David Zaitz

The Puente-Chino Hills are among the most beautiful in Southern California. Will they stay that way?

Matthew Jaffe

As a late winter storm breaks up, remnant clouds move acrossthe Puente Hills, casting fast-moving shadows on a rollinglandscape of Irish green.

For a moment, it is easy to become lost in the scene, to imagineperhaps that you are in the middle of some Celtic countryside. Thereality is that you are dead center in the Southern Californiamegalopolis, in a low-elevation mountain range that local usageusually divides into the Puente and Chino Hills.

Combined, the Puente and Chino Hills run 30 miles across the LosAngeles Basin, never rising more than 1,800 feet or spreading widerthan 10 miles across. They are in many ways islands besieged: Homescreep up their slopes, freeways and boulevards skirt their edges,and industrial buildings spread out from their bases. The pressuresthese inland, in-city ranges face are obvious.

As you continue hiking, your eyes begin to skip over theurbanization to take in one of Southern California's great views:On a clear, midwinter day, it encompasses the snowcapped SanGabriel Mountains, Malibu, Camp Pendleton, and the Santa AnaMountains in Orange County. Hidden from view are the secludedcanyons and creeks that provide critical habitat for wildlife.

Most people don't know much about these hills. Those who do aretrying to save what's left.

Above the fray?

As you climb Hacienda Boulevard into La Habra Heights, there's asense of stepping back into an earlier Southern California. Withits citrus and avocado groves, the community comes close topreserving a lifestyle lost long ago in most of the region.

The community atmosphere is no accident. Residents have foughthard over a 60-year period to hold on to the vision of Edwin G.Hart, who first developed the area as a rural residentialcommunity.

Civic activism has played a big role in attempts to preserveopen space in these hills. So have the efforts of residents innearby Whittier and the involvement of agencies, including theSanta Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land.Bit by bit the hills are being saved.

A canyon preserved

One of the most beautiful spots in the Puente-Chino Hills isPowder Canyon, a wooded fissure with a little creek that serves asa vital corridor for wildlife. At 517 acres, the recently acquiredcanyon may seem modest in size. But if it can be combined withprivately held properties and land under lease to oil companies, itwill provide a bridge for wildlife to travel from the ClevelandNational Forest through these hills and ultimately up the SanGabriel River into the San Gabriel Mountains.

"The fact that Powder Canyon exists at all is extraordinary,"says Jill Kowalik, a UCLA literature and philosophy professor, whoalong with her husband, Bill, has been active in localopen-space-preservation efforts.

For more than a decade, Kowalik has also been battling breastcancer. Early on, her prognosis wasn't good and Kowalik decided toput her energies into the local environment rather than into aplanned book on the psychological impacts of the 30 Years' War in17th-century Germany.

"I had to decide whether I should try to finish a book thatmaybe 50 people in the world would read or try to help set upsomething that would have an impact on a lot more people for a longtime," she says. "I had read an article that described how peoplewho live a long life often have a social purpose that helps theirlongevity. I thought maybe if I do something socially useful, itwould help me live longer. And it did. Now I'm finishing the bookthat I started before."

While preservation of the Puente-Chino Hills may seem mostly abackyard issue, the area has a greater global significance. (Infact, Bill Kowalik points out, it's visible from space as a greatdark patch in nighttime satellite imagery of the sparkling LosAngeles Basin.) According to Alissa Ing, associate resourceecologist at Chino Hills State Park, because the biodiversity ofthe Southwest region is so high, the biological issues playing outhere are no less significant than those of a tropical rain forest.Acquisitions like the recent purchase of Coal Canyon, adjacent tothe 12,400-acre Chino Hills State Park, help preserve connectionsall the way down into Mexico.

"Keeping these connections intact will ensure the health of anincredibly diverse isthmus of native habitat smack dab in themiddle of the L.A. basin," Ing says. "This is an absolutelyfabulous patch of biology."

While the fate of several critical open-space parcels remainsundecided, there are numerous areas with established public accessin the Puente-Chino Hills wildlife movement corridor.

Chino Hills State Park
The recent acquisition of Coal Canyon expanded Chino HillsState Park to about 13,000 acres, making it the largest singlepreserved parcel in the hills. Coal Canyon is a critical link inthe Puente-Chino Hills wildlife movement corridor.

The main park entrance is located off State 71. Take the SoquelCanyon Pkwy. about 1 mile to a signed left turn at Elinvar Rd.,which turns sharply left. Look immediately for a signed gravelroad--Bane Canyon Rd.--that leads to park headquarters in 3 miles.Park entry is $2 per vehicle. For information call (909)780-6222.

Hills for Everyone Trail
WHERE: From park headquarters, walk back down Bane CanyonRd. and turn right on Telegraph Canyon Trail. Follow this trail forabout 1/2 mile, then turn right on the utility road and look forthe interpretive sign that marks the Hills for Everyone trailheadon the left.
DISTANCE: Including the stretch on Telegraph Canyon Trail,round trip is 31/2 miles. You can return via the Hills for EveryoneTrail or Telegraph Canyon Trail.
HIGHLIGHTS: The trail winds through a beautiful riparianwoodland with oaks and native walnut trees; there are a few short,steep sections.
DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.

Water Canyon Trail
WHERE: From the campground, walk south down the fire roadfor about 1 mile, then look right for the signed trailhead.
DISTANCE: Round trip is about 5 miles, 3 of which are onWater Canyon Trail.
HIGHLIGHTS: Probably the most beautiful of the park'scanyons and one of the nicest spots in all of the Puente-ChinoHills.
DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.

Powder Canyon
While the trail system is still being finalized in the canyonand the 2,900 surrounding acres (some public land, some private),there is an easily explored informal network of trails here, withconnections to Skyline Trail and Schabarum Regional County Park(see below). There are three signed access points off Fullerton Rd.south of State 60; the best is at Skyline Dr. just off theintersection of Fullerton Rd. and East Rd. From here, a path leadsinto the canyon. For more information contact the Puente HillsLandfill Native Habitat Preservation Authority at (562)699-7411.

Schabarum Regional County Park
This multiuse park includes an extensive area of open spacewith good hiking.

Schabarum Trail
WHERE: From State 60, take Azusa Ave. south to Colima Rd.Turn left; the park entrance is on the right. At the kiosk gostraight; the trailhead begins behind the rest rooms on the right(access is also available from a few points within the park). Thetrail edges along developed portions of the park, then reaches ajunction where you go right. It continues to climb; at SkylineTrail bear left to finish the loop.
DISTANCE: 5-mile loop.
HIGHLIGHTS: Especially in winter, impressive views followingstorms, with the snowcapped San Gabriels in the distance.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate.

Puente-Chino Hills travel planner

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