ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike E4. Lower Devil's Canyon
- Biking time: 2.3 hours
- Estimated biking distance: 17 miles
- Hiking time: 7 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 7 miles
- Elevation gain: 960 feet (bike) and 790 feet (hike)
- USGS Topo Maps: Waterman Mountain
- Difficulties: Some short rock climbs
- Special equipment: 20ft webbing
- ACA Rating: 2A IV
This is an adventure hike that has considerable variety. The first part involves an easy 6mi bike ride along an asphalt road up a beautiful wooded canyon followed by a short ride up a steep incline, across a dam and along a dirt road. This leads to a modestly challenging hike with some scrambling over rocks. Since you will return by the same route, you can adjust the length of the adventure to the available time. If, on the other hand you are determined to reach the ultimate terminus of the hike, Devil's Canyon Falls, then you should be prepared for a day long outing with an early start and a late finish.
The off-trail part of the hike traverses the lowest section of Devil's Canyon between the Falls (see Devil's Canyon Loop) and the point where Devil's Canyon joins the West Fork of the San Gabriel River.
You begin by driving up Highway 39 above Azusa, passing the Morris and San Gabriel dams. Continuing north past the junction with the East Fork road and the off-road vehicle area, you arrive at the junction with the West Fork of the San Gabriel River. Here, just beyond the Forest Service Camp at Rincon, there is a small dirt parking area on the left to the south of the road bridge and a larger asphalt parking lot on the left to the north of the bridge. Park in either place, unload your bicycle and prepare for the ride up the West Fork. The starting point is the gate at the entrance to the narrow asphalt road up the West Fork which is just south of the road bridge (34o14.48'N 117o52.12'W and elevation 1580ft).
The asphalt road from Highway 39 up the West Fork of the San Gabriel River (2N25) is closed to vehicles and is therefore a popular bike trail. The surface is smooth and the road rises gradually over 6mi to the base of the incline before Cogswell Dam. It is one of the easiest and most enjoyable bicycle rides in the San Gabriels. The road follows the stream through trees and occasional small flats and there are many pools where you can stop to rest or enjoy this verdant canyon. It is a particular favorite of fishermen but you must obtain a permit to indulge in this activity.
After about 6mi you pass a pleasant flat where there used to be a campground, Glenn Canyon Trail Camp (34o14.44'N 117o57.14'W and elevation 2040ft). Half a mile further, the road suddenly steepens and it is a hard climb up about half a mile to the top of Cogswell Dam (elevation 2400ft). On the way you pass through the hamlet of houses belonging to the personel who tend the dam. When you reach the dam turn right at 34o14.60'N 117o57.85'W and cross over the top of the dam. At the other side turn left and follow the dirt road that contours along the north side of Cogswell Reservoir for a short distance before turning north and entering a large side canyon. At this point you are leaving the West Fork of the San Gabriel and entering Devil's Canyon. The dirt road continues up Devil's Canyon for about half a mile. At one point it forks; continue straight on the upper or right fork. A short distance beyond the dirt road becomes a trail following a narrow ledge some height above the canyon bottom. Soon, this ledge vanishes (at 34o15.24'N 117o58.43'W and elevation 2480ft) and you should hide your bicycle in the bushes and prepare to continue on foot. There are several places where it is fairly easy to climb down from the ledge to the stream.
Beyond this point there are only vestiges of a trail up Devil's Canyon. During the first few hundred yards of boulder hopping near or along the stream look out for the signs of the bighorn sheep herd that frequents this lower canyon. If you surprise them at the stream they will scamper straight up the steep canyon walls. It is a truly awesome spectacle, as they seem to defy the forces of gravity. Often they will halt about fifty feet up as if knowing that you cannot follow them there. Sometimes you will hear them high above you and, frustratingly, not be able to see them.
Almost at end of Devil's Canyon Entrance to narrows
After about 0.2mi you enter a large bowl with benches on both sides and a quite dramatic cliff wall on the right. Veer to the left and walk along the bench on that side that has several rudimentary camp sites in the sand. At the upstream end of this bowl, the river flows through a rocky narrows in which you will need to climb over some modest obstacles. Approaching these narrows (34o15.51'N 117o58.53'W and elevation 2610ft) from the left or west side, you will encounter a small waterfall. Normally modest, this waterfall must be quite a spectacle during floods for the pool downstream of it seems to have a quite different topology every time I pass this way. On occasions there has been a pool large enough to swim in. At other times there has been no pool at all.
It could be quite tricky to get above this small waterfall. Fortunately, there is almost always a log placed across the top of the waterfall that you can access from the rock on the left. Walking across this log allows you fairly easy access to the rock ledge on the right side upstream of the falls. Just beyond this there are several other places where you must climb up modest rock slopes past waterfalls. But soon, the canyon opens up again and the going becomes easier. About 0.3mi upstream there is a place where it is necessary to climb up on the rock to the right in order to get past a large pool but beyond this there is a long stretch of canyon with few special features.
Pool in lower Devil's Canyon Lower Devil's Canyon Falls (Photo by Hugh Blanchard)
After about 2mi of hiking you will pass a place where there is a high waterfall on the left hand canyon wall (34o15.98'N 117o58.38'W and elevation 2760ft). Often this is dry but, when flowing, it must be a very pretty sight. Continuing on upstream, the canyon bottom is open with desert vegetation. There is normally a sandy/rocky bench on one side of the canyon or the other and this usually affords the easiest passage. About 3mi from the start of the hike there is a particularly wide boulder field at the top of which the stream makes a sudden left turn into a narrow canyon. After entering this narrow section, there are several tributaries that enter the canyon by way of falls from high overhead. Then the canyon turns right again and another 0.5mi of wooded canyon brings you to a large and deep pool (34o17.14'N 117o58.40'W and elevation 3200ft). This is as far as you can go; looking around you will see that to proceed on safely would require technical climbing equipment.
You have reached the pool at the bottom of Devil's Canyon Falls. The Lower Falls emanate from a narrow defile up on the rockface on the left wall of the canyon. Though not especially high (about 20ft) the rockface has few ledges, handholds or footholds. Moreover one must swim to reach the rockface on either side of the falls. It is clear that the only practical way to get above the falls is to climb the cliff about 10yds to the right of the falls or the gully another 10yds further right. An old rope hangs partway down the cliff (that has a good ledge about half way up) but only a fool would use this rope. Either the cliff or the gully could be used for a rappelling route to descend from the canyon above (see Devil's Canyon Loop).
But this is the limit of the hike defined here. If you have come this far, you will need to begin your return with little delay in order to be sure to reach your bicycle before sunset. It would be foolhardy to try and negotiate the lower part of this canyon in the dark. However, with a good bicycle light, it is not a problem to ride down the West Fork Road after sunset.
Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen