We so often attribute what confuses or challenges us to the devil.
And judging by the nomenclature of many of our local natural features, SoCal is quite the challenge…and the mystery.
Look no further than the so-called “Devil Wind” that sweeps over the mountains in winter, bringing everything from palm tree to bungalow roof with it!
But the supposed handiwork of the original fallen angel also extends out into our rugged landscape, with geological features and formations that have inspired a dark curiosity in those who explore them.
These are the five most devilish excursions that SoCal has to offer. Don’t let the mention of the unholy beast deter you from visiting these sites – because it can be something of a sacred pursuit.
1. Devil's Punchbowl Natural Area, Pearblossom
Devil's Punchbowl is the Antelope Valley’s 1,300-acre geological wonder, about 30 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles – at least, the one that’s not Vasquez Rocks. Located in the northernmost reaches of the San Gabriel Mountains at 4,750 feet of elevation, its "punchbowl" formations date back more than two million years – and maybe as many as 20 million. Formed from a type of “folding” called a syncline – in which the edges fold up and the middle plunges to form a deep canyon, some of the sandstone boulder outcroppings are jagged and tilted, just as you'd expect to find along the San Andreas Fault. Others bear the smooth, spherical edges of erosion from the water that has run through here (including the snowmelt of the San Gabriels).
First-timers should probably tackle the one-mile loop trail, which leads you on an "upside down" hike, forcing you to descend first and then climb back out of the "bowl" at the end. It’s deceptively difficult. As you tread loose, sandy patches and slippery, exposed rock, it can be difficult to stay on the actual trail and so easy to stray onto one of the unofficial spur trails that people have created by shortcutting the switchbacks. Give yourself as long as two hours to complete the loop. Intrepid rock climbers perch on the various up-tilted peaks, and more advanced hikers can make their way all the way to Devil’s Chair, about a seven-mile hike round trip.
Why is it named after the Angel of Darkness? Maybe because climbing down 5,000 feet feels like descending into the underworld.
2. Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes
The columns of basalt of Devils Postpile, which formed during a volcanic period less than 100,000 years ago, feel forbidding, foreboding and maybe even verboten. Something so bizarre must’ve been the work of demonic beings! Surely such extreme conditions can only have arisen out of hellfire! Certainly, these pentagonal and hexagonal columns are too perfect and monumental to be anything but sinister geometry.
Of course, there's a perfectly secular, scientific explanation for how Devils Postpile was formed: while there was no volcanic explosion per se, a fissure vent spewed molten rock, which flowed downhill from somewhere in the vicinity of the Upper Soda Springs Campground at the north end of Pumice Flat to its current location in The Buttresses. As the fiery lava cooled, it cracked into the geometric pattern you see today. Subsequently, glaciers that were slowly floating down the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River excavated the mass of volcanic rock and the bottom of the lava flow, exposing posts that are mostly five- and six-sided shapes. Their pattern is so uniform that the cross-section view from the top could easily pass for tile flooring, were it not for the striations and polish left behind by the glaciers.
It doesn't take much of a hike to get there, but at 7,500 feet of elevation, your legs might feel lead-heavy and lungs squeezed tight. Take the Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile shuttle bus, and a park ranger will greet you upon arrival and point you in the right direction. Note that the shuttle only operates during the summertime – which, at this elevation, is really just mid-June through mid-September. Once it starts to snow, the roads close – and the only way to visit Devils Postpile is via cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, and at your own risk. Maybe the "Devil" designation simply warns visitors how easily the pile of posts can take a life. Falls from just 60 feet above the base can be fatal, after all.
3. Devil’s Gate, Pasadena/La Cañada Flintridge
At the base of the Arroyo Seco canyon, forged by the "dry stream" or seasonal river that runs through Pasadena, some have spotted a horned figure in a natural rock outcropping. You can find the satanic rock formation in the gorge at the narrowest stretch of the Arroyo Seco – a.k.a. the “gate” – in Hahamongna Watershed Park, located between the Angeles National Forest and the Rose Bowl, near the JPL campus. That’s where the Los Angeles County Flood Control District built its first dam in 1920. This is Devil’s Gate Dam, L.A. County’s response to the infamously devastating flooding of 1914. You can peer over its railings to view the diverse habitat of animal and plant life down below – and maybe a little bit of water, and probably a lot of mud.
Above its concrete arches, many vehicles once traversed the top of the dam as the main thoroughfare between Pasadena and the neighboring community of La Cañada Flintridge – that is, until Foothill Freeway diverted traffic off of the dam when it opened in the 1960s. But in the 1940s, a group of religious figures and occultists gave Devil’s Gate a far more sinister reputation – as where the Antichrist would be conceived, in part due to the efforts of Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard and JPL’s Jack Parsons. They considered Devil’s Gate one of the Seven Portals to Hell – perhaps a gateway to Satan’s lair in the afterlife, where they would try to conjure him to come out of the inferno below.
Today, the bridge along the top of the dam is closed to motorized vehicles but open to pedestrians. You probably won’t be able to see Satan’s face in the rocks from up there, so you’ll have to climb down some stairs and venture below, through tunnels and among the overgrowth. The closest address to plug into your GPS is 1055 La Cañada Verdugo Rd, Pasadena, CA 91103. Or, walk the trails heading south from the Oak Grove Park Disc Golf course.
4. Devil’s Backbone, Mt. Baldy
At just over 10,000 feet, the highest point in San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is the peak of Mount San Antonio, known almost exclusively to locals and visitors alike as “Mt. Baldy.” While the full hike to the top is considered one of the premiere training hikes for bagging Mount Whitney – the highest peak in the Lower 48 – there is a kind of shortcut that some people take. They can cut several miles and several hundred feet of elevation off their journey by taking the Mt. Baldy Ski Lift to the Baldy Notch; and from there, they can pick up the Devil’s Backbone Trail.
Although much of present-day Mt. Baldy infrastructure is from the 1950s, including the Top of the Notch restaurant, it was in 1935-6 that the Civilian Conservation Corps improved what was originally a Native American footpath into the Devil's Backbone trail (then, with guardrails). Even after that work, it’s still a single-track, ridge-top trail along what would appear to be Satan’s spine. The journey along it is like walking along the edge of a knife – only 12 inches across at its widest, above a 45-degree slope on the “bald” side of the mountain, free of trees and slippery, with only loose gravel underfoot.
Devil’s Backbone is only 3.24 miles long, starting from Baldy Notch – but surviving it and getting to the 360-degree-view payoff at its terminus feels only possible by making a deal with the devil. Don’t attempt this hike in the winter, even if you’ve successfully completed it in the summer. Snow can camouflage the trail – and one misstep, and you’re calling for an airlift rescue (or worse). In the snow-free season, bring trekking poles and prepare for fierce wind and colder-than-expected temperatures. Check trail status on the Forest Service website before you go.
5. Devil’s Slide, Santa Susana State Historic Park
In the mid-1800s, after white settlers got here and settled in, how would anyone get from San Francisco to Los Angeles? Around 1860, a route was carved out of a Native American footpath on ancient sandstone in the Simi Hills, known first as the Santa Susana Pass Wagon Road and, later, the Stagecoach Trail. This pass was so steep, along exposed rock face of the hills, that it earned the name "Devil's Slide." At a 21 percent grade, it was a treacherous path for the Butterfield Overland Stage Company wagons that came down over it, primarily carrying mail. The teams of horses drawing them reportedly had to be blindfolded in order to make it. Passengers didn't even bother – they disembarked and walked.
The entire trip took three days – but by far, the most treacherous part was through the Santa Susana Mountains. Bandits were known to hide out there, if not to look for their next mark. And the stages that crept over the pass were particularly vulnerable as the drivers and passengers all had to pitch in to tie the wheels together, and even set rocks behind the wheels so the wagons wouldn’t roll backwards. It’s no wonder that the route was short-lived! It was abandoned in 1875 when Coast Line Stage Company (partially owned by Wells, Fargo & Company Stage Lines) took over the stage line from Butterfield. And when a train tunnel was blasted out of the rock below, a stage pass was never needed again.
Now closed to anything on wheels but mountain bikes, the pass can be followed on foot through the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park. You’ll go up over those rocks, just like a stagecoach once did. And in certain sections, you can still see the ruts left by the wagon wheels. Look for the historic plaque (circa 1939) along the portion of the trail that’s been designated a historic monument. Watch out for rattlesnakes in warmer months. If you’re reticent to come face-to-face with the devil himself on your own, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Santa Susana Mountains offers guided hikes.