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John W. Robinson
Historian of the San Gabriel Mountains



Henry Heusinkveld/Sierra Club-Angeles Chapter. Click to enlarge.

Genealogical note:* John Wesley Robinson III was born July 8, 1929, in Los Angeles County to the Rev. Dr. John W. and Loreen (Buffum) Robinson. His maternal grandfather was Edwin E. Buffum, co-founder of the Buffums' department store chain.


John W. Robinson, Southern California mountain man extraordinaire, died April 24 at age 88. No one did more to make us aware of what the Southland high country has to offer.

Robinson's "Trails of the Angeles" — a guide to 100 hikes in the Angeles National Forest — was first published in 1971 and had sold 80,000 copies by the 100th anniversary of the forest in 1993. A companion book, "San Bernardino Mountain Trails," had sold 70,000 copies at that point.

Robinson's scope as an author was remarkable. His backpack-size hiking and climbing guides were complemented by large hardback volumes on the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto ranges. Robinson's histories are rated as the definitive record of human activity in every form from wilderness preservation to mining in these mountains.

Each summer his parents took John, two sisters and brother camping in Yosemite National Park. But this Long Beach boy fell in love with the outdoors when he camped in the San Gabriels.

Robinson's climbing exploits led to his being a founder and chair of the Angeles Chapter's Sierra Peaks Section and author of a climbing guide covering the High Sierra between Mt. Whitney and the Palisades. He also wrote the definitive guide to climbing in Mexico's Baja California, including an early ascent of San Pedro Martir, Baja's sheer granite 10,000-foot culminating peak. Closer to home, Robinson concluded "San Bernardino Mountain Trails" with a thrilling account of the Snow Creek route that climbs 8,800 feet up the north face of Mt. San Jacinto without trail.

A Sierra Club member since 1956 and leader, his dedication, skill and public service led to Robinson receiving numerous awards from the Angeles Chapter, including the Elna Bakker Nature Interpretation plaque in 2001, the Outings Service Award in 1990 and a Special Media Award in 1976.

A Los Angeles Times tribute to Robinson was published on the 100th anniversary of the Angeles National Forest in 1993. It quoted Thomas Andrews, executive director of the Historical Society of Southern California: "John really commands the territory of these mountains. He is not an armchair historian and once you have read his books you can never enter that mountain world with ignorance or lack of sensitivity."

The Times article added, "Perhaps as much as any individual in recent years, Robinson has spawned a surge of interest in the region's mountains... He knows where hard-rock miners gouged tunnels out of granite and fought over claims, where the Gabrielino, Cahuilla and Serrano tribes fished for trout and gathered acorns, and where 19th century bandits made their hideouts.... Go with John W. Robinson to almost any mountaintop in Southern California and he can tell you a story about it."

Robinson said he owed most to "the late Will Thrall, editor of Trails magazine, who in his time knew more about the San Gabriels than any man alive." Robinson became Thrall's worthy successor and, in introductions to his trail guides, eloquently described their shared philosophy:

"Some hikers have emerged from the mountains with the scent of laurel and pine on their clothing and with dust on their boots, tired but enriched — both physically and mentally — by their wilderness experience. Others have stumbled out of the mountains exhausted, footsore, sunburned, dehydrated, chilled, with clothing and skin torn by thorny chaparral, or soaked to the bone by unexpected downpour, sadder but wiser for their ordeal. Some have had to be carried out. And a few have not come out...

"If you learn and heed forest regulations, follow route directions, become familiar with the area, have proper equipment, and use good sense, you will thoroughly appreciate your intimacy with the mountains. Never leave the trailhead without this preparation. The mountains are no place to travel alone, unbriefed, ill equipped or in poor condition. Enter their portals with the enthusiasm of adventure tempered by respect, forethought and common sense. The mountains belong to those who are wise as well as willing."

John Robinson may no longer be among us. But like a regional John Muir, his spirit lives on.

Glenn Pascall is a Sierra Club member and author of "Southern California Mountain Country: Places John Muir Walked and Places He Would Have Loved to Know," which was dedicated to John Robinson.

* Additional research by Tricia Lemon Putnam. Obituary published by permission.

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