Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bonita Falls Hike - May 10, 2014

icon  See Waterfalls of The San Gabriels at Dan's Hiking Pages

Bonita Falls in the Lytle Creek area of the San Gabriel Mountains had eluded me for years. I had known of it but for some reason I had the idea that it was remote and difficult to reach. So sometime back when I learned that it was indeed quite accessible, I put it on my hit list. With a drop of 160 feet, Lower Bonita Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in Southern California. According to canyoneer Christopher Brennen, there is actually a set of three waterfalls, Upper (190’), Middle (40’), and Lower (160’) for a total of 390 feet. The lower falls is the only one that is reasonable accessible without technical equipment and canyoneering skills.

I put together a go-packet from a number of online sources and I finally dedicated a day to pay a visit to this grand waterfall. Good weather was forecast and there should still be a decent flow from the winter and spring snow and rain, even though it has been quite meager this year.

I leave my house in Azusa at 8:36 a.m. and head east on the I-210. It’s gloomy and cool. I transition to the I-15 and a few minutes later exit Sierra Avenue and head north on Lytle Creek Road. I have to confess that I’ve never hiked this eastern portion of the San Gabriels. As I drive the meandering road, the beauty of this area exceeds my expectations. Rich, mature chaparral blankets the rugged mountainsides. Heavy gloom shrouds the ridge tops.

I stop at Lytle Creek Ranger Station to replace my annual Adventure Pass which has expired. I chat with the two FS employees and ask them what they think about the National Recreation Area legislation being proposed by Congresswomen Judy Chu. I’m shocked to learn that neither of them has heard about it!

Leaving the ranger station, I drive up the road another mile to the parking area just past the turn-off to Green Mountain Ranch. It’s 55 degrees and feels cold. I had mentioned to the ranger that an online write-up said to use the bridge to cross Lytle Creek. The ranger said that since the bridge is private property, forest users need to ford the creek. So I climb down to the creek from the parking area but see no place to cross without feet in the water. So climb back up to the parking area and check out the bridge. There are no signs that prohibited crossing it, so I decide on that route.

10:30 - Begin hike. Cross the Green Mountain Ranch bridge. The creek is running briskly below. Just short of the entrance to the ranch, I turn right (north) and follow the fence, and then shortly, turn left and follow the fence west. The route is not hard to follow but certainly not a formal trail. Soon I navigate through vegetation to the open wash. I had anticipated a trail to be more defined, but it’s basically find your own route. I’m enjoying the spring flowers.

The mouth of South Fork Lytle Creek is a wide boulder field flanked with steep mountainsides. Gloom still cloaks the ridge tops. I carefully pick my way west staying near the south side. Walking along a rock-covered creek bed is not my favorite kind of hiking. Every step is an opportunity to twist an ankle. There are some interesting metamorphic rocks with swirling patterns.

Various online accounts speak of lots of trash and graffiti, but so far I’ve encounter virtually no trash and very little graffiti. But soon the graffiti begins to appear. Urban vandalism meets the national forest. I chuckle at theory that humans evolved from animals. Animals never behave in a malevolent way. Clearly humans are distinct and unique creatures who have an amazing capacity for good and evil. To enjoy this hike, one must look beyond the immediate vandalism of pathetic humans and appreciate the rugged beauty of this special place. I encounter others who are coming and going. I don’t understand why people think that leash laws don’t apply to their dogs.

It’s supposed to be only about a half mile up the wash to the junction for the waterfalls. But it’s a tedious half mile requiring careful footsteps. I specially observe that every person I encounter is looking at his or her feet. I pause often just to look up and experience the beauty of my surrounds.

11:06 – Junction to falls. It’s a distinct path angling to the left into a side canyon. It might be easy to miss if one is not paying attention. The well-traveled path is clearly defined and easy to follow, meandering along the left of the watercourse. The flowing stream creates a pleasant soundtrack. Mature trees like oak, sycamore, and bay provide lots of shade while lush vegetation offers a very different feel from the rocky creek bed behind me. I choose to not allow the profusion of graffiti to spoil my enjoyment of the scenery.

11:20 - Bonita Falls. Wow, this falls really is bonita...pretty, beautiful. The water cascades in thin ribbons down the rocky face, some 160 feet. There is not a large volume of water, but it’s still impressive. People are coming and going. Dogs off leaches are braking and scrapping and creating a tense and disruptive situation. The flyer from the Forest Service says, “The access to the Bonita Falls viewpoint is not a developed trail and any hazards present are not mitigated.” Some guys have climbed the steep wall on the left to a high point, which I suspect is this “viewpoint.” I spend quite a while in a little flat area at the right of the pool just appreciating the beauty of cascading water. I explore around. The graffiti is disheartening (Photo note: In the two waterfall photos posted here, I used Paintbrush to obscure the most egregious graffiti so as not to publicize the taggers’ monikers. Why give these reprobates any fame?)

At 12:33 I begin to leave the falls but then I notice a route which appears to be an easier way up the backside of the viewpoint. I decide to give it a try and it works pretty well. But I wouldn’t advise it for those without some climbing skills. This viewpoint does provide a nice perspective toward the falls. And I see a glimpse of what is probably the middle falls. I’m tempted to climb higher but decide to head down.

Now I leave the falls at 1:11. The sun is attempting to peak through the gloom. More groups are coming up the trail. One guy with a large party with children is carrying a machete. By the time I reach the wash the sun has broken through the clouds. I decide to walk directly across the boulder field to see if I can get a perspective on the falls. Soon I indeed spot a portion of the waterfall. I reach the other side and there is a semblance of path. A couple gals are coming up and I point them across to the falls. I walk west a little bit and a clear view of the upper section of the lower falls opens up.

I start heading down the trail at 1:55. This is a pretty good path and easier walking than the rocky route on the south side. I’m enjoying the beauty of the canyon. I stop occasionally to photograph flowers (canyon dudleya, yucca, golden yarrow, yerba santa). Shortly I reach the Bonita Ranch Campground on the left, which is fenced and signed, “Keep out.” I go a little further along its boundary, then leave the rocky berm and veer right, taking a tangent across wash. I arrive at Lytle Creek near the upper parking area at 2:21. I deliberately came this direction to explore the various routes.

People are coming and going and playing in the water. I can’t find a place to cross the creek without feet in the water. I wander downstream and soon find a place to cross. Glad for long legs. Shortly I find another place to cross back. I now head west up the wash as if going back to the falls. Just checking out the routes. When I reach the area beyond Green Mountain Ranch I find my route from this morning and double back on it. At the place where the fence cuts south, I don’t turn right but find a path down to the creek. I cobble together a crossing route over the multiple streams and am able to cross without getting my feet wet, using a precarious jumble of rocks and logs as the final aid. I climb up the bank to the parking area and come out about 100 yards north of the Green Mountain Ranch turn off.

3:10 - End hike. It’s a pleasant 72 degrees.

Epilog - That was a fun adventure! Experiencing a grand waterfall that I have never visited before is a real treat. The graffiti blight is horrible but the wonderful scenery overshadowed it. And lots of spring flowers added natural color and enjoyment. icon

icon  See Waterfalls of The San Gabriels at Dan's Hiking Pages


  1. Hey, Dan,

    It's definitely a pretty falls. Here's my write-up from my last visit. I also try to shoot pictures without including the graffiti, for the same reason as you.

    Never made it to the vantage point you've got. I'll have to check that out the next time I'm in the area.

    The other fun falls to get to in the general vicinity are on the Middle Fork of Lytle Creek. Much longer hike, though easy in half-a-day. Easier if you have a high clearance vehicle and you're not afraid to take it off road (this is not me!). The fun part is to think of heading all the way up those trails to Icehouse Canyon. That would be cool, but definitely an all day hike.

  2. Thanks for another nice write up Dan.