For years Trail Canyon Falls has been on my must-hike list. Then the area was incinerated by the September 2009 Station Fire and closed to the public. But on Friday, May 25, the Forest Service finally reopened the area. I just had to check it out. The published trail guides speak of a beautiful canyon shaded by sycamores, oak, and alder, but I dialed back my expectations knowing that a fire can change all that. And a friend described his pre-fire experience of the canyon as being mostly exposed and a hike that would not make it on the rotation for his hiking group. And with the fact that the falls are only 30 feet high and somewhat hard to get to off the trail, I approached the hike with guarded expectations.
The weather forecast is for a high of 75 degrees, so I figure the exposure is manageable, particularly if I get an early start. I leave my house in Azusa at 6:10 AM and head west on the I-210 under a thick shroud of June gloom. I exit on Sunland Blvd, head north on Mt. Gleason Avenue, and turn right on Big Tujunga Canyon Road. Taking note of my odometer, I drive the final 4.8 miles to Trail Canyon Road. There is no sign and the highway mileage markers are not easily visible. I follow the dirt road north 0.4 mile to the large parking area. In spite of having four trail guides in my hand, it takes a little looking around to determine where the trail starts, and that’s one of the things that drives me to write good trail descriptions!
7:18 AM - Begin hike by passing by the yellow locked vehicle gate on the north end of the parking area. It’s a cool 54 degrees. Almost immediately the road crosses the creek but I am able to negotiate some stepping stones to cross without getting wet. John Robinson writes of “feet-wetting fords,” but I’m hoping to be late enough in the season to avoid baptizing my feet. The road bends left and passes a little green cabin. The sound of the flowing creek is pleasant. Wild flowers add a splash of color. The naked tree trunks rising from the stream bed is a poignant hint of this canyon’s beauty before the 2009 Station Fire.
I reach a junction and follow the most-traveled route left, cross the creek, and end up in a cabin’s driveway. That wasn’t good navigation! I retrace my steps back to the road and take the other route. It has less vehicle traffic because, which I will soon realize, there are no more standing cabins beyond this point. A Forest Service sign announces, “Trail Not Maintained” and marks the point at which the road begins to feel more like a trail than a road.
Although this canyon is not comparable to the beauty of Fish Canyon, Monrovia Canyon, Big Santa Anita Canyon, or Cooper Canyon, I love to hike so I am strolling along and enjoying the freshness of the morning and experiencing a place where I’ve not been. The road traverses on the east canyon wall as it tangents into a tributary canyon coming down from the northeast.
7:41 - Cross the tributary creek and switchback to climb west over a broad ridge. I stop to admire a gigantic oak tree which was burned quite badly but is still sending forth its leaves. I turn to continue but my foot decides to slip into a rut, casting me to the ground. My knee...what a bloody mess! After some self first aid (three cheers for the 10 Essentials!), I continue on, now in the sun for the first time of the day. The trail curves over a large, gentle ridge covered with colorful deerweed. As I descend north into the main canyon, I see the ruins of a cabin and tractor down the slope in the canyon below.
8:06 - Reach the end of the road. Now I’m ready to head up the creek. But wait, where’s my reading glasses?! I retrace my steps back over the broad ridge to the oak tree where I fell. Can’t find them! I’m bummed! I then rehike over the ridge and arrive at the end of the road a second time at 8:22. Almost immediately I make my first creek crossing on a makeshift bridge of four logs. What was been described in the literature as a beautiful stroll under an alder-shaded creek is now quite different with the trees having been destroyed by the fire. But a lover of nature still finds beauty. Shortly I cross the creek back to the east side, then to the west side, then to the east, and then back to the west. The water level is sufficiently low as to make it easy to cross without getting wet. I stay on the west for a little while as the canyon opens up and I emerge into the sun again. There are noisy voices coming up the trail behind me, spoiling the solitude...people who obviously belong in a bowling alley or a bar, rather than in the peaceful outdoors.
The mountainsides are covered with scruffy, low brush and not the richly textured chaparral which would normally be characteristic in these environs. An array of wildflowers, though, helps sweeten the scenery. After a couple more creek crossings I’m back on the west bank, what John Robinson describes as “a large, open bench.”
8:40 - Switchback to begin climbing the mountainside. The scenery is dramatic, howbeit, somewhat spoiled by fire. The trail is in pretty fair condition but scratchy brush and weeds menace my bare legs. After a while I realize I’m not going to escape the noisy voices, so I stop and let the five verbose women pass me. It’s quiet now. How nice! With no shade at all, this climb would be quite punishing on a hot day. Deerweed, with its delicate yellow/orange blossoms, dominates the flora. I climb the final pitch to where the trail turns sharply north. A few more minutes the trail cuts west and...
9:04 - First view of Trail Canyon Falls! Wow, there’s my destination down in the canyon up ahead. The various descriptions gave me the impression that there would be glimpses. But this is an unobstructed view of the falls 0.1 mile away. Perhaps it was partially blocked by vegetation in the pre-fire days. As I continue down the trail I don’t see any hint of a route down into the canyon, but the raucous voices of women echoing off the canyon walls is a sure sign that there is a doable way down. At about 50 yards shy of reaching the top of the falls I come to the spur trail that drops down into the canyon. For now I continue along the main trail another 50 yards to...
9:15 - Rocks above Trail Canyon Falls. This dramatic outcropping offers a striking view straight down about 40 feet to the lip of the falls and 70 feet to bottom. Wow! I don’t think I’m afraid of heights but this pinnacle makes my body tingle. The women are shrieking and laughing as they as they frolic in the cold water, just out of view from my vantage point. I decide to continue down the trail to where it meets the creek about 150 yards upstream from the falls. I wander a little further, find a nice rock by the sparkling stream, and have an enjoyable time making music on my ocarina.
I stroll back to the pinnacle above the falls then climb down the steep, slippery path on the north flank of the pinnacle to the creek. I enjoy climbing around the rocks and standing on the lip of the falls. This is a treat since most of the waterfalls in the San Gabriels don’t have easy access to the top of the falls.
I climb back up to the main trail and figure it’s time to climb down to the base of the falls. The first part of the spur path is not bad, but somewhat brushy. The path curves to the right and reaches the steep section. It’s doable but requires real care. I reach the tangled branches of a dead oak tree which complicates the descent as does poison oak that hugs the route. I gingerly negotiate the obstacle and finally arrive at streamside bench above the creek. A walk of about 100 yards brings me to a short scramble down the final slope to the base of the falls.
11:08 - Trail Canyon Falls. Wow, very nice! One author uses the word, “terrific,” but that’s a gross overstatement in my opinion. “Very nice” is more appropriate or perhaps “fine,” “charming,” or “handsome.” A stream of water slips over the rock lip and falls 30 feet to a shallow green pool. Lush ferns cling to the sheer canyon calls. I have this splendid setting all to myself. I enjoy lunch as I’m serenaded by the melodic sound of falling water.
Well, time to head back. I leave the falls at 11:41 and climb back through the oak obstacle. I meet a guy coming down. Up on the main trail I see a group of four arriving at the pinnacle above the falls. As I reach the bend I take one last look at the falls with a greater sense of familiarity. The sun is warm and bright. I stop occasionally to photograph flowers. I have the trail to myself.
As I reach the canyon bottom I encounter a group of several young families with small children under toe and on their backs. They are sweating and they’ve not yet begun to climb! I begin my creek crossings. The gentleman I met at the falls catches up with me. His name is Bill. We chat then continue down the trail together talking about hiking. The canyon looks different now in full sun. We both keep our eyes open along the section of trail where I lost my glasses but with no luck.
1:36 - End hike. It’s 78 degrees and eight cars are in the lot.
Epilog - A very satisfying outing! Of the 14 named waterfalls in the San Gabriels that are reasonably accessible and covered in the literature, I’m happy to have finally conquered the last one. Perhaps in the past, Trail Canyon may have been beautiful, but now it has kind of a desolate feel. There is still a certain beauty to it, but not the kind that will put it high on my must-return list. One of the unique distinctions of Trail Canyon Falls is that the hiker can explore below it, above, on it, behind, and around it. I’m thankful for opportunity to have experienced it.