When Public Lands Aren’t Really Public

[Featured image: Blooming rabbitbrush at Hungry Valley OHV Area with the Topatopa Mountains in the background.]

I woke up early this morning unsure what I was going to do. Today was not to be a running day. I did not, however, want to spend my whole day watching football, which is exactly what I would have done if I had stayed home. I ended up deciding I would explore the northwest corner of Los Angeles County, doing a little birding and a little hiking in the area around Pyramid Lake and Hungry Valley in the Topatopa and San Emigdio Mountains. Though I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 13 years, and have passed through that area frequently along Interstate 5, I’ve spent zero time figuring out how to get around. I learned quickly why I hardly ever see anyone spending time in such a dramatic-looking area.

I intended to start at Pyramid Lake via its main access point along Smokey Bear Road. Pyramid Lake is within the Angeles National Forest near the border of the Los Padres National Forest. I discovered, however, that while this was national forest land, my Adventure Pass was no good here: Pyramid Lake management rights were leased to a private company and you are supposed to pay a daily $11.00 use fee to access the area. There are warning signs everywhere.

While I had no interest in paying to access the area, I noted that the kiosk was closed. Is that because it is early? Is it free today? I didn’t know. I entered the fee area, though, without accessing the lake, and drove a different area west to Los Padres National Forest where there were several campgrounds. Once again, this area is managed by a different private company with a different fee requirement and you couldn’t stop without paying the fee. The area was full of really nice pinyon woodland, but I couldn’t get to it without paying someone. I traveled on.

Finally, at the end of the road, was the Hungry Valley OHV area. This was a closed-off area with an old paved road that you could walk (I think legally), so I did. I had a few birds but nothing exciting. The light was nice, however, and the scenery was beautiful.

White-crowned Sparrow perched on a yerba santa at Hungry Valley OHV Area.

After leaving there, I drove back out somewhat paranoid that I would be stopped at the entrance gate and asked to pay for my early access. Nobody was at the gate, however, and I continued to explore. I stopped a couple times at pull-offs to look at maps on my phone, but was questioned by either federal or state rangers each time and told to move along. I drove back toward the main portion of the Hungry Valley OHV Area, was told there was a fee to enter, and that there was no hiking. The area is strictly for off-road vehicles.

Next up was Gorman. I stopped there to eat. Afterward, I tried to drive around and look for places to go but there was nowhere: all open space was sucked into the Hungry Valley OHV area and I couldn’t access it unless I wanted to pay and was driving an OHV. Back south at Templin Highway in the Angeles National Forest, there was again no access other than the paved road. Most of the area was closed off due to water infrastructure. I finally got to do a bit of hiking at Piru Creek, but it was late in the day and getting warm at that point, so birding was shoddy.

This is the first I’ve really dealt with the privatized areas of our national forests that I heard about, and I can’t say that I was too impressed. The infrastructure appeared shabby, and the fee rates are ridiculous to access areas that aren’t well-maintained. A public comment period just ended on a proposal that would expand the privatization. It’s definitely something I’m going to keep my eye on.

Red-tailed Hawks along Pyramid Lake Road.
Piru Creek in the Angeles National Forest.

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