ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike E2. Upper Devil's Canyon
- Hiking time: 9 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 12 miles
- Elevation gain: 600 feet and 1500 feet
- USGS Topo Maps: Waterman Mountain
- Difficulties: One modest waterfall, much bouldering
- Special equipment: One 30ft length of webbing
- ACA Rating: 2A IV
This adventure hike begins your exploration of Devil's Canyon by taking you from its origins on the south face of Waterman Mountain down through the upper canyon to the place where the Devil's Canyon Trail from Chilao reaches the river. You start in the beautiful pine forest of Waterman Mountain and descend to the desert-like vegetation in the depths of Devil's Canyon, finally climbing back up to the conifers alongside the Angeles Crest Highway at Chilao. For most of the hike, you will follow the Devil's Canyon stream. Usually, this flows continuously from a point about 0.5mi from Twin Peaks Saddle. However, some years it can dry up almost completely, leaving only a few pools. We completed the hike one particularly hot summer day and were very glad of the water filter that we had packed and the water in the few remaining pools.
You will need to set up a car shuttle for this long hike. Drive east on the Angeles Crest Highway. Just before you reach the turn-off for the Chilao Visitor Center you will encounter the Devil's Canyon trailhead. On the left is a large dirt parking area (34o19.42'N 118o0.19'W and elevation 5310ft). Leave one vehicle here since you will end this hike by climbing up the trail from the canyon bottom and emerging here. Then, in the other vehicle, proceed east along the Angeles Crest Highway for about 7mi to the Mount Waterman trailhead near Buckhorn. About a mile beyond the Waterman ski lifts, a dirt road leaves the pavement and climbs steeply and forward up to the right. (There is a much rougher dirt road about 100yds before the one you want; do not take that.) At this trailhead (34o20.68'N 117o55.25'W and elevation 6770ft), there are small places to park on either side of the road. The trail is just a few yards past the main dirt road and runs parallel but just below the road for the first hundred yards or so. It then leaves the proximity of the dirt road and heads east.
The first part of the hike proceeds along a pretty trail through the pine-forested north slope of Waterman Mountain. Starting at 34o20.68'N 117o55.25'W and an elevation of 6770ft), it climbs gradually for the first 1.3mi to a saddle at 34o20.29'N 117o55.07'W and elevation 7160ft. Here, 25min from the start, there is a precipitous and spectacular view down into one of the upper forks of Bear Creek. Off in the distance to the left you can make out the end of highway 39 and the remains of the old road that connected that highway with Islip Saddle. Below you is the rugged catchment of Bear Creek. It would make an interesting adventure hike of two or more days to descend from here into the canyon below and follow it all the way down to the Bear Creek Narrows (see Bear Creek Narrows).
But our present route is up the ridge to the right, following the maintained trail up Waterman Mountain. The views here continue to be marvellous and you should take time to enjoy them. The mountain off to the southwest is Twin Peaks. We are headed for the saddle between Twin Peaks and Waterman Mountain that you can discern from the several overlooks you will encounter. About 2mi or 55min from the start you arrive at a trail junction (34o20.15'N 117o55.48'W and elevation 7380ft) where the right fork continues to the broad summit of Waterman Mountain (8038ft). You take the left fork (actually straight on) that soon begins to descend the southern slope of Waterman Mountain. After 1.6mi another junction is reached; taking the left fork you continue to descend another 400ft (over a mile or so) to the Twin Peaks Saddle at 34o19.64'N 117o55.77'W and an elevation of 6550ft. Here, 1hr 40min from the start, you reach the end of the maintained trail though a well-worn use-trail proceeds on up the other side and eventually reaches the eastern summit of Twin Peaks.
However, before you reach the saddle you should recognize that you are descending a small ridge with a gully on your right. This gully is, in fact, the start of Devil's Canyon. When you reach the saddle, this gully veers off to the right or west. You should follow the streambed in this direction. But, before doing so, take a moment to enjoy the view of the Bear Creek basin in the other, eastern direction.
There is only the faintest use-trail down Devil's Canyon. The first section is a pleasant hike down a shallow, wooded canyon. Follow the stream most of the time, though there are places where it is better to proceed along the earthy northern slope or along benches on that side. In places it is convenient to climb a little way up the northern slope in order to get past obstacles. After 0.8mi or 1hr 10min from the saddle (2hr 45min from the start) you will come to an overgrown stretch of canyon that is just upstream of the falls that are marked on the topo map (34o19.37'N 117o56.62'W and elevation 5880ft). These falls descend about 30ft down a sloping rockface and hardly deserve to appear on the topo map, since, in other canyons, there are many larger waterfalls that are not shown. Though they represent only a minor obstacle, care should still be exercised. There are two routes by which to descend. When the water is low (it was dry during one of my descents) the easiest way is to climb down the sloping rockface proceeding from one ledge to the next, first on the left, then on the right and then back on the left. The other route is via a narrow trail thatcontours from the top around to the left to meet a scree slope that takes you to the bottom. Perhaps a length of webbing would be useful here to provide security for the beginner.
Between the falls and the place where you intersect the Chilao/Devil's Canyon Trail, there are no substantial obstacles. It is a long three miles of bouldering, with a few sections of bushwhacking. In many places there are substantial benches that provide welcome sections of easy, open ground. There are also stretches of use-trail that become more continous the further you proceed. Clearly, many people venture upstream from the Devil's Canyon Trail and near the junction with the trail the route is well ducked. It takes about 4hr 30min to cover the distance from the falls to the trail junction. You should reach this point about 7hr 30min from the start.
Some care is needed to recognize the junction with the Devil's Canyon Trail though the latter is outlined with rocks and logs. The junction (34o18.66'N 117o59.01'W and elevation 3960ft) occurs in a grove of tall grass near a pleasant pool with a beach. Be on the lookout for the site of the old Devil's Canyon trailcamp that is on a large bench off to the right. It is immediately preceded on the right by a boulder field through which the trail winds. If you encounter this trailcamp you have gone too far and will need to backtrack about 100yds to find the trail.
The Devil's Canyon Trail starts its upward climb by ascending a side canyon that meets the main stream at an acute angle so that, in following it, you almost reverse directions. The trail ascends about 1350ft over 3mi to the Angeles Crest Highway and the parking area where you left the first vehicle. The first half is mostly in the shade for which we were thankful on a particularly hot summer day. The last switchbacks are more exposed but in the shade late in the day. It takes about 1hr 40min to complete this climb and reach the Devil's Canyon trailhead (34o19.42'N 118o0.19'W and elevation 5310ft).
Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen