Plant Exploring: San Gabriel Mountains

By Michael Kauffmann

Cross-section of the San Gabriel Mountains
Ecological cross-section of the San Gabriel Mountains.

In 1997, teaching 6th graders at the Los Angeles County Outdoor Science School, I first discovered the San Gabriel Mountains. The school, located in Wrightwood at an elevation of 6,000 feet, was (and still is) nestled in a mixed conifer forest with pines, firs, and oaks. Students from across the county came for a week and we spent everyday outside-tromping through the mountains, exploring hands-on, place-based concepts.

While my working title was teacher I was just as much a student, with local botanists, geologists, ecologists, and cultural historians serving as my mentors at night or on weekends. It was during this time I first developed an understanding of biogeography-how abiotic factors affect the distribution of flora and fauna. The San Gabriel Mountains rise to 10,000 feet above the Los Angeles Basin, stretching from western San Bernardino County to Santa Clarita along the I-5 corridor-serving as the recreational backyard for millions of Southern Californians.

Mount Baden Powell
Near the summit of Mount Baden Powell.

This range is the landmark feature of the Angeles National Forest, which also includes the Sierra Pelona Mountains. The San Gabriels offer critical habitat for many endangered and sensitive animals including Nelson’s Bighorn sheep, California condors, spotted owls, and mountain yellow-legged frogs. Plant communities here provide refuge for 76 species considered rare, threatened, or endangered.

In 1998 I first saw a bighorn sheep in the deepest canyons of the Sheep Mountains Wilderness while pursuing bigleaf-maples in all their yellow-fall wonder. The rams were rutting and the cracking of their horns echoed through maple-lined Fish Canyon. It was at that moment that I forever fell in love with the San Gabriels.

Shaun and RT Hawke are two of my mentors in learning about the natural history of the San Gabriel Mountains. While teaching together at the Los Angeles County Outdoor Science School, they introduced me to many of the region’s unique plants, animals, and places. Adventures to Mount Williamson and hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail inspired me learn more about the unique flora and fauna of the mountains. They were also the first to pique my interest in CNPS. RT and Shaun are long-time members of the San Gabriel Chapter and over the years have volunteered as field trip leaders and rare plant monitors.

Jane Strong, another member of the CNPS San Gabriel Mountain Chapter, has also had a long-term love affair with the range. She first connected to the mountains as a fire lookout on Vetter Mountain. After her retirement in 2000 she set a goal to “Learn all the plants in the San Gabriel Mountains between Angeles Crest and San Antonio Canyon.”

Her quest began by volunteering as a leader for natural history hikes while working as a docent at the Mt. Baldy Visitor Center. “My favorite experiences have been leading field trips for the CNPS San Gabriel Mountain Chapter.” says Strong. “Our hikes are always focused on rare plants, butterflies, and new places to explore. There are so many wonderful plants to see and places to go in these mountains.”

After the 2002 Curve Fire, which occurred in the high elevations of the San Gabriel Mountains, a CNPS San Gabriel Chapter team formed including Jane Strong, Walt Fidler, Jane Terril, and Graham Bothwell. This powerhouse group set about monitoring and documenting the Lily Spring Area. Fremontia readers (Vol. 41 No. 2) will remember the study comparing plant populations and flowering times observed in 2011 with those published 30 years earlier. This is citizen science at its finest!

The team was worried that several years of drought, coupled with increasing temperatures, would convert forest to chaparral after the fire. However, Jane Tirrell has continued to monitor the site. In summer 2016 she found lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta subsp. murrayana) and Jeffrey pines (P. jeffreyi) repopulating the post-fire montane chaparral consisting mainly of mountain whitethorn (Ceanothus cordulatus) and chinquapin (Chrysolepis sempirvirens). The forest appears to be returning.

In 2015, I returned to work with CNPS and the Angeles National Forest to initiate a mapping and inventorying project for bigcone Douglas-fir (Pseudostuga macrocarpa, 85.6MB). I have had time to reflect on the scientific journey and understand, even more, the beauty and importance of the San Gabriel Mountains.


  1. HI there — we were driving up into the SG Mts today. Way up, about 6000 feet or higher, near Buckhorn Canyon or Mt Waterman, we spotted several very red-barked tall conifers, that resemble a Sequoia. I’ve been researching but can’t locate the tree. Not a pine. Any ideas? thanks, Janice

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