ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike B18. Big Tujunga Narrows
- Hiking time: 4 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 3.0 miles plus the road return
- Elevation gain: 440 feet
- USGS Topo Maps: Condor Peak
- Difficulties: Climbing, bouldering, wading and swimming
- Special equipment: Wading and swimming equipment, drybag
- ACA Rating: 2B II
A short distance below the Big Tujunga Road Bridge, Big Tujunga Canyon closes in and the river plunges through a short but quite rugged and precipitous gorge. In the summer when the river is low, you can negotiate a way through this gorge provided that you are willing to wade alot and even swim in a few places. There is only one substantial waterfall along this stretch; it represents the only difficult obstacle on this hike but by judicious route finding you will be able to pass these falls and the deep ravine immediately downstream.
It takes about an hour and a half to negotiate the gorge. The rest of the hike consists of a very pleasant and bucolic hike down a wooded canyon with some lovely pools, several of which make good swimming. You return to ``civilization'' by way of the Fall Creek Fire Road.
Though not necessary, this hike is best done using a car shuttle (or the placement of a bicycle) with which to cover the return leg along the road. The main trailhead is a dirt parking area (at 34o18.41'N 118o8.76'W and elevation 2940ft) on the east side of the road, 0.4mi south of Big Tujunga Narrows Bridge on the Angeles Forest Highway. It is most readily recognized by the large tree in the center of the parking area and confirmed by the presence of a trailhead on the other side of the road. If you wish to set up the car or bicycle shuttle, drive 1.3mi south on the Angeles Forest Highway to the junction with the Big Tujunga Canyon Road and another 0.5mi down the latter to a small dirt parking area on the right (west) where there is a locked gate leading to a fire road (at 34o17.82'N 118o10.20'W and elevation 3090ft). Leave the second car or bicycle here and return to the main trailhead.
From the dirt parking area (34o18.41'N 118o8.76'W and elevation 2940ft), cross the road and start down a well-trodden trail that descends into Big Tujunga Canyon. After about 25yds the trail divides with the main trail proceeding straight on. However a well-worn trail proceeds straight down the steep slope and, for this hike, it is better to proceed down this steep route. Near the bottom, there are strategically placed ropes to help you descend two steep and rocky sections. Once you reach the canyon bottom (34o18.52'N 118o8.77'W and elevation 2640ft), turn left and proceed downstream. There is no trail, but initially the going is fairly easy. However, the trees and foliage soon vanish and the river enters a narrow rocky gorge, proceeding from one sculpted pool to the next. For a short stretch, it is possible to progress without getting wet. But that is a brief reprieve. Soon you reach a point where wading becomes essential. Here you should prepare for an extended series of deep wades including a few places, further on, where there is no alternative but to swim. I recommend wading with your boots and socks on for, in this way, you ensure the best footing. Provided the weather is good enough (and this is most definitely a warm weather hike) I also recommend stripping down to shorts or bathing trunks. A large and fairly strong waterproof bag is almost essential. I put my backpack and all my clothes in this bag, seal it and use it as a floatation device when swimming becomes essential. Swimming may not be quite the right word; it is more like letting the current carry you with minimal arm strokes.
Upstream of the Narrows Exit from the Narrows
The first few deep pools only require wading through waist deep water. But in some years they may be deeper so careful route-finding is recommended. Then, about 60min from the start, you will arrive at the major obstacle on this hike and it is wise to gauge the nature of this obstacle before proceeding. From upstream, you will see that the river drops down into a narrow, steep-walled ravine about 40ft deep. It may look as though you could follow the river into this ravine but, what you cannot see from this vantage point, is that there is a 20ft waterfall that blocks this route. Though not recommended, many young people slide down these falls into the deep pool below and then swim across the two pools beneath the falls.
The safer route is to follow the rock shelf to the right of the ravine that is easily accessed and places you about 40ft above the canyon bottom. Several ropes hang down into this ravine from a dubious anchor. You may be tempted to rappel down this same route but this is not recommended. Instead, you should proceed along the shelf, climbing higher as the right turn in the canyon is approached. Turning the corner, you should be able to see a fairly comfortable route that can be used to descend to the river. From the high point where you turn the corner, you can follow a narrow ledge as it traverses down to a point where another ledge switchbacks upstream to reach the bottom. This route is easier and safer than it might appear at first sight. Apart from being a little airy, the only difficulty occurs at the point of switchback, but even here there are many good footholds. The alternative is to rappel down the rockface in the same general vicinity using one or two of the sturdy bushes as anchors.
Having negotiated this major obstacle, you enter a very narrow section with polished vertical walls. Here the river forms deep pools separated by small cascades. Almost immediately, you will reach a deep pool where there is no alternative but to swim. It is, however, an easy swim (or float), particularly if you follow my recommendation and use a sealed plastic bag (or ``drybag'') as a floatation device. There follows a series of smaller pools that mostly require wading and the negotiation of small cascades. One final swim between vertical walls will bring you to a gravel beach that marks the end of the narrows. Consequently, when you reach the gravel beach about 1hr 30min from the start of the hike, it is a good time to change into dry clothes.
Over the last, off-trail part of this hike the canyon broadens and the going becomes much easier. There are a few short rocky sections where knee-deep wading is necessary but these are interspersed with broad and serene stretches with lots of shade and foliage. This is a beautiful and infrequently visited section of Big Tujunga Canyon and there are numerous places to enjoy a picnic. Finally, the canyon broadens further and you must bear right at the boulder field and follow the river; here, 2hr 30min from the start of the hike, you reach the place where the Fall Creek Fire Road crosses the river via a rudimentary concrete bridge (at 34o18.31'N 118o9.61'W and elevation 2380ft). Above you to the right, a little way up the fire road is the Falls Creek campground. But our route follows the fire road in the opposite direction, climbing the left or east wall of the canyon. It is a fairly easy 1.7mi, 50min hike up the fire road to the locked gate off the parking area at the side of Big Tujunga Road (34o17.82'N 118o10.20'W). Hopefully, this is the place where you left the other vehicle or bicycle.
Mill Creek extension
If you would like a longer adventure, you can park in the Forest Service area immediately north of the road tunnel that is, in turn, just about 0.25mi northeast of the Big Tujunga Narrows Bridge. From that parking area (at 34o18.95'N 118o8.18'W and elevation 3040ft), you can drop straight into Mill Creek and follow it downstream to where it joins Big Tujunga just upstream of the drop-in point described at the start of this chapter. This Mill Creek extension adds about 2hr to the duration of the hike. The new section of canyon has only two obstacles that pose any problems. The first is a small 5ft drop as the stream slides through a narrow and slippery gap beside a large boulder. A piece of webbing is useful here to lower yourself into the pool below.
A short distance downstream is a much larger, 30ft waterfall; this can be negotiated by climbing the rocks on the right and following the well-worn use-trail a short way to the point where it descends to the canyon bottom. The remaining distance to the junction with Big Tujunga Canyon (34o18.56'N 118o8.59'W and elevation 2680ft) is very pleasant and wooded and well worth the effort in extending the hike.
Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen