ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike F4. Rockbound Canyon
- Hiking time: 7 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 5.1 miles
- Elevation gain: 1300 feet
- USGS Topo Maps: Crystal Lake
- Difficulties: One large headwall drop-off of 250ft requiring a two-stage rappel, another smaller rappel and much bouldering and downclimbing
- Special equipment: Rappelling equipment including two 200ft ropes, 30ft webbing, three rappel rings, helmets and harnesses
- ACA Rating: 4AR IV
Rockbound Canyon is a beautiful, rugged canyon high in the mountains to the east of Crystal Lake. It is readily accessed from the South Mount Hawkins fire road. Here we describe a descent of almost 3400ft down Rockbound Canyon to Highway 39. This involves much downclimbing and bouldering as well as a challenging two-stage rappel descent of the huge, 250ft headwall. It is a tough and physically demanding hike for the experienced canyoneer. It is recommended for the spring or fall.
This hike requires a car shuttle. Drive up Highway 39 from Azuza along the north fork of the San Gabriel river. Approximately 1.9mi past Colbrook Campground and just after a narrow section of road where there is a large drop-off on your left, you will come to a place where the road turns sharp left as it crosses the wash of a substantial canyon. This is Rockbound Canyon; park one vehicle in the small turn-out here (34o18.00'N 117o50.00'W and elevation 3770ft). One way to be sure that you have chosen the right turn-out is that there is a large grit hopper just beyond it on the left.
Having parked the return vehicle, you should then drive on up the highway for 3.8mi to the Crystal Lake turn-off. Turn right and continue on through the Crystal Lake Campground, veering left as you pass the little visitor center. Just beyond the sign that warns of the end of the pavement there is a large dirt parking area (34o19.65'N 117o49.98'W and elevation 5810ft), the trailhead for Windy Gap. It is 6mi from the return vehicle to this trailhead.
The Windy Gap trail starts just to the left of an iron gate on the right or upper side of the large trailhead parking area (34o19.65'N 117o49.98'W and elevation 5810ft). The hike begins by following this well-maintained trail as it climbs the northern side of the Crystal Lake bowl. After about 15min it crosses the asphalt road leading to Deer Flats (34o19.88'N 117o49.99'W and elevation 6000ft) and another 20min brings you to the dirt road (34o20.15'N 117o49.76'W, elevation 6490ft and 1.3mi from the start) to South Mount Hawkins. The Windy Gap trail continues on the other side of this road but you follow the road as it climbs around to the right along the east side of the bowl. It is a very pleasant walk with many good views not only of the Crystal Lake area below you but also of the San Gabriel Mountains to the west. Mount Wilson is readily visible and you should be able to make out Catalina Island far to the southwest.
Upper Rockbound Canyon
Follow the South Mount Hawkins fire road for 2mi. First it crosses two steep, rockfilled gullies. Then, just before you reach Soldier Creek (at 6940ft and 2.7mi from the start) you will pass a place where the dirt road splits to bypass a lone pine tree. Continue on beyond Soldier Creek for 0.7mi to where the road turns sharp left as it crosses a very prominent ridge, most notable on the right side of the road. About 50yds beyond this sharp turn, at 34o19.04'N 117o49.06'W, an elevation of 7120ft and 3.3mi or 1hr 20min from the start, you will arrive at the drop-in point for Rockbound Canyon. In fact, here you will drop into a small northern branch of Rockbound. There are many other branches that you could choose to follow by hiking further up the road but little is added by doing so.
Drop-in down a steep earth slope and begin descending this branch of Rockbound Canyon. It is a rugged, steep and boulder-strewn canyon. Almost immediately you begin substantial descent with many small downclimbs. There are also larger dryfalls but all of these can be safely bypassed by judicious route finding. After about 45min of canyon travel you will arrive at the junction (34o18.74'N 117o49.13'W, elevation 6460ft) of this northern branch with the broader, main branch of Rockbound Canyon. Climb over the low ridge on the left for an easy descent into the main canyon where, often, there is flowing water. Downstream of the junction the downclimbs and dryfalls are larger and more dramatic as the canyon cuts through a stratum of hard white granite. But the obstacles continue to be readily descended without technical equipment. Occasionally you begin to catch glimpses downcanyon of the road that climbs up to the Crystal Lake area.
Then, 3.5hr from the start at 34o18.56'N 117o49.64'W and an elevation of about 5200ft you will arrive at the top of the huge headwall in Rockbound Canyon. It is the dramatic white rock cliff that you can see in the canyon as you are driving up Highway 39 from the south. Viewed from that distance it seems overwhelming. And it is an advanced challenge in rappelling. But with care and planning it can be descended safely.
Before you get to the big drop-off there is a moderate rappel about 50yds upstream. Since there are no convenient trees this requires an anchor consisting of a wrap around one of the large boulders. The rappel descends vertically about 30ft. Then a few yards downstream you get a spectacular view of the vertical terrain of the great headwall. The streambed drops about 250ft, almost vertically. Moreover it is hard to see the bottom. Perhaps the best view is from the end of the shelf on the left where you can glimpse the rocky streambed far below.
Descending the headwall
Below we will describe a descent straight down this vertical drop. But we should also note that, from below, we could see that there may be a number of easier routes (perhaps even a downclimbing route) off to the right or northwest of the streamcourse. This possibility could be explored from the top by climbing over the low rock ridge to right of the streambed.
To descend the headwall directly, find a large trapped boulder at the end of the shelf on the left; with a webbing wrap, it provides a solid anchor for the first part of the descent. Set up a double strand rappel with one of the 200ft ropes and descend about 50ft to a recessed slot with chockstones. Just below this slot on the outside of the rock face is a substantial tree or bush on a small shelf. The first person down should contour over to this bush and set up an intermediate webbing anchor around its base. When the others have descended to the shelf or to the narrow slot about 15ft below the tree, pull the rope and set up a 200ft two-rope rappel from this intermediate anchor. Then descend down the slot (or down the face to the right of the slot) to a large shelf about 150ft below. Climb out of the slot in the shelf and continue the rappel down about 30ft to the bottom of the headwall. Note that the last person down this 180ft descent should take the route down the face to the right of the slot rather than the slot itself since there is a rope-trapping niche in the slot that might make rope recovery very difficult.
You should reach the bottom of the headwall (elevation about 5000ft) about 5hr after the start. The rest of the canyon can be descended without technical gear though route finding is challenging in several places. One of those places is just below the headwall where there is a large dryfall. This can be bypassed by contouring to the left and descending a steep, dirt-filled gully. Another large dryfall follows but can be downclimbed along its sloping center. These obstacles are followed by a long and steep section of bouldering. The reflected heat from the white rock and the lack of shade can make this long section very hot. Eventually, about 1.5hr from the bottom of the headwall you begin to get some shade as the canyon narrows and you pass a huge boulder (actually two boulders) sitting in mid-canyon. Shortly thereafter there is a spring and running water that provide marvellous relief from the heat. From there it is only about 20min to the end of the hike at Highway 39 (34o18.00'N 117o50.00'W and elevation 3770ft). It takes about 2hr to descend from the bottom of the headwall to the highway for a total hike duration of 7hr.
Last updated 4/15/02.
Christopher E. Brennen