San Gabriel Valley Tribune

John W. Robinson, legendary author of hiking guides, histories of Southern California mountains, dies at 88

By STEVE SCAUZILLO | | San Gabriel Valley Tribune
PUBLISHED: May 9, 2018 at 8:40 a.m. | UPDATED: November 21, 2018 at 1:18 p.m.

John Robinson, 1971
John Robinson in 1971, during an outing to El Picacho de Diablo peak in Baja, California, Mexico. (Photo by Henry Heusinkveld/Sierra Club Angeles Chapter archive)
The boy who left the streets of Long Beach for the flowing rivers and dark canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains and who, as an adult, led millions down a similar path of discovery through his 26 hiking guides and historical books has died.

Wilderness author and local historian John W. Robinson passed away in his sleep on April 24 at the age of 88 — a loss to hiking enthusiasts and naturalists tempered only by the wealth of material he left behind on Southern California's mountain ranges.

'Trails of Angeles' a favorite

Robinson, a Fullerton resident, was perhaps best known for his book "Trails of the Angeles: 100 Hikes in the San Gabriels," published in 1971 and now in its ninth edition after selling more than 100,000 copies.

The soft-covered, deceptively simple guide to Angeles National Forest hikes that mixes practical pointers with personal anecdotes and voices from historical characters is still hauled up switchbacks and across rivers by hikers, nature lovers, campers, hunters and fishermen alike.

"Nobody ever fleshed out that information in that kind of detail. You couldn’t get lost in the mountains if you had that book," said Jeff Lapides, a photographer and book designer from Sierra Madre who helped lay out Robinson's later works.

Robinson would go on to write a companion book, "San Bernardino Mountain Trails," another bestseller. Both had sold more than 70,000 copies by the 100th anniversary of the Angeles National Forest in 1993, according to the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter.

Robinson, a chapter member and tour guide since the 1950s, also wrote 70 articles for the organization's "Hundred Peaks Section Newsletter" for editor Bob Cates, who later became a close friend.

Great Hiking Era

The essays became the core of another huge seller, "The San Gabriels," first published in the 1970s and later expanded into a full volume in 1981 and again in 1991 and published by the Big Santa Anita Historical Society.

The hardbound book examined the history of the national forest from Soledad Canyon to Lytle Creek, and was crammed with stories and historical photos of Native American outposts, Spanish explorers and crafty innovators from the Greak Hiking Era of 1895 to 1938, such as Thaddeus Lowe, the builder of a mountain railway above the city of Pasadena.

The book includes the story of conservationist Abbott Kinney, a rancher known for building Venice with its canals, who helped bring about federal protection for the San Gabriels in 1892 after hunters slaughtered the grizzly bears and other animals to extinction and loggers felled trees for lumber, causing soil erosion and flooding.

Robinson later wrote "The San Bernardinos," "Mines of the San Bernardinos," "Mines of the San Gabriels," "The Mount Wilson Story," "Sierra Madre’s Old Mount Wilson Trail" and his latest, "Gateways to Southern California," a 484-page examination of the passes traversed by explorers.

Robinson worked on "Gateways" for 14 years, said Lapides. It's a tome that highlighted the discovery of treacherous cattle runs from Southern California to Northern California, a fact often left out of history books.

John Robinson, 1971
John Robinson at the Sierra Peaks Section Banquet on Jan. 25, 2005. (photo by Bob Cates, Sierra Club-Angeles Chapter Archives)

Sharing his knowledge

Riverside historian and Press-Enterprise columnist Steve Lech, author of "Along the Old Roads" on the formation of Riverside County, said Robinson provided him information on the San Jacinto Mountains.

Elizabeth Pomeroy, author of "John Muir in Southern California," remembers meeting Robinson at a writers workshop in the 1990s where he volunteered to provide key information for her book.

"John was a very well-known and respected person. Yet he was down-to-earth, very approachable and always willing to help,' Lech said.

Bloggers liked him, too

Not only did Robinson influcence his generation of wilderness writers and hikers, but he was revered by a younger cohort of hiking bloggers. At a 2014 authors' gathering in Sierra Madre organized by Lapides, Robinson's fans showed up en masse. The hall was filled with 300 people, mostly to talk to Robinson.

Glen Owens, a Monrovia resident and president of the Big Santa Anita Historical Society, worked on several books with Robinson. Aside from noting his affable demeanor, Owens said Robinson's folksy writing style was simple and direct, something he learned from his days as an elementary school teacher in Orange County.

"John wrote like he was sitting down and talking to you. The book would just flow. It was easy to follow and understand," Owens said.

Robinson is survived by three daughters, Cathy Robinson, Robyn Franz and Jeanne Robinson.

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