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The Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area

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My friend Dave, an artist and a walker, has an unerring nose for out-of-the-way spots to explore at leisure.

A few months ago he started talking about a place with quarries and riverbeds and hiking trails by the confluence of the 210 and the 605 freeways. It was in Duarte, he said. He took the Gold Line from downtown Pasadena to get there.

My appetite was whetted. We made plans to go together one day, but Dave had to work and we had to take a rain check. So last week I drove out to the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area — which is technically in the city of Irwindale — by myself.

Owned and run by the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, the park is open from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Nov. 1 to April 30. From May 1 to Oct. 31, the hours are 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

On a Wednesday, the sentry kiosk was empty — winter weekdays are free. Otherwise, the fee is $10 per vehicle.

“Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area,” reports the park’s website, “is nestled at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains and is considered one of the many hidden jewels of Southern California. This 836-acre facility boasts a serene 70-acre lake with year-round fishing and nonmotorized watercraft usage. During the summer months, the recreational area highlights a five-acre chlorinated swim beach and the unique Water Play Area. The facility is home to many protected native plants and animals. The Nature Center is operated and staffed by volunteers of the San Gabriel Mountains Regional Conservancy offering educational, interpretive and walking tours throughout the year.”

At various times throughout the year, the park hosts a Renaissance Pleasure Faire, the Santa Fe Dam Radio Control Model Airplane Group and the Southern California Rocket Association. Other activities include equestrian trails, moonlight fishing and bird walks.

I wound down past a huge stone levee and parked. The place is huge and you’re free to find your way. I stopped in at the administration building to orient myself. “Wow,” I told the guy. “It’s a pretty nice park,” he agreed and pointed me in the right direction for “the nice leisurely walk” I said I was after.

The focal point is a 70-acre lake, ringed by shaded spots to park and picnic. You can rent a raft or a pedal boat.

You can swim.

You can fish. The lake is periodically stocked with rainbow trout and catfish. Largemouth bass, bluegills, crappies and carp also live there.

Or you can wander.

To walk the perimeter of the lake takes an hour or so. A trail hugs the shore, but you can also roughly follow its northern contour on a series of more rustic dirt paths. I took one of these and almost immediately came upon a spur that meandered through acres of promisingly solitary scrub and immediately struck out, due north, toward the Miller Beer plant sign in the distance.

After weeks of rain, gloom and cold, the afternoon sun had emerged. Above, the purple-blue mountains were girdled with clouds and the peaks to the northeast were capped with snow.

Down below — a banquet. Everywhere fresh green leaves sprouted from drought-desiccated mounds of old growth. Prickly pear cacti were twined with wild cucumber. Stupendous stands of toyon, manzanita and lemonade berry provided shelter for lower-lying coyote brush, brittlebush and chuparosa.

In the silence, solitude and warm afternoon sun, my mind quieted down.

I began to notice the shapes of leaves.

The filigree of bare tree branches against the sky.

A bone-white rock shot through with a Zen calligraphy scrawl of rust.

The distance was defined by the high curve of the rock-lined levee. A bicyclist slowly sailed across one sweeping section of the horizon. In another, a lone walker made her way.

The San Gabriel River Trail meanders through the park from north to south, running for a mile or so on top of the river rock dam, then reconnecting with the San Gabriel River south of Arrow Highway.

The nearby Santa Fe Dam itself, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s, is a large flood control structure serving a drainage area of 236 square miles and is more than four miles long.

The recreation area, by contrast, comprises 836 acres. I walked for two hours and covered only a very small part of that. As I headed back to my car, mallard ducks glided regally over the lake. Other visitors have posted about coots, black-crowned night herons and geese.

According to Dave, the place is even more mysterious and overwhelming at night. With the days getting longer, I can’t wait to go back.

Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.

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