ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike D8. Lower Eaton Canyon
- Hiking time: 8 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 8 miles
- Elevation gain: 2130 feet up the Mount Wilson Toll Road
- USGS Topo Maps: Mount Wilson
- Difficulties: 4 more advanced rappels, about 6 simpler rappels, significant downclimbing, much wading and swimming
- Special equipment: 160ft rope, 80ft webbing, rappelling gear with at least 6 rappel rings, dry bags
- ACA Rating: 3B IV
In its lower reaches, Eaton Canyon is one of the most rugged and impenetrable canyons in all of the San Gabriels. This adventure hike that traverses the length of lower Eaton Canyon is one of the more challenging described in this book and should not be undertaken lightly. Experience with other, easier hikes and with rappelling is essential for the enjoyment of this adventure. It should not be attempted during or after a rainstorm for to encounter a flood while in the Eaton Canyon Narrows could be extremely hazardous. Schedule it during the dry summer months not only because the chance of a flood is greatly reduced but also because much wading and swimming is necessary and this is much more comfortable when the water is warmer.
On the map it might appear as though this hike could be easily accomplished in a half day; in fact, because of the obstacles you will have to surmount it is really a full day adventure.
The trailhead is the start of the Mount Wilson Toll Road (2N45) in Altadena. Drive north or east on Altadena Drive, turn north on Mendocino Lane and immediately east on Pinecrest Drive. You may have to park on Mendocino because of parking restrictions on Pinecrest. But it is still just a short way along Pinecrest to the gate on the Mount Wilson Toll Road (34o11.51'N 118o6.33'W and elevation 1300ft). The gate is sometimes locked at night and often the Forest Service employee does not arrive to unlock it until 7.30 or 8.00am. This is frustrating for those intent on an early start.
Proceed down the Toll Road to the bridge across the mouth of Eaton Canyon (elevation 1250ft). At the end of this adventure you will emerge at this Toll Road bridge after your transit through Eaton Canyon. This is one hike for which it is advisable to make a preliminary, exploratory hike up the canyon from the entrance in order to examine Eaton Canyon Falls and understand one of the challenges of this adventure. On that preliminary hike you would leave the road at the bridge and hike up the streambed. But on the main hike, you proceed up the Toll Road past Henninger Flats to a saddle (34o11.83'N 118o5.18'W and elevation 2900ft) above the Flats where the road reaches a T-junction. I call this Esme Junction and you should arrive there about 1hr 20min into the hike. Pause here and take in the topology now revealed. To the north you look down into Esme Canyon which descends to the left or west and feeds into Eaton Canyon near the lower end of the gentle middle section of Eaton Canyon Narrows.
At this point there are two options. The first option is rougher but quicker and shorter and is advisable when doing a day trip. The second or leisurely option follows an easy route to Idlehour Camp, a pleasant place to stay the night if you choose to do so.
First Option: Turn left instead of right at Esme Junction and proceed down the dirt road several hundred yards. Do not turn left onto the road to the heliport. Instead proceed downhill to the place where the fire road turns to the left and starts climbing again (34o11.87'N 118o5.42'W and elevation 2730ft). Here there is an old, overgrown dirt road that switchbacks down to the right. At this point look across to the other side of Esme Canyon and you should see the trail that is your immediate objective. It runs down along the other side of Esme Canyon and is strangely distinguished by the telephone poles installed along its route. By proceeding down the overgrown dirt road and crossing the creek in Esme Canyon you access the trail I call Telephone Trail. The telephone posts even have wires installed on them though where they went is a puzzle. In any case, you follow this trail as it proceeds down Esme Canyon and then contours into Eaton Canyon high on that canyon's east wall. Here you are looking down into the gentle middle section of Eaton Canyon Narrows.
Telephone trail ends at a flat area (Telephone Flat) in a saddle (34o12.18'N 118o5.49'W and elevation 2580ft) behind a promontory or ridge that juts out into Eaton Canyon. As the river winds its way around the end of this promontory, it is forced through the narrow gorge you will be descending later. Pause at Telephone Flat to get your bearings. First look down the gully on the south side of the Flat; though steep this can be safely climbed and allows access to or exit from the middle section of the canyon. Having absorbed that you are now ready to follow the very rough and faint trail that leaves the north side of the Flat and contours along the steep side of Eaton Canyon. You proceed upstream for about 150yds, at which point there are several short switchbacks as the faint trail descends. The last part of the descent to the canyon bottom follows a scree-filled gully. Once you reach the stream you have joined the route of the second option. It only takes about 50min from Esme Junction to the canyon bottom.
Second Option: Continue up the Toll Road which turns to the right at Esme Junction. After 0.6mi the road switchbacks to the right but you take the well-maintained Idlehour Trail that forks off to the left at 34o11.96'N 118o4.80'W and elevation 3140ft. The distance from the start to this junction is about 3.5mi and can be covered in about 1hr 30min. Proceeding along the Idlehour Trail (12W16), you climb briefly to a saddle on the crest of a ridge (elevation 3380ft) and then begin the descent toward Idlehour Campground. This is a pleasant trail that passes through pine forest on the north-facing slopes. The last section descends more steeply as you climb down into the depths of Eaton Canyon. Pause along here to enjoy the grandeur of this great bowl in the mountains; to the north you can see Mount Wilson on the rim above the basin carved out by the headwaters of Eaton Canyon. Idlehour Campground (34o12.48'N 118o5.04'W and elevation 2600ft) is located a few yards upstream from the point where the trail reaches the canyon bottom; it is about 1.5mi from the Toll Road and 2hr 20min from the start of the hike. Located in a pleasant wooded area by the stream, it is a good place to spend the night.
Initially, when you leave Idlehour and start downstream the going is straightforward. In a few places there is a faint use trail but most of the time you pick your way over the rocks in a pleasant wooded canyon. You pass the remains of at least two stone cabins that are marked on the topo map. Later, there are several places where it is wise to climb up the left bank in order to bypass small waterfalls. After approximately 50min, you may notice the large pile of rocks (or ``duck'') I constructed to mark the place where the two options rejoin.
This second option is about 1hr longer than the first. I will leave it to the reader to add this hour to the elapsed times quoted below.
Big boulder Point of no return
Both Options: Just downstream of the point where the two options merge you must climb up the slope on the left in order to bypass a small waterfall and a beautiful, deep pool where you might be tempted to pause for a swim. Continuing downstream, after a short distance you reach the first significant obstacle in the canyon, a huge boulder that has blocked the entire width of the canyon. This can be downclimbed though you may have to wade the shallow pool below it. However, before this wade you should prepare for much wading and swimming. Here the canyon narrows dramatically and you enter the spectacular gorge known as the Eaton Canyon Narrows. The stream has cut a narrow and winding gorge through the rock leaving tortured vertical walls towering overhead.
Just downstream of the large boulder obstacle and about 2hrs 30min from the start, you arrive at the point of no return where you must slide or jump about 6ft into a deep pool. This is the first of many swims. Several other gorge-spanning pools follow and then, quite abruptly, you arrive at the first major obstacle, a vertical 45ft waterfall descending into a shallow pool. This requires a rappel. There are several possible anchors, the best of which is a tree some distance back from the lip. The entry to the rappel is tricky because of the moss covered rock. Getting over the lip of the falls is particularly awkward. Be certain to use the proper rappel stance; any attempt to support your weight on your feet could leave you very vulnerable to a slip. The rappel becomes easier as you descend to the right of the falls (as you look downstream) and the rope above you becomes vertical.
First falls Descending the Gully
Immediately downstream of this first waterfall are several small waterfalls and pools and these are followed by a smooth, inclined 20ft cascade that drops into a pool that can be up to swimming depth. You can set up a rappel here using a webbing wrap around one of the large boulders just upstream of the edge. However, many young people chose to slide down these falls. I suggest that the first person rappel to check the depth for the sliders who follow.
A few yards further downstream you encounter a 50ft waterfall called ``The Gully'', one of the most dramatic obstacles on this hike. The stream plunges down through a very narrow gap into a large cavern and drops 50ft to the deep pool in the shade below. Fortunately there is a good anchor just to the right of the falls consisting of webbing around a large rock. There is a very old bolt and hanger plate in the wall but these are badly corroded and should not be trusted. The steep crevice just below the anchor provides an easy entry for this rappel. Further down the rockface becomes slippery but not as bad as the first waterfall. Near the bottom, it may not be possible to avoid some encounter with the falls themselves. The rockface curves inward here and, at higher stream flows, it is easier to get behind the waterfall, between the water and the rockface. Hanging here in this cavity is one of the more awesome moments I have experienced in the San Gabriels. It is also easier to unhook yourself in the shelter of this cavity for there are several convenient, underwater ledges to stand on. Some years the pool at the bottom requires a swimming disconnect.
Downstream of The Gully there is a narrow slot waterfall that can be downclimbed by chimneying the first section and then using footholds below the lip of the lower section. The deep pool that follows must often be swum. Downstream of this pool, the canyon broadens and you come to the end of the most dramatic section of the Eaton Canyon Narrows. There is a large sunny rock shelf on the right that makes a good place for a rest and dry out. You should reach here 4hr from the start.
Below this point there is a long stretch of canyon without any major obstacles. It is a pleasant wooded canyon with many potential camp sites should you choose to overnight here. It takes about an hour to cover this middle reach. Approaching the end of this section you will recognize that a large canyon is entering from the left. This is Esme Canyon. If you look up at the left wall of the main canyon just before the Esme Canyon junction, you will see the remains of an old trail.
Just after the junction, Eaton Canyon makes an abrupt right turn and immediately narrows. Here one must negotiate a series of small slides each of which plunges into a deep pool requiring swimming. This series culminates in a vertical, 12ft waterfall that drops into a pool approximately 5ft deep. Though modest, this small waterfall presents a dilemna for the nearest secure anchor is quite some distance upstream requiring the use of a substantial length of webbing. The young people I was with belayed me as I rappelled. I then checked out the pool and they jumped.
Having descended this waterfall, it would be wise to take stock of your situation. At this point you should be about 5hrs from the start. It will take about another 3hrs to make it back to the trailhead so you should plan accordingly and find a camping place if there is insufficient daylight.
Continuing downstream, you encounter a small but awkward waterfall that proceeds through a narrow slot between rock walls in which several large boulders are jammed. Descend using one of these large rocks as anchor. Further downstream, there are many smaller obstacles in the canyon bottom but only one that causes any hesitation. This is a large and deep pool between vertical walls and fed by a small waterfall, only about 3ft high. The pool is over 6ft deep and you must therefore swim across it. On the way downstream it presents a minor hurdle for it is relatively easy to slip into the pool from above. However, when hiking upstream on another occasion, it presented a substantial obstacle for it proved very difficult for the first person to clamber up the falls from a swimming position in the pool. Because of the heroics of one of our party, we came to call this ``Naked Triumph Falls''.
Just downstream there is a place where a thick log is jammed between the two sides of the canyon high above the stream, seemingly holding the canyon walls apart. One wonders how long it can remain suspended. A short distance downstream of this oddity, you will encounter a small dam about 6ft high that, many years ago, served as a reservoir for a water supply to the basin far below. The water from this reservoir flowed through a pipe that led through a tunnel in the left wall of the canyon. The tunnel entrance is about 20yds downstream of the reservoir just above the canyon floor. Twenty years ago it was still possible to get through this tunnel, walking along the pipe, to emerge at a point we will encounter a little later. However, the other end of the tunnel is now blocked by a stone wall.
Approximately 30ft upstream of the tunnel and the same distance downstream of the small dam, there is a climbable slot in the cliff wall on the left. This slot is the start of the alternative exit option that consists of a climb up to the ridge above (Eaton Falls Ridge) and then a long descent into Eaton Canyon at a point downstream of the last large waterfall, Eaton Falls themselves. This exit option is described in more detail in a footnote at the end of this chapter. It cuts about one hour from the total time but is not recommended for the descent on the other side of the ridge is quite loose.
It is strange to think that Eaton Canyon downstream of Eaton Falls is just on the other side of the left ridge. Despite this you have still a long stretch of canyon bottom to follow when you continue on along the course of the stream. After several hundred yards you will come to a small 15ft waterfall that must be rappelled. The anchor is a stout tree on the right but the entry to this rappel is very awkward because of the overhang. Moreover the pool at the bottom is often deep and must be swum. Another small waterfall with a large deep pool follows immediately. At present this can be bypassed by walking along a very large log that spans the falls and the pool on the right. But when this log floats away you will have to swim this pool.
Next-to-last Falls Eaton Falls
There follows another section of wooded canyon before you arrive at the penultimate waterfall, a 50ft vertical drop from a narrow rock slot. Here there are several routes of descent. If you climb the steep slope on the right you will find a use-trail that easily bypasses the falls. Alternatively, on a hot day, it is a fun, wet rappel into a deep pool though you need to be prepared to rappel while in the main water stream. For an anchor, wrap one of the large rocks a short distance upstream of the lip. It is just possible to avoid the main stream by careful route selection on the right (as you look downstream). But the pool at the bottom usually must be swum whatever rappel route you use. Finally we note that many young people choose to slide down these falls, the little chute at the top projecting them into a free fall to the deep pool below.
Downstream of this waterfall, there is another wooded section before you finally arrive at the top of the 60ft Eaton Falls. Many young people climb up around these falls using an airy use-trail high up on the right wall. It is so frequently used that it is relatively easy to find if that is your preference. But it requires several exposed moves, not pleasant at the end of a long hike. It is quicker, easier and more fun to rappel down the falls. There are several large boulders on the left near the lip that make excellent anchors for the rappel. Like the penultimate falls this is a very wet descent in the main stream. The entry on the left is quite dry but it then becomes very difficult to avoid an encounter with the main falls. Near the bottom you can veer to the right before dropping into the shallow pool at the base. You are likely to have a sizeable audience for this descent of Eaton Falls for it is a favorite picnic spot.
Downstream of Eaton Falls to the entrance of Eaton Canyon is an easy hike of about 0.5mi. With a final short haul up to the Toll Road from under the bridge and then up to the gate at the start of the Toll Road (34o11.51'N 118o6.33'W and elevation 1300ft) you have successfully completed this challenging adventure. It should take about 8hrs.
The Eaton Ridge Alternative:
The Eaton Ridge alternative can be used to shorten the last part of the hike by three rappels, two dunkings and about one hour. It begins immediately downstream of the small dam described earlier. You begin the ascent of the ridge by climbing up the left or south wall of the canyon a few yards downstream of the dam and a few yards upstream of the tunnel entrance. There is a good but steep use-trail that switchbacks back and forth to the summit of the ridge. The first 15ft or so are the trickiest but you should be able to locate a place in the rockface where there are a series of good foot and handholds. When you reach the sharp crest of the ridge, a spectacular view is revealed. Off in the distance you can see the Los Angeles basin and it is clearly not far, as the crow flies, from here to the trailhead. However, the remaining section of Eaton Canyon lies about 400ft almost straight down below you. To your right you can see Eaton Falls, the large obstacle that this ridge climb bypasses. Above these falls, Eaton Canyon makes a 180 degree bend and you are now perched on the ridge separating the branches of the canyon on either side of this bend.
Despite appearances, the descent to the canyon floor below you is not technically difficult but a slip or misstep could be disastrous so it should be taken slowly and carefully. Moreover it is important to follow the route described here. Familarity gained by an exploratory hike up from below is also valuable.
The first part of the descent from the crest of the ridge is the most worrisome because the rock is extremely fragile and the entire slope is clearly in the process of rapid disintegration. Loose material is sliding down several chutes that descend toward the left. The first part of your descent lies down to the right of these chutes along the bottom of a small cliff. I recommend rappelling down the first part of this descent (or at least using a long piece of webbing to halt a slip caused by the disintegration of a hand or foothold). About 60ft down you will find yourself on a more stable scree slope that would be comfortable if it did not disappear over a cliff some distance below. Descend this scree slope slowly and carefully heading for a bush-covered outcropping. It is somewhat easier to get around the left side of this outcropping but do not venture too far left. The outcropping marks the end of the loose rock and the top of a much more solid layer of rock. It is quite reassuring to reach this rock, that forms a substantial ledge. And here, at the back of the ledge, you will find the other end of the afore-mentioned tunnel, now blocked by a stone and cement wall.
Twenty years ago a trail climbed up the canyon wall to this tunnel entrance. The water pipe from the reservoir was laid alongside this airy trail. In a number of places the hiker had to ascend wooden staircases in order to negotiate the steeper places. However, about the time they blocked the tunnel, the Forest Service also dismantled the staircases in order to dissuade people from trying to make the dangerous climb.
The route down from the tunnel entrance requires a short rappel down a cliff about 10yds to the right of the tunnel. Fortunately there are two quite secure metal stakes (the remnants of staircase anchors) to which you can attach lengths of webbing. The rappel is about 25ft and has a substantial shelf in a recess about 10ft from the top. It ends on a fairly secure sloping bench where you will also find more staircase anchors. Having negotiated this steep section the remainder of the descent follows the remains of the old trail. This first traverses to the right and then reverses for a longer switchback to the left across the lower face of the cliff. Finally you descend through weeds that have grown in the scree slope just above the stream. The point you have descended to is about 40yds downstream of Eaton Falls.
Last updated 6/5/00.
Christopher E. Brennen