Saturday, July 16, 2011

Lewis Falls Hike - July 16, 2011

Lewis FallsWaterfallsSee Waterfalls of the San Gabriels at Dan's Hiking Pages

See Lewis Falls Hike Description at Dan's Hiking Pages

After 14 years, I finally returned to Lewis Falls, which holds a unique place for me in my hiking history. On April 25, 1995, I purchased John Robinson’s Trails of the Angeles. This launched my personal Great Hiking Era of the San Gabriels. I immediately began to hit waterfalls: first Sturtevant, Rubio, and then Lewis on June 10, 1995. And that was one of those rare hikes where all three of my kids joined me. Then two years later, on April 13, 1997, we returned to Lewis Falls, this time my wife joined us, which turned out to be the only hike all five of us have ever hiked together in the San Gabriels.

Curve FireLewis Falls sat peacefully while I worked through the list of other hikes in Robinson’s book. Then on September 1, 2002, the Curve Fire broke out on a sweltering Sunday afternoon and quickly destroyed more than 20,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, including much of the Crystal Lake basin. The beautiful Soldier Creek canyon, where Lewis Falls tumbles 50 feet over the rocks, sustained damage, but was spared the complete incineration that other areas experienced.

Because of the massive damage caused by the Curve Fire, The Forest Service and CalTrans closed Hwy 39 just above the West Fork. The public patiently, and not so patiently, waited for the reopening, which ended up being delayed year after year after year.

In June 2003, the year following the Curve Fire, I hooked up with the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders, who had special access to the Crystal Lake area to restore trails. Over the years since then, I caravanned by the trailhead to Lewis Falls en route to perform trail maintenance at Crystal Lake, but never had the chance to stop and re-hike the trail.

On March 22, 2011 when I heard that Hwy 39 to Crystal Lake was finally reopened (yes, 8 ½ years of closure!), I was elated (or course!). I was eager to be reacquainted with Lewis Falls, but as life has it, the plans kept getting delayed. But alas, the time finally came.

Lewis Falls TrailheadThe Hikemasters hiking group, led by the Ray (“Peter Piper”), who I met this year at Fish Canyon Falls, were planning a hike to Lewis Falls. I asked if I could tag along and they were most gracious in welcoming me to join them. It worked out perfectly since I live a five-minute walk from Hwy 39 in Azusa and offered to have them pick me up at the corner of 9th Street and Hwy 39. They picked me up right on time at 7:43. I enjoyed good conversation with Ray and his wife Jocelyn during the 38-minute drive to the trailhead. The 12 of us piled out of 3 cars, took a group photo, and were ready to hike.

En route to Lewis Falls8:26 AM - Begin the hike. The trail is in decent condition as it traverses the right (east) side of Soldier Creek. We stroll under a canopy of cedar, fir, pine, maple, bay, alder, and oak. The beauty of the canyon exceeds my expectations. In a few minutes we pass the first of two cabins that survived the Curve Fire. Some of the blooming wildflowers that grace our hike include Humboldt lily, periwinkle (typical ornamental plant around cabins), scarlet penstemon, prickly phlox, California aster, wallflower, everlasting, California buckwheat, bush monkeyflower, creek monkeyflower, scarlet monkeyflower, canyon dudleya, scarlet columbine, phacelia, and mustard. There is a lot of poison oak and stinging nettle along the trail, which requires some vigilance to avoid.

The ruins of burnt-down cabins cause me to reflect on those who used to enjoy peaceful escapes to their secluded hideaways. And since the cabins pre-dated the designation of the National Forest, they are allowed to remain under a “grandfather clause.” But once the cabins are gone, they are lost forever.

Trail to Lewis Falls In the weeks prior to this hike I had read reports that fire, mudslides, fallen trees, debris, and disuse have obliterated the trail. So am I pleasantly surprised that the cabin portion of this half-mile walk to the falls is still in decent shape. There are places were we climb through fallen trees, but it’s not too bad. After the final cabin ruins, the route drops down to the creek bottom and we have to climb through a large jumble of fallen tree to cross the creek. Now on the west bank, the route is still manageable as the canyon narrows. Still vigilant to dodge stinging needle. We climbed over a large rock, which could pose an obstacle for those of diminutive stature if they had no assistance. Immediately after the rock, a large tree trunk spans the creek as a bridge. Several of our party carefully climb across the log, not realizing that it is a bridge to nowhere. The rest of us skirt along the steep bank on the left, drop back down to the creek, and in about 30 yards find ourselves at the base of Lewis Falls.

Lewis Falls9:04 - Arrive at Lewis Falls. It is still gushing quite well as we have had significant snowfall this past winter. To get the best view of the falls, which tumbles over the rock face on the west canyon wall, we have to cross over to the right side of the creek. A few well-placed rocks make crossing doable, but a misstep or loss of balance promises major wetness and possibly contusions and/or other unpleasant things to ones body. We all cross over safely.

The literature lists the falls at 50 feet, including a top tier, which is mostly out of view from the bottom. The main falls courses through a narrow notch and cascades as a ribbon to a small pool. A fine mist dampens the area and makes footing slippery. I climb over a boulder and up the ravine to the right of the falls to get a better view. After a while the group begins to migrate back over the creek and so I climb down and am the last one to say goodbye to Lewis Falls.

Lewis Falls9:24 - Leave falls. The sun lightens up the canyon more on the return trip. I’m in the rear so my pace is more casual as I soak in the beauty and take pictures. We pass a family with several young children and two tiny dogs heading to the falls. The trip seems shorter than the way in.

10:04 - Finish hike.

Epilog - What a treat to revisit one of the easy-access waterfalls of the San Gabriels! It was easier than I had anticipated and more scenic. Years of closure has allowed the route to return to a more natural state. And I really enjoyed the company of a good group of folks. Thanks Ray, for letting me tag along. icon

WaterfallsSee Waterfalls of the San Gabriels at Dan's Hiking Pages

See Lewis Falls Hike Description at Dan's Hiking Pages


  1. Hey, Dan,

    I also recently visited Lewis Falls. Here's my write-up. Yes, it does seem a lot shorter on the way back than going in. :D

  2. Hi Dan,
    I really love your website. I'm following your list of waterfalls. Could you please give me the direction to this waterfall? I live in El Monte

  3. From Interstate 210 in Azusa, take Azusa Avenue (Hwy 39) north through Azusa and into the San Gabriel Canyon. At about 3 miles from the freeway you'll pass the Forest Service Gateway Center (1960 North San Gabriel Canyon Road (Hwy 39), Azusa, CA 91702.) on your right. Note your odometer. Continue driving up Hwy 39 for 17.6 miles (about 2 mile past Cold Brook campground) to a hairpin where the road crosses over Soldier Creek. Park on the ride side (north) of the road and begin your hike on the trail which begins on the right side of the creek. There’s a yellow “No Fires” sign there.

  4. I think we owned one of the cabins up there that burned. I remember two neighbors: Kip & Patty, and elderly Martha. Don't remember their last names. We lived there in 1980-83. Enjoy your hikes!