Los Angeles Area Hikes

Fish Canyon Falls
By Ann Marie Brown & Julie Sheer
  |  Gorp.com
Key Info

Level: Butt-kicker
Total Distance: 9.4 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 6 hours
Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet
Summary: For the sake of a beautiful waterfall, hikers endure a supremely challenging ridge climb and descent before entering the enchanted canyon of Fish Canyon Falls.

 

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The Hike
There’s no getting around it. If you want to see Fish Canyon Falls, you have to sign up for a difficult hike. Sure, there is a trail that leads all the way to the falls—no off-trail scrambling is required—but it has a grade that will leave you begging for mercy.

Public access to the trail to Fish Canyon Falls was closed for most of the 1980s and 1990s. Even though the waterfall is on the lands of Angeles National Forest, the popular trail to reach it had been blocked off by the expansion plans of a private quarry, Azusa Rock Company. This caused a fair amount of outrage among local hikers, who for decades had been hiking to the falls via an easy, five-mile round-trip trail. To quell the hoopla, Azusa Rock Company and the cities of Duarte and Azusa obtained a grant to build a three-mile-long bypass trail around the quarry. The trail opened in 1998, and Los Angeles-area hikers once again have access to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Angeles National Forest.

Except that this applies to only the hardiest of hikers. It is now a 9.4-mile commitment to reach Fish Canyon Falls, with a 3,000-foot elevation gain. Not only that, the trail was poorly constructed, so it is steep, loose, too narrow, riddled with poison oak, and doesn’t have nearly enough switchbacks. Oh yes, and it offers unattractive views of the aforementioned quarry. Yikes.

If you decide to go see Fish Canyon Falls, bring your hiking poles and wear your best-gripping boots. They aren’t luxury items here, they are necessities. Also, pick up the Fish Canyon Trail Guide from the signboard near the trail’s start; its map will be useful to you as you trudge up (and down) this merciless trail. And start hiking early in the morning. You are ascending south-facing slopes for the first couple miles, so unless it is a gray day, the sun will bake you.

The trail begins at a parking lot just outside the quarry entrance, then climbs steeply up to Van Tassel Ridge via the canyon’s west wall. The first part of the ascent doesn’t seem too bad, but it quickly gets worse. Spring hikers have the good fortune of passing a spectacular display of wildflowers (lupine, campanula, poppies, larkspur, brodiaea) on this sunny canyon wall, but that is its only redeeming feature. When you stop to catch your breath, you’ll see ugly views of the concrete-channeled San Gabriel River basin below and various industrial enterprises, plus hear the annoying pow-pow-pow from the San Gabriel Valley Gun Club. Boy, this is some fun.

At the ridge top, 1.4 heart-pumping miles later, you join a dirt road and continue the unpleasant ascent for another half mile. You get a short breather as the trail mellows a bit along the quarry’s fence line. Then the trail drops abruptly down the other side of the ridge, losing 1,000 feet in one mile. Thankfully, there are plenty of switchbacks, as well as a bumper crop of poison oak. This brutal up and down on Van Tassel Ridge must be accomplished in both directions of your hike—out and back—and is responsible for almost all of the trail’s 3,000-foot elevation gain.

At 3.2 miles from the start, the trail finally joins the old, pleasant Fish Canyon Trail in the canyon bottom. Your world is suddenly transformed, and your legs won’t believe the contrast. This sylvan path meanders gently uphill, sticking closely to Fish Creek, for 1.5 miles. Stone foundations, walkways, and walls of old cabin sites from the early 1900s can be seen, including one belonging to a family made famous by having the only two-seater outhouse. The cabins were destroyed in a fire and flood in the late 1950s.

But after your shadeless climb and descent, it’s the greenery that impresses most. The canyon is blessed with an abundance of leafy trees. Big-leaf maples, California bays, alders, and live oaks line the streambanks, and non-native ivy and vinca have covered the ground near the cabin sites. This is one of the most charming canyons in all of the San Gabriel Mountains. Thank goodness you made it.

Less than a half mile before you reach the waterfall you’ll cross over Fish Creek, then shortly find yourself in a high box canyon, where the waterfall drops. Even at low water, it is an impressive sight: Fish Canyon Falls drops 90 feet in three stair-stepped tiers, finally sliding its way into a large and clear pool.

So, is it worth it? For hikers in good physical condition, definitely yes. You may not choose to hike this trail regularly, but you should see this waterfall at least once in your life.

Options
If you aren’t up for the rather brutal hike to Fish Canyon Falls, Los Angeles has many more waterfalls that are much easier to access. Try Eaton Canyon Falls, Millard Falls, Sturtevant Falls, or Monrovia Canyon Falls instead. All are described in this chapter.

Directions
From I-210 in Duarte, take the Mount Olive Drive exit (one exit east of I-605), drive 0.25 mile, and turn right (east) on Huntington Drive. Drive 0.6 mile and turn left on Encanto Parkway. Drive 1.4 miles to the parking area just before the quarry entrance, on your left.

Alternatively, from the I-605 and I-210 split, take I-605 north to its end, then turn right on Huntington Drive and follow it to Encanto Parkway, as above.

Information and Contact
There is no fee. Dogs are allowed. A Fish Canyon trail guide, with a topo map, is available from the city of Duarte (and is sometimes available at a signboard by the trail’s start). For more information, contact City of Duarte Parks and Recreation Department, 1600 Huntington Drive, Duarte, CA 91010, 626/357-7931, www.accessduarte.com.


Published: 2 May 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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