ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike J1. Middle Fork Lytle Creek
- Hiking time: 6.5 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 6.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 2000 feet
- USGS Topo Maps: Telegraph Peak, Cucamonga Peak
- Difficulties: 4 rappels including 3 large single strand rapels of 160ft, 110ft, and 110ft
- Special equipment: 200ft rope, 160ft rope, 200ft rope recovery cord, 4 rappel rings, 40ft webbing, harnesses, and dry bags
- ACA Rating: 3A III
The Middle Fork of Lytle Creek is one of the prettiest canyons in the San Gabriels and for this reason the trail that leads up the canyon is popular with hikers. Many hike the two miles up to the base of a spectacular set of waterfalls in a large tributary off the main canyon. Few go further though the trail eventually climbs through the Cucamonga Wilderness all the way up to Icehouse Saddle. Beyond the base of the waterfalls, the trail switchbacks up the side of the main canyon before contouring back into the tributary. This allows the adventure hiker to access the upper reaches of the tributary and then descend two sets of beautiful waterfalls that involve four challenging rappels, 3 over 100ft and one in which you will get very wet. It is a marvellous adventure hike complete with escape routes for those frightened by the rappels. Due to the high altitude (about 5000ft) it is best for the summer or early fall. In winter the rockfaces are often covered in ice.
From Los Angeles take the 210 or 10 Freeway east toward San Bernadino and the 15 Freeway north toward Barstow. About 3mi before the intersection of the 15 and 215 Freeways in Devore, exit the freeway at Sierra Avenue following the sign for the Lytle Creek Recreation Area. Drive north past Nealey's Corner toward Lytle Creek. You will pass the Lytle Creek Ranger Station (on your right) and the turn off to the South Fork of Lytle Creek (on your left). Just 0.3mi further on look for the Middle Fork turn off on the left that is about 6.5mi from the freeway. The road proceeds through the small village of Scotland and then up the Middle Fork of Lytle Creek. The asphalt soon turns to dirt but the going is fairly smooth except for a few rough stretches near the end. The trailhead parking area (34o15.21'N 117o32.42'W, elevation 3980ft) is at the end of the road, 2.8mi from Scotland.
The trail is well marked and frequently used. It begins by climbing steeply up the right side of the canyon in order to breech a saddle on a ridge that juts out into the main canyon. At this saddle there are two alternative routes, the high road and the low road. The low road dips down into the canyon bottom in order to access the Stone House campground. The high road climbs gradually as it ascends the canyon and is the preferred route on the way in. The two trails meet up again a few hundred yards upstream of the campground. It takes about 40min to reach this junction that is 1.1mi from the trailhead at 4500ft. Just a short distance upstream of the junction, a sign tells you that you are entering the Cucamonga Wilderness. The trail then proceeds up the canyon at some height above the stream on the north side. There are some very lovely vistas of the canyon along this stretch, especially during the fall. After about 1hr 30min and 2.2mi you will come to the junction of the Middle Fork with an unnamed tributary that enters from the south. Before you arrive at this point it will be evident that this unnamed tributary exits from a dramatic gorge and it is easy to anticipate that the gorge is where the excitement lies. There is a broad open area to the west of the junction (34o15.24'N 117o34.20'W, elevation 5120ft) with several rough camping areas. The trail crosses to the south side of the Middle Fork and here you could leave your pack and the trail to explore a short distance up the unnamed tributary gorge. About 200yds into the gorge, after surmounting two minor cascades, you will be stopped by a very impressive set of three consecutive waterfalls crashing down from high overhead. These measure about 70ft, 60ft and 100ft in descending order. You will note the trees at the top that anchor the 130ft rappel down a cliff to the left of the top two waterfalls. That rappel will deposit you on a shelf where there are several trees to anchor the second rappel down the side of the lowest waterfall.
Middle Fork below falls
After this preview, which adds about 30min to the duration of the hike, you return to the trail where you left your pack and continue along it as it climbs along the south bank of the Middle Fork. Soon it begins a switchbacking ascent of the steep wooded slope to the south. As you near the top of this climb, take note of a large fallen tree trunk around which the trail switchbacks. The top of the ridge is about 50ft above you at the top of a scree slope. If you choose to follow the shorter version of this adventure and access the top of the lower set of falls via the lower drop-in point then you should leave the trail and climb to the ridge top (34o15.12'N 117o34.37'W, elevation 5500ft). Then descend the wooded slope on the other side of the ridge. Follow the faint use-trail that veers to the right until you reach the top of a rock and earth slope at a point where it is obvious that you can descend to the canyon bottom. This lower drop-in route will bring you to a point about 30yds upstream of the lip of the lower set of waterfalls. We will resume the description of the canyon bottom hike a little later.
Rappel in upper set Upper part of lower set
If you opt for the whole adventure then, back at the log, you should continue up the switchbacking trail that soon reaches the top of the ridge and transitions into the valley of the unnamed tributary. As you make that transition, look down into the canyon bottom upstream of the lower set of falls. At this point the canyon briefly broadens. However, looking upstream, it is clear that this broadening is brief and the canyon narrows just a short distance upstream. Continuing on up the trail, you will soon be able to discern in these narrows another, upper set of waterfalls that you can glimpse through the trees. Follow the trail as it climbs over the bluff on the right side of these upper narrows. After reaching the top of that bluff, continue on along the trail for about 70yds to a place where you can clearly see the canyon bottom below you at the bottom of a moderate earth slope. This is the upper drop-in point (34o14.93'N 117o34.58'W, elevation 5840ft). You should reach this point 35min after leaving the Middle Fork or 1hr 45min from the start. It is quite easy to descend the earth slope through the trees to the canyon bottom. You are then just a short distance upstream of the upper set of waterfalls.
Proceeding down the canyon, you soon arrive at the top of the upper set of waterfalls (elevation 5740ft) about 2hr 10min from the start. The first waterfall is a small set of cascades that funnel around the left side of a large boulder. Do not descend this cascade. Instead note a prominent bluff on the right that is above the second falls at the same elevation as your present location; there are several small trees growing on top of that bluff. Then contour around the scree slope on the right to the top of the bluff and, using one or more of those small trees as anchor, rappel about 40ft down the far side of the bluff to a flat area below the second falls. You will now be at the top of the large waterfall in this first set. This descends about 15ft to a small shelf and then plunges about 80ft into a beautiful, crystal clear circular pool drilled into the rockface by this marvellous waterfall. The pool is surrounded on three sides by vertical cliff and, on the fourth, by a shelf that ends in another 15ft drop to the canyon bottom. It is a challenging 110ft single rappel in which you cannot avoid getting wet. Consequently, this is the time to put all your not-wettable gear in the dry bag.
The best anchor for this single rappel is a stout tree growing out of the rockface a short way above the lip on the left. It is a good idea to set the anchor about 4ft up the trunk of this tree in order to minimize rope recovery problems with the sharp rock lip ahead of the tree. The first 15ft of the descent to the small shelf is quite easy. Then I suggest edging across to the other side of the stream and descending the main waterfall on the right (as you look downstream). This way you can avoid the principal stream though you will inevitably get wet as you near the circular pool. It is likely that the pool depth varies considerably with time. When we came this way it was about 3.5ft deep at the point of descent but more like 4ft deep at the far side where you clearly want to scramble out of the water onto the shelf. Incidentally, this scramble has few hand or foot holds and might be quite difficult if the water were deeper. Once on the shelf continue to rappel down the easy, 15ft slope to the canyon bottom (elevation 5540ft). You should arrive here about 3hr 15min from the start. It is a spectacular spot to have lunch.
Middle falls of lower set Last rappel
A short way down the canyon, you arrive at a minor waterfall that can be bypassed a short distance up the earth slope on the right. Just downstream of this is an excellent campsite on the left complete with fire ring and log seats. Continuing downstream, you negotiate a stretch of about 200yds of wooded, boulder-strewn canyon before arriving at the lower drop-in point and the top of the lower set of waterfalls. If you have had enough at this point or if you would rather not tackle the lower set of falls, then it is relatively easy to return to the trail by backtracking up the canyon about 30yds to a loose earth slope. Climbing this slope and veering right you will access the ridgetop and be able to find the developed trail just down the slope on the other side of this ridge.
As described earlier the second set of waterfalls consists of three dramatic, vertical drops measuring about 70ft, 60ft and 100ft in descending order with beautiful pools in between. The lip of the uppermost of the three is to the left side of the canyon. The falls drop further toward the left into a circular pool on a shelf that has no anchors. Do not rappel into this pool for you will be completely stuck if you do. The discharge from that pool plunges down the second waterfall that returns the water toward the center of the canyon. On the right side of these upper two falls there is a quite vertical cliff that drops about 130ft to a large shelf at the bottom of the second waterfall. This is the descent route and requires a single rappel of about 130ft. The entry to the rappel and the rope recovery are made awkward by a sharp, rocky battlement about 12ft high on the right side of the lip at the top. Just behind this battlement are some large trees. Using one of the large trees as anchor we hung the webbing and rappel ring over the rocky battlement and then climbed over the rock and used some small footholds on the far side to begin the rappel. Note there are several small trees on the way down where the rope may get hung up.
Having rappelled down onto the shelf at the bottom of the second waterfall, you will need to pull the rope in order to set up for the second rappel. Because you will be trapped if you have difficulty with this rope recovery, I suggest that the team carry a second, 160ft rope in order to single rappel to the bottom if the upper rope gets hung up. But before you continue, take a little time to admire this magnificient, cathedral-like place with towering walls of rock all around. The spray from the lovely second waterfall dances rainbows with the sun. It is one of those very precious perches in the San Gabriel mountains that are only reachable by the adventure hiker but richly reward all of the efforts along the way.
The second rappel is a drop of about 110ft down the right side of the lowest of the three waterfalls that make up this lower set. This requires another single rappel. The best anchor is a small, stout tree near the edge on the right. I recommend using a moderately long piece of webbing so that the rappel ring can be seen from the bottom. The 110ft descent is dry and relatively easy.
You will now have come to the point at the bottom of the second set of waterfalls that you may have reconnoitred earlier in the day. From here it is only about 200yds to the end of the gorge, though there is one small downclimb on the way. As the gorge opens up stay to the left so that you intersect the main stream of the Middle Fork. You may even need to proceed a short way up the Middle Fork in order to reach the trail where it crosses that stream. From there it is a pleasant 1hr hike back down the canyon to the trailhead (34o15.21'N 117o32.42'W, elevation 3980ft) and the end of a really challenging adventure hike.
Last updated 7/9/00.
Christopher E. Brennen