo Seco. At the end of their burro train, eager travelers could retreat into their cabins or enjoy an open air dance floor, a croquet, and tennis court, and a library. Austin and his wife, Bertha, lived among their guests in the canyon until their retirement in 1936.

Following the construction of the Brown Canyon Debris Dam below the resort property in 1943, Switzer-land was torn down. Today, a public campground occupies the land, and only scattered remnants of the chapel's stone constitution mark the site of Austin's crowning achievement.

Commodore Perry Switzer, on left with guests in the Arroyo Seco, circa 1885. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Pergola Place and Boulder Lodge at Switzer's Camp, May 1, 1920 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Twisted wood figures, Switzeroceros and Camel Bird, at Switzer-land | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Falls in the Royal Gorge at Switzer's Camp | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


Camp Rincon: "The Gem of the San Gabriel Canyon"

Located south of the confluence of the San Gabriel River's West and North forks, Camp Rincon was one of the premiere resorts in the river canyon. Established in 1897, the hostelry offered the convenience of the four-horse Camp Rincon Stage to bring guests daily from the Santa Fe Depot in Azusa to the camp grounds. In addition to cabin and hotel accommodations, manager Charlie Smith built a general store to serve tourists and canyon gold miners alike. Perhaps one of the most appealing resort features, especially during the sweltering summer months, was the swimming pool.

A swimming pool at Camp Rincon, Azusa, ca.1930 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

The prosperity of the recreational destination began to wane by the 1930s. The property would be totally washed away by floods in the ensuing decades. Presently, a fire station sits where the resort once stood.

A four-horse carriage is seen in the narrows, North Fork Canyon of the San Gabriel Mountains. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Main building at Camp Rincon in Azusa, ca.1930 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

A frontal view of cabins at Camp Rincon, Azusa, ca.1930 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California


Camp Baldy: "The Yosemite of the South"

In 1928, resort manager Foster Curry was fed up. The heir to the famed Camp Curry in Yosemite Valley, Curry grew dismayed working in the family enterprise, and decided to strike out on his own. Joined by his wife Ruth, Curry fled south to the San Gabriels to purchase a profitable resort nestled in San Antonio Canyon below Mount Baldy. The Currys would transform small Camp Baldy, as it was called, into a major Southland destination.

Exterior view of hotel buildings showing a lobby annex at Camp Baldy, ca. 1930 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Foster and Ruth leased more land for their grand vision. In addition to more cabins, the Currys constructed a dance pavillion, amusement park, and a casino. Discovering these new amenities, throngs of Southland visitors drove to the festive resort community via the winding roads of San Antonio Canyon. Camp Baldy even earned its own U.S. Post Office within a few years. Amid the success, Foster died of leukemia in 1932. Determined to continue their plans for Camp Baldy, Ruth pushed ahead with its expansion. After the casino burnt down in a fire in 1936, Ruth and her new husband, silent film star Edmund Burns, built an even larger one, the Wagon Wheel Casino. It attracted entertainers from Los Angeles to perform in the luxurious mountain surroundings.

The end of Camp Baldy's glory days arrived with the great deluge of 1938. The resort was heavily damaged, and never fully recovered. Today, the area surrounding the Curry's former mountain inn is now the unincorporated community of Mt. Baldy.

San Antonio Creek near the hotel at Camp Baldy, ca.1930 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Housekeeping tents located along a running flume of water at Camp Baldy, ca.1930 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Dorothy Putnam driving a car of women at Camp Baldy. Putnum was the first licensed female chauffeur in California. 1918. | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California


Big Pines County Park and the Rise of SoCal Skiing

What began as a family recreation center in the San Gabriel's Swarthout Valley morphed into a mecca for Southern California's flourishing ski scene. When it opened in 1923, the 760-acre Big Pines County Park hosted campgrounds, picnic areas, a recreation hall, employee housing, and an imposing stone arch supported by two towers called the Davidson Arch. The arch served as a pedestrian overpass, and the towers acted as holding cells for unruly visitors. The park, operated by L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation, was a smash with the public.

Close-up view of arched entryway of Big Pines camp. | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

To counter overcrowding, the department enlarged the park to 3,560 acres, and over the course of ten years constructed numerous amenities, including an ice skating rink and ski and toboggan facilities. As downhill skiing was being introduced to the general populace in the early 1930s, the freshly groomed slopes of the county park saw a rush of people ready to try out the recreational fad. Big Pines even came close to hosting the 1932 Olympic Winter Games ski jump competition, but dry winter conditions forced the competition to move elsewhere.

The Great Depression hit L.A. County's pocket books hard, and county supervisors moved to sell Big Pines County Park to the Forest Service in 1938. After a period of dormancy during World War II, Big Pines was reinvigorated with new facilities and easier access for the public by the newly constructed section of the Angeles Crest Highway. Although the park is no longer around, the Big Pines area today, which includes the Mountain High Ski Resort, braces for waves of crowds almost every winter.

Ski jumping at Big Pines Recreation Camp, 1929 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Ski jumping at Big Pines Recreation Camp, viewed from beneath the skier, 1929 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Families picnicking at camp sites at Big Pines Recreational Camp, 1928 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Campers making snowman at a large gathering of people at picnic grounds, Big Pines Recreational Camp. | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

People and automobiles near the arch-entrance to Big Pines Recreational Camp. | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Female figure skaters on an ice rink at Big Pines mountain camp, ca.1930 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Three people being pushed down a hill on toboggans at Big Pines. | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Several people hitting the tobogganing slopes at Big Pines | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Six male skiers posing in a line, ca.1930 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

An ice skater performing jumps over a row of barrels at Big Pines mountain camp, ca.1930 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Group of people in winter gear smiling and waving while one of them falls down onto the snow at Big Pines. | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

About the Author

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and enjoy exploring Los Angeles and learning about its origins.
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