A Night at West Fork

The degree to which I am enamored with the freedom of backpacking is not reflected by the frequency with which I go. For awhile now, I’ve taken an interest in expanding my knowledge-base of the fauna of the San Gabriel Mountains by backpacking into remote campgrounds, preferably on a weekday when no or few people are likely to be present. Last night, I finally did the first of these forays.

West Fork Trail Camp is named for the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, which passes through the campground as a rocky and cold seasonal stream. The campground is located at the southern end of Shortcut Canyon at the confluence of Rincon – Red Box Road (a gated dirt forest road) and the Gabrielino and Silver Moccasin National Recreation Trails.

While I am certainly familiar with West Fork via my frequent trail runs in the area (such as last weekend’s race documented here), I’ve never camped in the San Gabriel Mountains away from the high country. In my work as a biologist, it is my opinion that the best way to become familiar with the fauna of a place is to spend the night camping there. As I’ve spent a lot of time and effort to document what I see in the San Gabriels, it seemed a natural extension to expand on that by doing short overnight trips to any of the numerous hike-in campgrounds scattered around the forest. It certainly doesn’t hurt that hiking with the weight of a pack on my back can serve as pretty good (cross?) training for my trail running habit.

The choice of West Fork for the first of these forays was not entirely haphazard: it was on my mind because of the presence of the aid station there during Saturday’s race, and I knew there would be water available via a pipe that has a constant flow from a spring. The seasonal presence or absence of water is likely to be the primary deciding factor on choosing locations as I go forward.

The Hike In

I elected to begin my trip at Red Box, a location at the junction of the Angeles Crest Highway and Mt. Wilson – Red Box Road. This made for a nice hike of about 5.5 miles via the Gabrielino Trail. I arrived at around 4:30pm with dark storm clouds looming in the distance. While it is really difficult to predict with certainty where the weather will hit when uplift from the mountains combined with moisture causes these storms, most of this weather phenomenon usually stays over the higher peaks to the northeast and the desert. In this case, the overcast conditions made for a much more pleasant trip than sunny skies would have allowed.

I really enjoyed the slower pace of hiking here for once. While it was my intent on this trip to thoroughly document the avifauna, I didn’t bother with keeping a bird list on the hike in as I wasn’t sure how fast my pace would be, and I wanted plenty of time to set up camp before it got dark. My only stops were to take a few photographs with my phone, including documenting all the locations that some moron spray-painted graffiti on trees and rocks. My trek was made easier by the comprehensive trailwork led by Gary Hilliard and a suite a volunteers, with Gary’s signature “G” emblazoned with a chainsaw into the base of wood chunks he cut from trees that had fallen across the trail.

I arrived around 7pm and promptly set up camp, established two game cameras at strategic locations on the stream, started my field notes, and began fixing dinner.

There were storms to the east and north when I set out from Red Box. I did not want to get rained on, but I didn’t think the mountain uplift-caused weather would make it to the area I was covering. Fortunately, I was correct.
One of the ways to fill me with rage: graffiti along the trail.
Home for the night.


None of the diurnal bird species were unexpected. It was pretty quiet in the evening, with the exception of the constant calling of a couple of Black Phoebes that I figured had nested in the housing for the pit toilet. Indeed, there was a Black Phoebe nest placed under the eve. It was after the sun set that things started to get interesting. Bats were everywhere. A pair of Western Screech-Owls began calling from some place nearby. Eventually, a Great Horned Owl called from the same direction and the screech-owls got quiet. As it got darker, a chorus of Common Poorwills began from somewhere up Rincon – Red Box Road. Shortly before I retired to the tent at 9pm, the screech-owls moved to the canopy over my campsite and started calling emphatically. They ended up doing this off-and-on all night, waking me up at times. At around 2:30am, I was awakened by the sound of a bear crashing around somewhere – I wasn’t sure if it was near or far. As I listened intently to try to figure that out, the screech-owls threw a party overhead. They were joined by a couple of hoots from a Spotted Owl (unfortunately, it never did the full call) which prompted them to be quiet. The bear crashed around again and made some strange noises, and I eventually managed to fall back to sleep.

I enjoyed the serenity of a hike and camp without a person around. Lest it be thought it was all great, there was the annoyance of a large number of insects, including pervasive swarms of mosquitoes, various other biting flies, and yellowjackets. The yellowjackets were particularly enamored with my food when it was available. For the most part, my food remained locked away in a bear canister tucked at the base of an oak tree.

A surprise was how warm it was overnight. I slept without the rainfly on my tent (I usually need it for warmth), and spent most of the night outside of my sleeping bag.

Darkness nears at camp.
Clean and cold water flows from a nearby pipe. This was needed for cooking and coffee.
A woodrat crossed a log over the West Fork of the San Gabriel River as I slept.

The Return Hike

I departed camp at about 7am. While it wasn’t my original plan, I decided to take the Rincon – Red Box Road back because it was overcast and the forested Gabrielino Trail was fairly dark. This was important because part of my plan was to take photographs, and it is difficult to do so when there is no light. I also began an eBird list on my phone, with the tracking mode on, which meant the hike was essentially a count transect. I hiked with my Nikon around my neck this time, so I could shoot whatever I thought was worth shooting. I ended up documenting 41 bird species on the return trip, as well as a surprising number of bear tracks and a number of Mule Deer. The only reptiles observed were Western Whiptail and Western Fence Lizard. I returned to my Jeep at around 9:30am, and saw the first people I had seen since I departed the previous afternoon.

The list of wildlife species detected is included after the photographs below.

Rear print of an American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), one of many that I found all along Rincon-Red Box Road. Contrast was increased so the print would be more visible.
Looking toward Red Box. Red Box is the notch in the distance.


West Fork is located at an elevation of approximately 3,060 feet (930 meters) above mean sea level, in a canyon that houses the West Fork of the San Gabriel River. The “river” itself is vegetated by White Alder (Alnus rhombifolia)-dominated riparian woodland, with varying types of understory vegetation depending on the width of the drainage and the openness of the canopy. Common bird species in this habitat include Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus), and Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). North-facing canyon slopes are mostly forested with a canopy dominated by Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) and Bigcone Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa). Common species include Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata), Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), and Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). Southern slopes are various types of chaparral depending on sun exposure, elevation, and soil conditions. Common species here include California Quail (Callipepla californica), California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica), and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea).

Birds Detected

Cooper’s Hawk – Accipiter cooperii

Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis

Band-tailed Pigeon – Patagioenas fasciata

Mourning Dove – Zenaida macroura

Western Screech-Owl – Megascops kennicottii

Great Horned Owl – Bubo virginianus

Spotted Owl – Strix occidentalis

Common Poorwill – Phalaenoptilus nuttallii

Black-chinned Hummingbird – Archilochus alexandri

Anna’s Hummingbird – Calypte anna

Allen’s Hummingbird – Selasphorus sasin

Acorn Woodpecker – Melanerpes formicivorus

Nuttall’s Woodpecker – Picoides nuttallii

Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescens

White-headed Woodpecker – Picoides albolarvatus

Northern Flicker – Colaptes auratus

Olive-sided Flycatcher – Contopus cooperi

Western Wood-Pewee – Contopus sordidulus

Pacific-slope Flycatcher – Empidonax difficilis

Black Phoebe – Sayornis nigricans

Ash-throated Flycatcher – Myiarchus cinerascens

Hutton’s Vireo – Vireo huttoni

Warbling Vireo – Vireo gilvus

Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta stelleri

California Scrub-Jay – Aphelocoma californica

Common Raven – Corvus corax

Mountain Chickadee – Poecile gambeli

Oak Titmouse – Baeolophus inornatus

Bushtit – Psaltriparus minimus

White-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta carolinensis

Canyon Wren – Catherpes mexicanus

House Wren – Troglodytes aedon

Bewick’s Wren – Thryomanes bewickii

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Polioptila caerulea

Wrentit – Chamaea fasciata

Western Bluebird – Sialia mexicana

American Robin – Turdus migratorius

Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia

Black-throated Gray Warbler – Setophaga nigrescens

Dark-eyed Junco – Junco hyemalis

Song Sparrow – Melospiza melodia

California Towhee – Melozone crissalis

Spotted Towhee – Pipilo maculatus

Western Tanager – Piranga ludoviciana

Black-headed Grosbeak – Pheucticus melanocephalus

Purple Finch – Haemorhous purpureus

Lesser Goldfinch – Spinus psaltria

Lawrence’s Goldfinch – Spinus lawrencei

Mammals Detected

Bat species (Order Chiroptera)

Western Gray Squirrel – Sciurus griseus

California Ground Squirrel – Spermophilus beecheyi

Merriam’s Chipmunk – Tamias merriami

Woodrat species – Neotoma sp.

American Black Bear – Ursus americanus

Mule Deer – Odocoileus hemionus

Reptiles Detected

Western Fence Lizard – Sceloporus occidentalis

Tiger (or Western) Whiptail – Aspidoscelis tigris

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