Ralph Beltran, trails supervisor of the L.A. Department of Parks and Recreation, and Pam Richard, manager of the Marshall Canyon stable, know every turn in the nine miles of the secluded northern La Verne canyon trails. / photo by Jennifer Contreras

Ralph Beltran, trails supervisor of the L.A. Department of Parks and Recreation, and Pam Richard, manager of the Marshall Canyon stable, know every turn in the nine miles of the secluded northern La Verne canyon trails. / photo by Jennifer Contreras

by Meridith Zembal
photography by Jennifer Contreras

I reached into my closet and grabbed my old pair of Wranglers. I slipped them on and was happy to see that they still fit. Memories from my northern California upbringing were flooding my mind: muddy trails, dusty clothes, open fields and rolling hills. Sitting down on my bed, I leaned forward and retrieved my brown cowboy boots from the shoe pile. Smiling, I pulled on my dusty trail boots, the only ones I had brought to this end of the state. I was excited. It had been months since I had been trail riding. It was finally my chance to discover the beauty that Marshall Canyon has to offer.

Just two miles from Baseline Road, this nine mile trail, part of the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation trail system, winds close to La Verne homes but remains natural and undisturbed by urban life.

The trail is still growing, says Ralph Beltran, Riding and Hiking Trails Supervisor for the LADPR. “We are looking to acquire land from the Homeowners Association in the Live Oak area. That way we can make a nice loop connecting with our trails. But the process is still pending.” Presently, the Marshall Canyon Trail stretches from Orangewood Street in La Verne, to approximately the top of Claraboya in Claremont.

Beltran is the person in charge of future improvements and plans for the trail system. His job for LADPR is to not only supervise trails and take care of problems, but also to maintain the current trails with bulldozers. Common problems include landslides due to weather conditions and fallen trees.

My journey began at the Marshall Canyon Equestrian Center, located at 7000 Esperanza Ave., at its intersection with Golden Hills Road. The thick smell of horse manure and dust mixed in the air. It’s the kind of dust where you step out of your vehicle, and your face instantly feels dirty. To me, this nostalgic smell was comforting. My photographer Jennifer Contreras and I set out in search of Ralph, our guide, to begin the ride. Here, Jennifer and I met up with Pam Richard, the manager of the stable. This is not only a stable for renting horses; one can board horses, or take lessons here as well. Additional information about the center is available by calling (909) 593-8739.

With three rental horses standing side by side, I chose Glitter. Aptly named, Glitter had a brown coat soft to the touch that seemed to sparkle in my eyes. I stood in front of her and rubbed her face and neck. She snorted and breathed her hot breath on my face. This tactic of smelling out a human is common for horses. I let her nudge me with her nose so that she knew I wasn’t a threat. I smiled when the brittle hairs on the end of her snout brushed up on my shirt. Each horse has its own personality and conveys a sense of human character to the rider without words.

A rental horse seems to instinctively know what is coming each morning. To the horses, taking a rider out on a trail is like going to work. Of course, rather than a cup of coffee to wake up, they drink water out of huge troughs that are scattered amongst the trail. Many local riders board their horses here. Pam says, “These are some of the best trails in Southern California because of the variety of the terrain. The trails are groomed and go on for miles.”

Pam synced the girth up around the horse’s gut, securing the western saddle in place. I stuck my left pointy boot into the stirrup and pulled myself onto the horse, six feet into the air. It had been a long time since I had the time to take a horse out. My sense of pride and strength above that horse had me anxious to begin the ride.

We began our journey heading northeast, parading up toward the San Gabriel Mountains and the heart of Marshall Canyon. Single file the horses plodded, Pam in front, me following, Jennifer behind me, and Ralph bringing up the rear. What was previously a dusty stable with cars and signs of city life quickly transformed into an endless forest of Live Oak and Alder.

As the riders continued in silence, songbirds in the canopy held their own conversations. The breath of my horse kept rhythm with our pace. We passed a small creek that seemed low for this time of year. A blue line stream softly trickled south, eventually reaching the coastline. I noticed the low water level is due to the small amount of precipitation and snow run-off this year. Glitter glanced down at the stream, pranced over it, and sped up to trot up the small hill that followed. We continued on the trail, falling deeper and deeper into what seemed so surreal compared to most of urban Southern California.

In the lower parts of the canyon, the streams create a river or creek habitat that differs from the dryer areas in the hills. The Alder trees love this moist habitat. Wet areas of the canyons support wildlife like salamanders, frogs and pesky mosquitoes. Other animals include rattle-snakes, deer, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, bears and opossum. Dr. Dan Merritt, professor of zoology and environmental science at ULV, says the Marshall Canyon wildlife corridor is vitally important in the Los Angeles National Forest; he notes that the riparian river habitat is crucial for many forms of wildlife to survive.

“There are some beautiful Alder stands and excellent Oak woodland. The area sustains a wide diversity of wildlife from songbirds and birds of prey to rough skinned newts that come to the stream to mate. The underbrush provides cover and food for small mammals and invertebrates,” Dr. Merritt says. “The park successfully represents the combination of recreation, preservation of habitat and a place for people to escape the stress of city life.”

Riding out of the moist areas and heading toward the foothills, we found the shade from the luminescent canopies of Live Oak becoming less dense. We peaked out at lookout points where views of the San Gabriel Valley held a slight haze. It felt as if I were looking at a picture because the smog-filled city seemed thousands of miles away from where we stood. Looking out onto an opposite side of an extension trail, I saw an animal trotting in what seemed a dog-like manner. Suddenly it came to me, it was a bobcat! I pointed it out quickly to Ralph, who saw it and assured me that it was indeed a bobcat. Although it seemed common to Ralph and Pam, that was my first sighting from all my trail experiences. As it disappeared from eyesight, I kept watching for another appearance as we continued to the staging area for trailers, bikers and hikers.

The horse staging area, off Stephen’s Ranch Road, can be reached by vehicle. This area is adjacent to the Marshall Canyon Fire Station and Camp Afflerbaugh. Trail users park here to begin their hikes or rides. One organized group that regularly hikes Marshall Canyon are the “Trail Trekkers,” a group of all ages sponsored by the city of La Verne and organized by local resident Phyllis Helm. The amazing group takes out anyone who wants to get involved with low-impact to serious hiking on various trails from the San Gabriel Valley all the way to trails in Palm Springs. The Trail Trekkers group began fall 1995 and has been hiking approximately six days per week ever since. A monthly calendar is produced. To receive information concerning this group, contact the La Verne Parks and Recreation Department at (909) 596-8776. Trail Trekkers is a cost-free organization that welcomes anyone who loves to hike in natural beauty. The group prides itself in following the L.A. County guidelines.

“We just don’t have the wildlife we used to,” says Helm. “There used to be hundreds of rabbits up there, but because of the construction of new homes, they have disappeared.” Helm hopes that more people become aware of the splendor that hides in the foothills, so more local citizens will strive to preserve it.

Bob Williams, L.A. County member of the original trail cutting crew for Marshall Canyon during the late 1970s, is credited with carving the trail system in Marshall Canyon and surrounding areas. He was assigned what trails to connect, most of which started in Walnut Creek, near Bonelli Park. As best he could, Williams and two other men worked hard to create trails without destroying the habitat of the canyon. “It took about nine months total to complete those trails,” explains Williams. “We didn’t have a ‘dozer; just an old John Deere with rubber tires.”

“People who used the area in its natural state would complain and ask why we were destroying the wildlife,” Williams says. He worked hard to complete the trails with care to preserve them as naturally as possible. Bear tracks would often be found impressed in the wet dirt on the tractor. Although bears still exist in the canyon, it is rare to see them as much as in the past. The construction of new homes near Esperanza Avenue caused the wildlife to move further north into the foothills.

Avid horse-rider Meridith Zembal explores the trails of Marshall Canyon in northern La Verne for the first time. Zembal, a ULV junior journalism major originally from Santa Rosa, Calif., grew up riding horses competitively and recreationally. / photo by Jennifer Contreras

Avid horse-rider Meridith Zembal explores the trails of Marshall Canyon in northern La Verne for the first time. Zembal, a ULV junior journalism major originally from Santa Rosa, Calif., grew up riding horses competitively and recreationally. / photo by Jennifer Contreras

Back on the trail, we left the staging area and headed toward the Equestrian Camp Grounds. With Ralph’s key to the entrance, I looked around inside. This is an area that is meant for trailers carrying horses, tents, plus an arena to lope one’s horse. There’s even a stage with seats for special events. It’s also equipped with port-a-potties, water troughs for the horses and garbage cans.

The Equestrian Camping is adjacent to what’s left of the old original tree farm, and nursery work is still conducted in this area. Access to this camp is available by LADPR permit only. A second Marshall Canyon camping area is reserved for the Boy Scouts. Here rest plots of ground for tents with numbered tree stump markers. Picnic tables, bathrooms and garbage cans are available for trail users. This place seems perfect for Boy Scout camp outs, as the tent area slopes off into the forest. One can just imagine what kind of mysterious things little boys could find here. Camp fire stories would not be hard to create in the still night air at this stop.

Continuing along the trail, we began to head back toward the stable. For the home stretch of the ride, I smiled and sighed, feeling relieved. It felt as if I had escaped from my cluttered lifestyle; it was depressing, accepting the fact that as soon as I was off my horse, it was back to reality. On the way home, I admired all that surrounded me, from the whistling songbirds to the smoky sunlight that peeked through the gaps in the trees. It felt so peaceful; my heartbeat was impeded. Back we trotted over the small creeks and up the small inclines. After approximately two and a half hours, we were at the stable. We dismounted, and with a pat on the neck I said goodbye to my horse. Jen and I thanked Ralph and Pam for their time, and headed back for my car. It seemed almost awkward sitting on leather interior after what we had just experienced. I carefully pulled out of the parking lot and headed for home. I felt satisfied, the day had been a success and a beautiful memory had been added to my collection.

Editor’s Note: Marshall Canyon is located about two miles north of Baseline Road. While main entrances are not signed, two exist: The intersection of Esperanza and Golden Hills roads at the highway bridge, or the trail head entrance near Orangewood Street and De Mansion Street. Parking is available at Oak Mesa School, 5200 Wheeler Ave.

Marshall Canyon Guidelines

  • Enjoy recreational activities like mountain biking, hiking, walking, jogging or horseback riding.
  • Yield the right of way: Horses always have the right of way.
  • Bikes yield to hikers and horses.
  • Enter trails at your own risk; rangers are rarely present.
  • Stay on designated trails.
  • Avoid contact with wild animals or plants.
  • No medical assistance is available in the park.
  • No firearms, motorized vehicles or alcoholic beverages are allowed.
  • Rules and regulations are enforced by a Volunteer Mounted Assistance Unit.