ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike E3. Devil's Canyon Loop
- Hiking time: 5.5 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 7 miles
- Elevation gain: 1860 feet
- USGS Topo Maps: Waterman Mountain
- Difficulties: Many small but steep rock and earth climbs.
- Special equipment: 30ft of webbing
- ACA Rating: 2A III
The central feature in this adventure hike is the rugged and spectacular Devil's Canyon deep in the innermost reaches of the San Gabriel mountains. The catchbasin of this canyon forms a large part of the Devil's Canyon Wilderness Area within the Angeles National Forest.
Devil's Canyon (and the river that flows within it, year round) begins just to the west of the saddle separating Waterman Mountain and Twin Peaks. It plunges into a deep ravine, travelling west for several miles before turning southward. At this turn the canyon broadens briefly and so allows the only easy access to its upper reaches. A well-maintained trail leaves the Angeles Crest Highway and switchbacks down to the river at this point.
Three adventure hikes in Devil's Canyon are described in this book; this one visits the middle section. It begins easily with a descent along the Devil's Canyon trail and ends with a little known route out of (or into) the canyon. It is an exciting and challenging adventure hike that does not require any special equipment though a length of webbing may be useful in places.
The hike requires a car shuttle. From La Canada/Flintridge drive up the Angeles Crest Highway past the Red Box junction. About 1mi before Charlton Flats you come to a place where there is a large, dirt clearing to the right (south side) of the road. This overlook at 34o17.10'N 117o59.57'W and an altitude of 5111ft is known as Windy Gap. It provides spectacular views to the south and east. Three different canyons begin below this overlook. We will emerge from the canyon that drops down from the overlook in an easterly direction. I call this Skull Canyon. Leave a vehicle in this parking area and drive about 4mi further east (actually north east) along the Angeles Crest Highway to the clearly marked beginning of the well-maintained Devil's Canyon Trail (34o19.42'N 118o0.19'W and elevation 5310ft). Park on the large dirt parking area on the left side of the highway.
Cross the road and follow the trail that descends about 1350ft over 3mi to the canyon bottom at 34o18.66'N 117o59.01'W and an elevation of 3960ft. The trail meets the river at a beautiful spot in the southward turn of Devil's Canyon where there is a series of sparkling pools and small cascades that invite a leisurely rest stop. A short distance downstream there is a large primitive campground on a bench to the west of the river. The trail continues on downstream for about a mile but then fades into a use-trail as the canyon narrows. It is, however, straightforward to follow this use-trail and to bushwhack your way downstream for another mile and a half, though progress is frequently slowed by the need to climb over boulders and down small waterfalls. Finally, you reach the beautiful Devil's Canyon Narrows where the river plunges over two substantial waterfalls. Here the river has cut a narrow and precipitous defile through solid rock, leaving a series of deep and crystal clear pools separated by sparkling cascades. Despite their great natural beauty, the Devil's Canyon Narrows are rarely visited because of the difficulty of reaching them. Thus they retain an aura of great remoteness and true wilderness.
About 100yds before reaching the Devil's Canyon Falls, you encounter a small waterfall that is passed by means of a rock ledge on the left or east side. This is followed by a series of falls and pools that can be difficult to negotiate when the water is high. As you progress through this section try and take note of a moderately large canyon entering from the west. Just downstream of its mouth is a campsite by a large rock that has a substantial cave or shelter beneath it. You will return to this point a little later. About 50yds further on you come suddenly on the uppermost of the two Devil's Canyon Falls (34o17.18'N 117o58.47'W and elevation 3250ft). Here the water spills about 20ft into a large and beautiful pool surrounded by rock walls.
It is difficult but not impossible to climb down past the upper falls without technical climbing gear. There are two ways to do so, each of which has a short section where a piece of webbing should be used for safety. The first and most obvious route can be inspected from the viewpoint above the right or west side of the falls. From there one can trace a route along the rockface to the left or east side of the falls. This consists of a ledge about 12-15ft above the pool. The ledge ends just about where the pool ends and you can find a number of foot and handholds at this point that will allow you to climb down to the canyon bottom. This climb is made safer and easier by wrapping a length of webbing around the rock outcropping at the end of the ledge. Looking back at the falls from this vantage point you will notice another climbing route up and over the west side of the falls but this is much less safe. Another route that can be used to negotiate the upper falls is to climb the east slope of the canyon about 15yds upstream of the falls. The climb is quite safe and, as you ascend, watch for a semblance of a trail veering to the right through the bushes. This eventually reaches the spine of the ridge to the east of the canyon and you can then climb down the spine back into the canyon; again there is a semblance of a trail that you should follow. As you climb down the last part of this ridge, a steep rocky section, it is wise to use a length of webbing for safety, particularly since the rock here can be quite loose. This route reaches the canyon bottom about 50yds below the upper falls and immediately above the lower falls. At this point the rugged canyon makes an abrupt left turn and plunges through a narrow fissure and over the lower falls into another large pool. This is the turn-around point for this adventure hike.
Parenthetically we should add a few notes for those whose intent is to continue on down the canyon and connect with the next adventure hike called Lower Devil's Canyon. More technical rappelling equipment is needed in order to safely negotiate the lower falls. One possibility is to use one of the large rocks in the canyon bottom as an anchor and to rappel directly over the falls into the large pool. However this necessitates swimming across the pool. The other route is to climb up the ridge described above to a point about 20ft above the canyon floor (above the falls). There you will find that a much longer rappel from that ridge (using one or more of the several trees on the ridge) would allow you to reach an area beside the lower pool and thus access the route on down the canyon. This rappel is about 50ft high.
The return leg of the present adventure hike begins when you retrace your steps to a point about 100yds above the upper falls where a substantial canyon enters from the west at 34o17.25'N 117o58.50'W and an elevation of 3400ft. This is Skull Canyon. You can confirm identification of this canyon by finding the campsite just south of the canyon entrance that has a cave under a large rock. Progress up Skull Canyon is briefly impeded by brush but this is only a problem for a brief stretch and it then becomes relatively easy to make your way up the canyon. About 15min after beginning this ascent, the canyon closes in and you suddenly encounter a steep and narrow falls about 20ft high. This would be very difficult to ascend using a direct approach. Later, you will come to see that, even if you were able to climb directly over these falls, a much higher waterfall would bar further progress. Though this seems ominous, the route around these obstacles is relatively straightforward. From a point about 20yds below the lower falls, you must climb directly up the steep earth-covered slope on the left side of the gully. The marks left by many others who have climbed up or slid down this slope are quite evident. The principal difficulty is the very first part of the ascent but, fortunately, there are many useful roots to act as handholds. About 25ft up this slope you enter a narrow and steep side gully. After about 20yds you should veer to the right up the rock and earth covered slope that forms the side of the gully. The use-trail should continue to be evident. At the top of the earth and rock covered slope, the use-trail contours around the face of a steep bluff and then drops back into the main canyon just upstream of a normally dry waterfall with a vertical drop of more than 50ft. From this point you can look back down the canyon and recognize the difficulty of a direct attack on these waterfalls.
We have just described the main obstacle in the ascent of Skull Canyon. However, there are at least six more substantial waterfalls that you must conquer during the climb. All of these can be climbed safely without any special equipment or danger. Often there are faint use-trails that help you locate the easiest route that is frequently but not always to the right side of the falls. These obstacles generally decrease in size as you climb higher. Moreover with increasing elevation the foliage gradually changes from pine forest to chapparal. There are also several places where the canyon forks and you need to exercise some judgment in choosing the main branch. Near the top yuccas begin to appear and you will start to encounter trash thrown from the road above. In particular, I counted a series of four automobile tires in the streambed. Close to the top you will come to a place where there is a steep and loose gravel slope on your left. At this point you should leave the gully and climb straight up this scree slope (the beer bottles and other trash will help confirm that you are on the right path). At the very top you need to follow one of a number of use-trails that wind through the bushes. From these bushes, you emerge onto the large dirt clearing at Windy Gap where you left the first vehicle (34o17.10'N 117o59.57'W and altitude 5111ft). The elevation gain during the climb up from Devil's Canyon is 1860ft and the ascent takes about 2hrs.
Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen