ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike F1. Bear Creek
- Hiking time: 14 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 14 miles
- Elevation gain: 1930 feet
- USGS Topo Maps: Waterman Mountain, Crystal Lake
- Difficulties: Substantial scrambling and two short rappels
- Special equipment: 40ft webbing, rappelling gear with 80ft rope
- ACA Rating: 3A IV
This adventure hike takes you through the spectacular Bear Creek narrows and involves two modest rappels down the sides of waterfalls. It is a two day hike though it can be done during a long summer day if you want to hike the last part during darkness. However, I strongly recommend you take the two days to enjoy the marvellous scenery of the Bear Creek Narrows. The hike is best done during the summer months for it involves a fair amount of wading. It is important to do it only when the water is low; several places in the narrows could be dangerous when the stream is swollen by rain.
This adventure requires a car shuttle. Drive up Highway 39 from Azuza along the north fork of the San Gabriel river to a point about 200yds south of Colbrook where there is a trailhead and a large parking area on the west or left side of the road. This is the Upper Bear Creek and Smith Saddle trailhead (34o17.25'N 117o50.55'W and elevation 3280ft). Leave one vehicle here. Then proceed up the road past the Crystal Lake turn-off to the end of Highway 39. Provided the road is open all the way to the end, you will stop at a wide parking area and overlook (34o18.61'N 117o51.73'W and elevation 5600ft) with a great view west into Bear Creek canyon. Northwards, you can also see the Angeles Crest Highway crossing the slopes of Mount Williamson. Twenty years ago the road ran another 5mi north to a junction with the Angeles Crest Highway at Islip Saddle (elevation 6650ft). However repeated damage due to rock slides forced the closure of this section of the road. We begin this adventure by hiking northwards along the old road.
About 0.5mi north of the parking area you come to a place (34o19.37'N 117o51.36'W and elevation 5750ft) immediately to the west of two prominent rock spires that rise precipitiously above the road. These have shed many rock slides so that below the road to the west is a long scree slope leading down into a side branch of Bear Canyon. This scree slope provides one of the few places where you can start to climb down from the road into the canyon. Though slow going, it is an easy descent; at the bottom of the scree slope you enter a wash and continue without serious impediment for about 1.5mi. Take note of several junctions which could be confusing if you have to retrace your steps.
This unnamed side canyon is attractive and open for most of its length. However, several major obstacles await when the foliage becomes denser and the sides of the canyon close in. First you encounter a very large rocky obstruction that seems to fill the whole canyon. There are several routes around this; perhaps the simplest is to ease yourself down the narrow slot to the left of the rock. This allows you to lower yourself into a small cave that exits from the base of the rock.
A short way downstream there are two more substantial obstacles. First, in a place where the stream has cut a rather narrow path through the rock you will encounter a small waterfall followed immediately by a larger one. There are few footholds here and the rock is slippery so care must be exercised. You can, however, cross to the right hand side below the first small falls and then climb over a ridge to descend to the main canyon via a small side canyon. Immediately after this obstacle you should follow the use-trail up a small slope over the right rim and drop into a larger canyon which you now proceed to descend. Here many small trees provide minor impediment to rapid progress. Finally, when you imagine you must be very close to the main Bear Canyon you suddenly encounter the most substantial obstacle thus far on the hike. This takes the form of a series of waterfalls cascading down into depths which are hard to estimate from above. Some may choose to rappel down these falls for there are convenient trees to provide anchors but it may be a long rappel. The main problem is that it is hard to see the bottom. An easier route is to follow a faint use-trail proceeding off to the right from the top of the falls. This climbs up a little way and then contours along a steep slope to a point where further progress seems to be barred by thick vegetation including yucca bushes. Though it is not immediately obvious at this point, the trail continues straight down a steep and shallow gully below you. After descending about 40ft, the use-trail contours to the right for a brief way to a point where you can slide down a steep bank into the canyon bottom. Shortly below this point, at 34o18.92'N 117o52.54'W and an elevation of about 3360ft, you finally reach Bear Creek, recognizable by the large dimensions of the canyon bottom and the substantial (though often dry) creek bed. It seems probable that much of the river runs underground at this point for the stream reappears only a short distance downstream.
The next 2.5mi down Bear Creek Canyon are easy hiking. The canyon broadens and there are large sandy benches covered in boulders that make for more rapid progress. The rim of the canyon is high above you and in places you can spot the closed part of Highway 39 up to the east. To the west there is nothing but miles and miles of the almost impenetrable Devil's Canyon Wilderness Area. It is a beautiful place on a sunny day and you should enjoy the serenity of it for more rugged canyon lies ahead. On several of the large benches, you will find rudimentary camp sites used by past explorers and you might choose one of these to set up camp for the night. The river runs year round so there is no shortage of water. Moreover, there is ample driftwood for a fire.
Setting out in the morning, you continue downstream passing the junction with another large canyon entering from the right. The river from this adds substantially to the canyon flow. Then, as the sides of the main canyon begin to steepen, you can anticipate that there are exciting adventures ahead. First, even before the canyon walls have really steepened enough to suggest that you have entered the Bear Creek Narrows you quite suddenly encounter a waterfall with no easy descent on either side and a large deep pool below. On either side of the falls the drop is vertical but only about 12ft high. We chose to rappel down the rock just to the right of the falls using a convenient and substantial tree as an anchor. A much easier way (should you feel so inclined) would be to jump into the pool for it is certainly deep enough. Even if you rappel you must swim and wade through the pool. These falls are the point of no return for many people would find climbing back up quite difficult.
Below these falls, the canyon walls close in and you enter the spectacular Bear Creek narrows. First you come on a beautiful series of rock pools. There are wide rock ledges that allow easy passage for a short distance but then, quite suddenly, the scale of the canyon increases abruptly. The river roars into a dark defile that turns to the right and then, abruptly, to the left. There is no way for a human to follow the water here but brief exploration will reveal a use-trail that climbs up an earthy slope with root handholds to the top of a rock outcropping on the left side of the canyon. The trail continues across the flat top of this outcropping and reveals a spectacular drop down to the waters below. Follow the use-trail as it contours along the left side of the narrows at this point. The trail proceeds into into a shallow gully where you can climb down to the canyon floor without too much difficulty.
Just downstream from this dramatic corner in the narrows you encounter first a waterfall that is fairly easily passed on the right and then, shortly therafter, another rockribbed section with a convenient and large shelf on the left. This stretch culminates in a 25ft waterfall that requires a rappel (though we did not explore it there seemed to be trail around this waterfall high up on the east side of the canyon). An anchor for this rappel is not so easy to find; we used two separate rocks wedged into narrow places in the cliff to the left above the falls. Then, it is a pleasant rappel down a steep rock face that is not vertical and could, indeed, be climbed without a rope though not safely. There is a convenient shelf just at the waterline and, from there, you can wade along beside the cliff to the downstream shore.
Though these falls present the last major obstacle on the hike, there are still a number of places along the stretch downstream of the falls where you must clamber or wade. In one place there is a convenient small tree that you can shimmy down; if the tree perishes this could be significantly more difficult and it may be necessary to wade through the pool to the right of the large boulder. And, at the downstream end of the narrows, you will need to ease yourself along a moderately steep rockshelf in order to avoid having to swim or wade through a particularly deep but narrow pool. Finally, you emerge into a more benign wooded canyon and, following this for about 0.7mi, reach the primitive Upper Bear Creek Camp ground (34o16.94'N 117o53.07'W and elevation 2360ft). This is just to the left of the river and can be recognized by the large rocks that seperate the small, flat camping area from a little beach by the river. It is important to identify this camp because it is the best way to find the trail leading out of the canyon. The distance you have travelled alongside Bear Creek is only about 5mi but it takes more than 6hrs.
At this point it is wise to change into whatever dry footwear you may have left for it is still a long hike from here back to the road. Having prepared for this and supplied yourself with adequate water you climb up the trail leading up the slope immediately behind the campground. Though initially it does not appear so, this is a maintained trail (9W10) and you rise steadily over a distance of 3mi until you reach Smith Saddle (34o17.18'N 117o51.73'W and elevation 4290ft) over 1900ft above the river. The last 3mi from the saddle down to the trailhead seem particularly long. But finally you reach Highway 39 at Colbrook and emerge at the parking area where you left the first vehicle (34o17.25'N 117o50.55'W and elevation 3280ft).
Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen