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Discover a Mountain Resort Town Close to Downtown Los Angeles

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By Athena Lucero

"This looks like a resort," a friend said as we drove past the town square in Sierra Madre, California. It was lined with umbrellaed tables, coffee shops, restaurants, an ice cream shop, a pub, boutiques and on a side street a cozy microbrewery. At the base of the San Gabriel Mountains below Angeles National Forest, this small town 3 square miles in size and shaded with old-growth trees looks like it was plucked right out of New England. Hard to believe that it's only 30 minutes from downtown Los Angeles.

But residents here don't think of their tranquil foothill village as a vacation spot, even though the town features what travelers look for when seeking rest and relaxation: great weather, peaceful landscapes, friendly people, history, period architecture, shopping and dining.

Truth be told, my friend wasn't off the mark at all.

During the late 19th century this forested region was the most popular of a handful of mountain resort towns established by trailblazers from the East Coast keen on making a new life in the rejuvenating Mediterranean climate and wide-open space of Southern California. Massachusetts native Nathaniel Carter was one of these pioneers. He had come west to recover from lung disease because the healthy mountain air here was famous for helping people with debilitating respiratory ailments. In her book "The Southern California Story: Seeking the Better Life in Sierra Madre," author Michele Zack colorfully describes the town's history, stories and characters.

After Carter recovered from his illness he stayed, started a new career in real estate and lured wealthy East Coasters westward. In 1881, he founded Sierra Madre (Spanish for "mother range"), dubbing it Mother Nature's Sanitarium. It was incorporated in 1907.

 

This period became known as the Great Hiking Era, when floor-length prairie dresses didn't stop women from hiking the dirt trails leading to camps such as Sturtevant Camp Resort. Established in 1892, it's the last surviving camp resort complete with furnished guest cabins, a dining hall, an industrial kitchen, recreation area and an outdoor chapel that still welcomes hikers.

At Mary's Market in the canyon neighborhood of Sierra Madre north of Kersting Court I met up with local Joe Tortomasi, a longtime resident who frequently navigates the approximately 4-mile trail to Sturtevant Camp.

In the isolated, labyrinthine canyon under an old sycamore tree, 100-year-old Mary's Market is a relic of the area's frontier days, when it was the hub of Sierra Madre. After periods of closure, Mary's is abuzz once more. The moment visitors walk through the screen door of the small diner they are taken back in time as owners Heather Everett Morrison and Jenny Kay serve up delectable meals and sell knickknacks, collectibles, Mary's Market T-shirts and postcards.

And while researching his family history, Tortomasi was shocked to learn that he had roots in Sierra Madre long before he moved to the canyon.

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