“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 and 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 trail blazers 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 the town of 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 like 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 long-time resident who frequently navigates the approximate 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 cool knickknacks, collectibles, Mary’s Market T-shirts and post cards of Sierra Madre.
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.
“You’ve got to come down here,” Tortomasi remembers the librarian telling him. She had uncovered a local paper from 1908 with an advertisement that read, “Alfonso DeMaio’s Shoe Repair.” DeMaio was Tortomasi’s grandfather.
Tortomasi also showed me the building on Sturtevant Dr. where Anais Nin, the French author, poet and diarist lived over 10 years when she was married (illegally) to a forest ranger while (legally) married to her first husband in New York.
Indeed, once anyone falls under the spell of Sierra Madre, it’s hard to leave. Multi-generational families and businesses here are a testament to that. Like the third and fourth generations of E. Waldo Ward & Son who continue the vision of founder Edwin Waldo Ward, Sr., a luxury food salesman from New York who came west and purchased a citrus farm to make marmalades and other gourmet foods.
New Jersey native Karen Keegan, founder of Savor the Flavor, is witnessing the next generation of her popular specialty food and gourmet gift shop that opened in 1998. While scoping out homes in neighboring cities, she and her husband happened upon Sierra Madre – where their search ended.
“Sierra Madre is magical,” Keegan said. It feels special as soon as you arrive.” In a recent move across the street, Savor the Flavor “reincarnated” occupies larger space and is now owned by Keegan’s daughter, Madeline Romo. Hand-selected gourmet foods and gifts are the mainstays, along with new twists by Romo “to have something in the store for people of all ages.”
For a quiet town, it’s renowned for festivals and holidays. After COVID forced its cancellation for two years, 2022 was the comeback year for Sierra Madre’s historic Wisteria Festival held each spring since 1931. Who knew that a 75-cent wisteria cutting would make it into the 1990 Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest blossoming plant and be among the Seven Horticultural Wonders of the World? The event brings thousands into the village each March to celebrate the vine in full bloom.
The varied landscapes of this Los Angeles enclave have also been the settings for filmmaking over the decades -- from the 1956 sci-fi movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to the “Twin Peaks” funeral episode at Pioneer Cemetery to Season 2 of HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” when scenes filmed in the canyon and Starbucks at Kersting Court doubled for the California coastal town of Monterey.
Sierra Madre is as bucolic and blissful today as it was in its pioneer days. It attracts day trippers throughout Southern California’s sprawl – where hiking and a slower pace are still the draw.
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