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Photographs of L.A.'s 'Great Hiking Era' in the Early 20th Century

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The whole range, seen from the plain, with the hot sun beating upon its southern slopes, wears a terribly forbidding aspect...But all mountains are full of hidden beauty. -John Muir, on his visit to the San Gabriels in 1877, from "Steep Trails"

This remark and other writings by the famed American naturalist contributed to a broad shift in societal attitudes to nature. Prior to the late nineteenth century, few people entered the mountains for pleasure. Devoid of established roads or settlements, the rugged highlands of Los Angeles were relatively inaccessible and undesirable to the general public. Primarily gold miners, loggers, hunters, and pioneering early settlers braved the backcountry to seek profit from wilderness exploits.

After the unprecedented population growth of Los Angeles during the real estate boom of the 1880s, however, recreational use of the mountains exploded in popularity. Like no other time in its history, the isolated sylvan canyons and remote peaks of the mountain range became of great interest to increasingly urban lowland residents. The virtues of wilderness exploration, extolled by writers like Muir, inspired people to venture beyond the San Gabriels' "forbidding" facade with an untrammeled enthusiasm.

The uncultivated frontier afforded boundless opportunities for ambitious recreation through a period that stretched into the late 1930s. Families, friends, and numerous outdoor organizations, including Muir's Sierra Club, flocked to the foothills to hike the expanding system of foot paths, fish rushing canyon streams, picnic, play in the snow, and camp at the myriad of mountain resorts catering to weekend adventurers. According to the L.A. Times, in a typical year such as 1935, "2 million people flocked to the San Gabriels and 140,000 hiked 10 miles or more."

Take a look back at some moments from the golden era of recreation in the San Gabriels. Thanks to the Ayers Family Archives for providing these photos.

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