ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike D7. Upper Eaton Canyon
- Hiking time: 6 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 8.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 680 feet up the Idlehour Trail
- USGS Topo Maps: Mount Wilson
- Difficulties: Much boulder hopping
- Special equipment: None
- ACA Rating: 1A III
Unlike the lower reaches of Eaton Canyon (see Lower Eaton Canyon hike) the upper part of Eaton Canyon makes for a relatively easy adventure hike that requires no technical equipment. The drop in on the south side of Eaton Saddle off the Mount Wilson Road is much easier than might at first sight appear and the going all the way to the Mount Lowe/Idlehour trail is straightforward boulder-hopping. It makes for a delightful fall, or spring hike provided any possible storm runoff has passed.
The hike requires a long car shuttle. First leave one vehicle near the gate on the Mount Wilson Toll Road (2N45). 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 distance along Pinecrest to the Mount Wilson Toll Road gate (34o11.51'N 118o6.33'W and elevation 1300ft). Then drive south again to the 210 Freeway and follow it west to the Angeles Crest Highway. Drive north on the Angeles Crest Highway to Red Box where you turn right onto the Mount Wilson Road and proceed 2.3mi to the overlook at Eaton Saddle (34o14.36'N 118o5.60'W and elevation 5090ft). Park in the broad dirt area.
Once you pass the metal gate across the Mount Lowe fire road (34o14.36'N 118o5.60'W and elevation 5090ft) you are immediately rewarded by a spectacular view down into the cliff-ringed amphitheater that is the head of Eaton Canyon. Take a moment to enjoy these spectacular surroundings. And from this elevated vantage point examine the progress of the canyon as it winds its way off to the south southeast. On a clear day you will note that, in the distance, the canyon makes a turn to the west and disappears from view. Just around this turn is Idlehour campground where your route will take you later in the hike. You may also be able to see the trail from Mount Lowe down to Idlehour as it switchbacks down the west slope of the canyon just before the westerly turn.
View down Eaton Canyon from Eaton Saddle Eaton Canyon near Idlehour
When you are ready to proceed hike up the fire road and through the tunnel, gaining elevation as you approach Markham Saddle and its watertank (elevation 5260ft). The drop-in point for Eaton Canyon (34o14.38'N 118o5.93'W and elevation 5240ft) is on the left side of the road just a yard or two before you reach Markham Saddle (and about 0.5mi from the trailhead). You descend down a steep earth slope that transitions into a boulder-strewn gully. Other large tributaries soon merge on the left and the route turns southward. For the most part the going is easy though slow boulder-hopping. This upper reach is dramatically ringed with cliffs and must be an awesome site after a large storm. About 1hr and 1.3mi from the trailhead (at an elevation of 4000ft) we encountered first water and, not far beyond this point, the flow became continous, in part because another large canyon enters on the left.
As you continue on down, the canyon gradually becomes less precipitous and, at the same time more verdant. Here there are some beautiful wooded sections where you can rest and enjoy this wilderness. About 1.5hr from the trailhead and at an elevation of 3760ft, you will come to a broad ``gate'' marked by 100ft cliffs on both sides. This is a particularly scenic stretch. Shortly thereafter, about 1hr 45min from the start, you will come to the first of the two small waterfalls in the upper canyon. This first (at 3600ft) is a beautiful little 15ft cascade that is easily bypassed on the left. It has a great pool for a hot summer day. Just a short way further is a second 15ft waterfall (at 3500ft) that requires a modest downclimb in a slot on the right. There are good hand and footholds so this single piece of climbing should not present a serious obstacle on the hike.
After these modest obstacles, the canyon begins to broaden and flatten out. There are large benches in places with traces of a use-trail. And you pass several boulder fields. At an elevation of 3080ft and 2.5mi from the start a large tributary, the Deer Park Branch, enters on the left and shortly after that you should encounter the trail from Mount Lowe to Idlehour when it descends the right wall to the canyon bottom. You should reach the trail about 3hr and 2.6mi from the start at an elevation of 2970ft. The trail is well-maintained and easy going and it takes only about 20min to hike down to Idlehour Campground located on a bench on the left side of the canyon (at 34o12.48'N 118o5.04'W and elevation 2680ft). Several metal stoves and old Forest Service signs mark the location. You should reach Idlehour about 3hr 15min and 3.3mi from the start. It is a good idea to rest here for a while before embarking on the ascent ahead. It would also be a good place to spend the night if that is part of your plan.
Just a few yards downstream of Idlehour, the trail veers into a side canyon and begins to switchback up the left wall of the canyon. Most of the ascent is in pleasantly shaded woodland, particularly welcome on a hot day. As you ascend some spectacular views of the Eaton Canyon basin open up. Pause 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. The ascent finally climaxes at a saddle (elevation 3360ft) after a climb of 680ft that should take about 40min. After a short descent the trail then joins the Mount Wilson Toll Road. You should reach this point (34o11.96'N 118o4.80'W and elevation 3140ft) about 4hr 20min and 4.7mi from the start.
From here it is simply a matter of descending along the Toll Road to Henninger Flats (34o11.60'N 118o5.37'W and elevation 2530ft) and from there down to the start of the Toll Road in Altadena (34o11.51'N 118o6.33'W and elevation 1270ft) The hike is 8.5mi long and should take just about 6hr.
Last updated 4/1/00.
Christopher E. Brennen