San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders

The San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders is the premier hiking trail restoration, maintenance, and building volunteer organization in the Angeles National Forest. We work closely with the United States Forest Service to schedule work efforts within the San Gabriel River Ranger District of the forest, clearing trails, safely dropping hung-up tree limbs to remove safety hazards, building wooden foot bridges, clearing drainage culverts, building rock retaining walls, and a lot of other activities suitable for volunteers to perform.

National Parks Service

In the aftermath of the Station Fire, volunteers are going to be sought which can assist in the trail restoration process, felling burned trees that overhang hiking trails, pulling down " Widowmaker" tree limbs that constitute hazards, re-establishing trails through the burned brush, building soil retention walls, and numerous other activities which will shorten the time needed to return recreation opportunities to the region.

The information provided here describes how you may join in the effort, what is required of you, and how things are traditionally done.

Working in the forest without pay is extremely fun and often rewarding, yet it can also be difficult, demanding, and on rare occasion exhausting work depending on what you feel comfortable doing. Because of this, information about what you can expect when volunteering is provided.

The Trailbuilders work at minimum every 1'st, 3'rd, and 5'th weekend of every month with additional days added to the schedule for special projects. For the major restoration effort required after the fire, the Trailbuilders may start to schedule restoration efforts every Saturday and then relax the schedule eventually.

United States Forest Service

The current schedule is provided at the following web page:


For a review of some of the non-fire-restoration work that volunteers with the Trailbuilders has done in the past, you can review the following web page:


You may email the Trailbuilders at (Email Ben) or (Email Fred) to get more information about when and where the Trailbuilders will be working and how to meet up with us.

The Trailbuilders Official Web Site also provides information about the organization and how to volunteer in the Angeles National Forets.

A Typical Volunteer Day

Volunteering with the Trailbuilders goes much like the following. Things change some times, of course, and we take things as they come. But this is a general outline of a typical volunteer day:

USFS Gateway Information Center

There may be other activities that are done during the day, such as going through the tools to clean and sharpen them, sorting through tools that need to be maintained or repaired, sorting through the discarded metal, wood, and other materials that are collected at the Rincon Fire Station for cast-off tools and equipment that the Trailbuilders can referbish.

North Fork Access Trail

What you should bring

All of the tools, materials, and equipment for volunteering is provided by the Trailbuilders, the Forest Service, or by the High Country Riders (who provide horse and mule transport assistance.) Scout Troops, youth groups, church groups and other organizations may also provide materials for projects; volunteers themselves do not need to provide tools, equipment, or materials.

If you have personal tools you would like to bring, please inform one of the Trailbuilders so that we know what has been taken in to the field. Your own personal chainsaws and other gasoline-powered tools must not be brought to volunter efforts because such tools require a Forest Service Safety and Compliance inspection and certification, and the Trailbuilders like to have only gasoline-powered tools that they are very well familiar with being used on volunteer projects.

  • It is best to bring a hat since we work under the Sun or shade depending on where we work, and in Summer months it can get hot.
  • Sunglasses might be worth bringing. The Trailbuilders provides protective eye goggles upon request (you must ask for all equipment and clothing while we are at Rincon getting our tools.) Eye protection and other Personal Protective clothing and equipment is provided by the Trailbuilders.
  • Drinking water is very important regardless of how cold or hot the weather is. We often work at altitudes from 2,000 feet to 6,500 feet, and we work in all kinds of weather. Often the Trailbuilders or the Forest Service will provide drinking water in recyclable bottles however it is always good to bring a considerable amount of water.
  • You should bring a lunch, something that does not require a fire or stove to prepare.
  • A day pack helps keep your things coordinated and keeps them from being lost or left behind. "Fanny packs" are often a good idea to bring.
  • Comfortable boots are usually very important for your feet since we often hike in to a work site carrying tools and equipment, at times walking through streams and rivers, working while standing up and working the trail and then hiking back out. Volunteers will wear tennis shoes and have no difficulties however when boulders are being moved and shovels are being used, solid boots are very important to wear. Many of the Trailbuilders wear steel-toed boots.
  • Sunscreen lotion and poison oak barricade lotions are a good idea, even if you are immune from the effects of contact with poison oak. The Trailbuilders will at times provide poison oak barricade lotions however it's not always provided. If you are susceptible to the effects of poison oak, it's very much recommended that you bring your own lotions.
  • Bucking down tree

    What You Can And Can Not Do While Volunteering

    Safety is the number one priority when volunteering in the forest, and because safety is so important, a few things aren't allowed when volunteering in the Angeles National Forest.

    Chainsaw cutting work in the Angeles National Forest is restricted to being performed only by volunteers who have acquired formal training and certification, volunteers who must re-certify periodically to maintain their safety awareness and technical abilities with chainsaws.

    A number of Hot Shot fire fighting crews within the San Gabriel River Ranger District provide such training and certification, all you must do is telephone them, inform them that you desire such formal training, and see if they can schedule a class. The Dalton Hot Shots, Bear Divide Hot Shots, and the Arroyo Seco Hot Shots may be able to either schedule training for you else they can provide contact information on where you might be able to acquire such training.

    Chainsaw work typically consists of 3 or 4 crews, a trained, certified, and experienced sawer who is qualified to fell and/or buck problem trees, and 2 or 3 swampers who assist with wedges, hammers, establishing firm ground to work on, establishing escape routes for the feller, removing limbs as they are cut from the main tree trunk, and rolling bucked tree sections out of the work area as the sawer signals for such removal.

    Sawers always without fail work with all the required PPE -- Personal Protection Equipment -- which includes Kevlar chaps, hearing protection, eye protection, solid boot foot wear and hard hat. Typically long-sleeve shirts are worn while cutting however there are rare situations where the sawer may wish to keep the forearms uncovered.

    Chainsaw teams are required to have at least one shovel with them at all times, a medical First Aid kit, at least one fire extinguisher, and a field repair kit for the saw.

    Swampers are more numerous than sawers because swamping is the more difficult job. The ground under which the sawing is being performed should be scraped clear of tripping hazards and escape routes should be clear of obstructions, tasks that swampers are asked to perform. In addition, swampers enter and leave the area of bucking to clear tree limbs, bucked trunk sections, and other materials when the sawer signals that it is safe to approach.

    The sawer's training includes the expectation of being fully aware of everything that is going on around the area being worked, including watching what swampers and other people are doing, how they're standing, what direction they're moving, paying attention to whether a swamper is attempting to get their attention, looking up as well as around, all while being fully aware of where the chainsaw blade is at all times.

    Crosscut saw

    Crosscut saw cutting work in the Angeles National Forest is typically done instead of chainsaws when the work to be performed is in a Designated Wilderness which precludes the use of power tools and petroleum-based lubricants.

    Crosscut sawing also requires that a trained and certified crosscut sawer is working in the team performing the work. Given the nature of crosscut sawing, trained sawers will determine the lay of cuts and volunteers will trade off on the saw back and forth as volunteers tire and rest up.

    Training and certification opportunities for crosscut sawing is not routinely provided by Hot Shot crews, and locating a facility which can schedule such training is much more difficult than it is for chainsaw certification. To become certified in crosscut saw work, you will need to do some research for training opportunities in your area.

    The Trailbuilders are currently (June 2010) attempting to acquire the certifications required to train and certify other people and hopefully the policies and procedures for doing so will be worked out this year.

    With crosscut sawing, felling is always without fail done by certified sawers whereas bucking and swamping is done by anyone who wants to volunteer for that work regardless of certification provided a certified sawer is included the bucking team. Crosscut sawing is just as hazardous as chainsaw sawing so we always have a very experienced person included in all saw teams.

    Bucking on the ground with crosscut saws is safe provided a trained sawer is present and provides safety oversight while the bucking is taking place. Swamping on crosscut saw work is less demanding than with chainsaw work since the pace of the work is much slower.

    Violence, alcohol, firearms, loud radio music, and other anti-social behavior is forbidden. In fact any kind of safety-related misbehavior will result in an abrupt ending of the work day for everyone.

    Everything else that a volunteer might like to do and feels comfortable doing can be done and very often volunteers will decide for themselves what to do and how they want to do it. The Trailbuilders provide safety and experience as well as instruction on how things can be done when asked. Usually the Trailbuilders will review what needs to be done and volunteers are left to figure out how to do things on their own unless they ask for suggestions or unless the volunteer is doing something that may not be safe.

    Volunteering is much fun and is always rewarding, more so when a volunteer was not sure he or she could do the work and discovers within themselves capabilities they were unsure of. The tasks people perform are directed and scheduled however each volunteer is free to take on tasks or set them aside as they wish, the only dictate being that safety is the primary overriding goal of the day.

    Volunteering: The Next Level

    The United States Forest Service is always looking for dedicated volunteers who wish to donate their time and effort in a wider variety of tasks which are suitable for volunteers. That includes manning Information Centers, providing information to forest visitors, collecting trash, hauling trash, swamping out toilets, removing spray paint, performing hiking trail surveys, performing safety patrols, working on fire mitigation projects, and a lot of other things.

    Being a Federal Volunteer requires dedication and hard work as well as periodic training. As an example, you can acquire a governmental driving license to assist in trash hauling efforts, equipment deliveries, and other activities that require the use of USFS vehicles.

    If you would like more information on how to become a USFS Volunteer within the San Gabriel River Ranger District, contact:

    Lois Pickins (USFS), Volunteer Coordinator
    San Gabriel River Ranger District
    110 North Wabash Avenue
    Glendora, CA. 91741
    (626) 335-1900

    What Work Gets Done and How Is It Done

    A lot of activities are performed by volunteers who come out with the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders, but how exactly is such work done? This information lists some of the tasks that volunteers may do with descriptions of how the Trailbuilders accomplish such work.

    Hiking in with tools

    Trail Maintenance

    Trail maintenance generally requires hiking along a trail, removing rocks, boulders, branches, rock slides, downed trees, berms along the trail, and other clutter which either obstructs the trail or impedes a hiker's reasonably safe progress along the trail.

    When the Trailbuilders work along the San Gabriel River, crossing the river is something that usually must be done, and at some periods during the year the water level can be very high. In such cases the experienced and trained Trailbuilders will mitigate the swift water hazard by stringing ropes across the river for volunteer use.

    Trailbuilding at times can be a growth experience for people who have never done such things before, and younger kids who volunteer have in the past found strength and courage they did not know they possessed.

    When it comes to first-time experiences, volunteers may or may not be informed in advance of what the day's effort includes, but always volunteers are asked to do only what they feel comfortable doing.

    Water flowing down the center or sides of the trail is one reason why trails go bad and require maintenance. Some trail groups install water-bars to try to slow down the flow of water. The Trailbuilders generally like to divert water off of the trail by cutting trenches in to the berm on the outside of hiking trails instead of installing water-bars however when conditions require them, the Trailbuilders will create water-bars.

    Rock slides are a constant problem in the Angeles National Forest where the granite is highly friable and slides are common. Along some trails, endless rock, dirt, and sand continually come down and such materials must be removed from the trail and, as time permits, materials are dragged down from the hillsides proactively and then get removed from the trail.

    Plants that like to grow in open sunlight like to grow on foot paths and, as much as it is unfortunate to do so, plants must be uprooted or (if they are pine or oak saplings that the volunteer would like to save) be transplanted somewhere safe. One of the most common stabbing plants that gets removed from trails are yucca and occasionally we will remove poison oak from trails.

    When a lip forms along the outside part of a trail, the berm may be removed using shovels so that water can flow off of the trail and in to the canyon below rather than flow down the trail to make runnels. Likewise if trenches form along hillsides due to water flowing along the inside of the trail, volunteers may decide to re-slope the grade so that the incline allows water to flow off the trail rather than along the hillside.

    This kind of trail maintenance employs shovels, picks, and McLeods as primary trail working tools with Pic Maddox and heavy metal rock bars being used as needed.

    Some trail maintenance is done such that the trail is completely clean of wood chips, pine needles, pine cones, leaves, or small stones. Other trails may be left lined with rocks but much of the dried pine leaves and oak leaves left on the trail. The impulse is to scrape everything off the trail completely however that's not always desirable or needed if the trail is well defined and the dead fuels on the trail are thin.

    Downed trees, hanging trees, dead-falls and snags are removed either using hand saws, chainsaws, crosscut saws, or just plain heavy dragging and hauling by hand to remove the obstructions off of the trail.

    Chainsaws are operated by trained and certified operators who utilize swampers to perform the heavier work of cleaning out the downed tree after it's felled, bucked, delimbed, and ready to be hauled off of the trail. Swampers are also responsible for digging under tree trunks to afford a cavity safe for the chainsaw to use so that the saw does not bite in to dirt.

    If you think that swampers aren't kept busy enough, they also have the added duty of bringing along a fire extinguisher and a medical kit while sawing is being performed to ensure that if the hot saw some how throws a spark through its arrestor, any fire or spark on the ground or brush can be extinguished (after which the saw's use is discontinued and the entire area is monitored and/or dug up and treated with water just to be sure everything is out cold.)

    Typically the certified sawer may perform field maintenance on the saws being used as needed, ensuring gasoline and chain oil does not run out, keeping the machines clean, swapping out dull chains for sharp ones, maintaining proper tension on the chain, allowing the saw to cool off when needed, and other such maintenance of the saw.

    Hatchets and axes may be used to remove bark and limbs from trees that are to be bucked up in to sections. (High School students tend to enjoy this kind of rather violent, destructive, yet useful work!)

    To move very large boulders, a device called a Grip Hoist is used, or heavy metal rock bars are used. When a Grip Hoist is used, a long metal braided cable is run through the Hoist, one end of the cable carries a hook which can collect links of chain wrapped around the boulder while the other end of the Hoist itself is attached to a large tree to anchor the Hoist using a wide cloth webbing to protect the tree.

    As volunteers pump the handle on the Hoist, the boulder moves easily, an inch or so with each stroke. Volunteers can move massive weights with this tool and the Trailbuilders has two of them and lots of cable and slings as well as other equipment used with the hoists.

    Limbing and bucking of tree down across trail

    Trail Safety Improvements

    While not entirely considered "trail maintenance," pulling down hanging tree limbs, " Widowmakers" and dead or burned trees that constitute a safety hazard is another aspect of volunteer work that is done in the forest. Always without exception this type of activity has a senior, very experienced trail worker performing safety oversight for the effort, relying upon volunteers to stay alert and aware and to follow suggestions offered by the safety oversight while the hazard is being removed.

    Hanging trees or limbs are evaluated by everyone in the team dispatched to take care of the hazard. Everyone discusses the best possible way to bring down the hazard safely, slowly, and carefully. The options are to cut limbs with saws, attach ropes to pull things down, use a Grip Hoist to pull everything down safely from a distance, or to leave the hang-up in place if they do not feel comfortable addressing the problem.

    While bringing down safety problems, if the effort is not working or there are any concerns about continued safety, the effort can be abandoned. Professional USFS employees might decide to return and use explosives to eliminate a safety hazard after which volunteers may be asked to return and clean up.

    Trail Building from Scratch

    The Trailbuilders do most of their volunteer work clearing existing trails and working in existing infrastructure -- bridges, stone foot paths, Visitor Centers, trail signs and such. New trails are established at the behest of the Forest Service when requested, either to provide access to newly installed toilets or to provide a safe access to streams and rivers, filling in and blocking off unsafe trails while doing so.

    New trails are created by first starting with survey trips to the proposed site. There, a clinometer is used to measure the inclination of a proposed path, line and flagging is laid along the proposed trail, and then much discussion takes place with the line going back and forth until some kind of a consensus is reached after which tools are used to carve a line through the ground.

    Over several week ends the new trail takes shape by digging out and removing material from the hillside until a shelf is created. Switchbacks may be established, rock retaining walls may be built with rocks, brush may be uprooted, and on rare occasion tree limbs may be trimmed back (we do not kill living trees.)

    Bridge at Rincon Environmental Education Center

    Bridge Building and Maintenance

    The Trailbuilders have built a number of bridges, three of them wonderful wooden foot bridges, two of which are behind the Rincon Environmental Education Center 12 miles up Highway 39, and the other of which spans Laurel Gulch along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River.

    Bride building involves working heavily with the Forest Service to acquire and approve design plans for the new bridge, getting authority to proceed, making sure all the paperwork is in order, and then acquiring the materials to build the bridge.

    Typically preparation work is performed at the Rincon Fire Station where wood and materials are staged, pieces cut according to plan, drilled, painted with sealant, and then carted to the site for assembly.

    The footings for bridges may require much more work than the actual bridges themselves. For the Rincon Education Center bridges, one of the bridges' foundations are a great many heavy concrete dog-bone blocks with a rebar infrastructure that ties it all together and then ties to the bridge itself.

    For such a foundation, many long concrete blocks are moved by hand, many tons of rock and gravel are collected in buckets and brought to the site, lots of digging, measuring, and foundation building takes place even before the bridge's main cross supports are placed in to position, then the bridge is assembled, screwed and bolted in to place.

    Bear Divite Hot Shots on blasting effort

    Rock Retaining Wall Building

    Rock walls may be built along hillsides, switchbacks, or other places to stop dirt and rock from falling on to the trail or on to a road. The Trailbuilders will build walls by collecting very large boulders and the largest rocks that can be carried, then the wall is assembled by stacking and fitting.

    Typically most volunteers for this kind of work are dispatched to the surrounding region to find and haul rocks and boulders while some volunteers dedicate their efforts to the actual stacking and fitting of rocks.

    Culvert Clearing

    Drainage culverts under trails or under dirt access roads can cause water to stack up behind them and flood the trail, causing runnels. Clearing culverts is usually accomplished quickly and easily except for cases where a whole lot of dense brush, tree limbs, or boulders have accumulated to clog culverts.

    Culverts are cleared one stick at a time, peeling away the layers of clogging material one layer at a time until the culvert is clear. Typically one or two people can perform this kind of work though having a spare to take over while other people rest is useful.

    Collapsed culverts can't be fixed by volunteers unless the USFS provides assistance with either a trenching machine or a tractor, providing a new culvert pipe and hauling away the crushed one.

    Clogged Stream Clearing

    Streams that cross hiking trails may become clogged with dead, matted brush which causes the stream to be redirected down the trail instead of across the trail. Volunteers go in there with rakes, picks, and gloved hands to clear out the stream, establish a small pool which animals can drink from (or volunteers can cool off in) and clear drainage so that the stream continues on its way off of the trail.

    In the aftermath of fires, streams will become clogged and the path of streams may change. Volunteers evaluate clogged streams and will decide on the site whether to clear them or where to scrape out a suggested path that the water might take.

    Fire Mitigation / Patrols

    Volunteers are some times asked to remove combustibles from around Forest Service buildings, signs, along roads or other places where a carelessly thrown cigaret might cause a fire. Such work is more often done by processional, paid crews however along hiking trails and within camp sites, volunteers may perform such work.

    Raking up pine needles and pine cones, establishing a 30-foot wide fire break around buildings, and generally clearing up brush and such is more than just uprooting plants and making a pile of the fuels that have been accumulated. The piles of materials must be relocated, either carried in burlap sacks to a road for collection in a vehicle else hauled down a canyon to be spread in areas that are not easily accessed by people dropping cigarets.

    Horse and mule at Upper Bear Creek trailhead

    Horse and Mule Assistance

    The Trailbuilders are pleased and privileged to have the opportunity to have the High Country Riders provide horses and mules for some projects. Volunteers can assist in equipping the animals, learning from the High Country Riders how to safely and comfortably pack their animals.

    Animals carry the heavy stuff in to a project and then can carry most of the tools and equipment back out. Additionally the volunteer animals can carry drinking water, cooking stoves for overnight efforts, saws and other equipment in to and out of the work site.

    Anything that can be safely carried on the backs of horses and mules means less weight carried on the back of human volunteers, and that means that volunteers are less tired once they get to a work site so that they can accomplish more work once there.

    Everything Else

    Volunteers will break up illegal rock dams across streams and rivers, collect mountains of garbage from along the San Gabriel River, perform carpentry on Visitor Centers, sand and paint tables, sand and paint benches, repair wooden fences, block hikers from using trails when hazardous maintenance is going on along the trail, and just about anything else you might think of that the Forest Service might ask of volunteers.

    The San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders have people who have extensive skills and experience as well as training, commitment, dedication, and knowledge about everything that is asked of them. Volunteers who join such efforts in the forest can learn how the Federal United States Forest Service likes things to be done, providing hands-on experience for eventual resumes seeking employment.

    The things that are done, the tools and equipment that are used depend upon weather, priorities, how many volunteers show up for an effort, and other factors. Volunteers will find such work fun, rewarding, perhaps difficult, at times exhausting, but always finishing the day with a sense of accomplishment.

    Stone stairs build in to drainage

    Overnight Efforts

    Some projects can not be accomplished in a single day so overnighters are some times scheduled. Usually when there's an overnighter, some volunteers spend the night and resume work the next day, some return home after the first day and return the next, and some volunteers do not return the next day. It's up to the volunteer to decide what he or she wants to do.

    Overnight projects involve sleeping in the field which requires that the USFS Volunteer Coordinator be made aware of the fact and also requires that a Trailbuilder or USFS employee be on hand with a radio which can be used to contact Dispatch as a safety measure.

    Sleeping in the field is not entirely like a regular overnight campout with friends and family since you will have tools and equipment with you, some of which will need to be guarded against mice, bears, deer and other humans. Additionally when working overnight with gasoline powered tools, someone must adopt safety oversight for the overnight storage of gasoline, oil, and other solvents that might be disturbed by forest critters.

    The Trailbuilders tend to have cold camps, not having camp fires at night since we are on the trail outside of permitted camp fire areas. We like to camp within easy walking distance of running water (well I do, anyway!) for cooling off and washing in, but far enough away to not disturb our fellow forest critters who come to drink.

    Hiking along ridgelines and sleeping in the forest during work efforts also must take in to consideration the possibility of lightening or other adverse weather that may come in. The Trailbuilders work in any kind of weather including sleet and snow, tailoring the day's efforts depending upon safety requirements imposed by the weather.

    Situational awareness for safety also means adjusting work behavior and sleeping locations based on the possibility of lightening or upon falling trees or tree limbs in the night. Because of this, overnight efforts tend to make camp in the open but not on ridge tops, mountain saddled, or mountain peaks.

    Final Roundup

    I hope that this information provides a summary of what volunteers can do and how their efforts would be utilized. If there is anything unclear or if you think of anything that should be added to this web page, please send me an email and I will update the web page with my thanks.

    Site map is at: Crystal Lake site map

    This web site is not operated or maintained by the US Forest Service, and the USFS does not have any responsibility for the contents of any page provided on the http://CrystalLake.Name/ web site. Also this web site is not connected in any way with any of the volunteer organizations that are mentioned in various web pages, including the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders (SGMTBs) or the Angeles Volunteers Association (AVA.) This web site is privately owned and operated. Please note that information on this web page may be inaccurate.

    E-Mail Crystal Lake Camp Ground