ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SAN GABRIELS
Hike B10. White Oak Canyon
- Hiking time: 8.5 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 7 miles
- Elevation gain: 2350 feet
- USGS Topo Maps: Condor Peak
- Difficulties: Three rappels of 40ft, 150ft and 150ft, some bushwhacking and downclimbing, possible exit swim of 25yds
- Special equipment: Rappelling equipment with 160ft rope, 160ft recovery cord or rope, three rappel rings, 80ft webbing, drybags
- ACA Rating: 3A IV
White Oak Canyon drops precipitiously off the southest side of Fox Peak and is almost hidden behind the Big Tujunga Reservoir. The well-maintained Condor Peak Trail allows one to approach the upper reaches of White Oak but the drop-in is long and initially very steep and loose. Once accessed, the canyon itself is short and sweet, ending in two glorious rappels down vertical moss-covered faces. A small stream flows most of the year in the main canyon and creates a lovely shaded refuge in the lower part of the canyon. Like the approach, the hike out from the canyon exit has its challenges and may involve a 25yd swim across the upper reaches of the Big Tujunga Reservoir. However, most of the time it just requires hiking across some muddy flats.
40ft rappel in White Oak Canyon
Because of the exposure on the hike in and the drop in, this hike is best on a cooler summer, spring or fall day. In the winter after rain, the required crossing of the Big Tujunga may make the hike inadvisable if not dangerous.
This hike requires a short car shuttle. First drive up Big Tujunga Canyon Road past the bridge just below the dam. Stop at the dirt pullout on the north side of the road 1.7mi northeast of the bridge and just a few hundred yards beyond the signed dam overlook. (If you reach the junction with the Angeles Forest highway you have gone 1.3mi too far.) Leave the return vehicle at this dirt pullout at 34o17.83'N 118o10.63'W and an elevation of 2810ft.
Before leaving this spot, you may wish to take a distant look at the drop-in to White Oak Canyon. This lies on the horizon ridge at a 291o compass heading (roughly ENE) from where you parked the return vehicle. It can be identified as the sharp step in the ridge profile from which a steep gully descends into White Oak Canyon. From other vantage points along this stretch of road you can also see the exit from White Oak Canyon and thus be able to determine whether the exit will require a swim across the top of the reservoir.
After depositing the return vehicle, drive 3.9mi down along Big Tujunga Canyon Road to a point about 100yds east of the junction with the Vogel Flats Road. Park in a turnout on the south side of the road at 34o17.23'N 118o13.47'W and an elevation of 2080ft.
For such a substantial route, the start of the Condor Peak Trail is remarkably difficult to find. First it is not marked on the topo map though other trail maps do feature it. But it is also hard to find where it starts. From the parked vehicle(s) just about 100yds east of the junction with the Vogel Flats Road (at 34o17.23'N 118o13.47'W and an elevation of 2080ft) cross to the north side of Big Tujunga Canyon Road and look for an entrance in the bushes via a shallow depression. Once on the trail it is well-maintained and easy to follow. It climbs steeply to a trail junction at 2270ft where it joins a longer trail that begins at a trailhead closer to the dam. Turn left at the junction and continue up the Condor Peak Trail as it switchbacks up the ridge between Vogel and Fusier Canyons.
About 1hr and 2.0mi from the start, you will come to a notable and dramatic saddle at 34o17.89'N 118o12.79'W and an elevation of 3060ft. On one side this saddle overlooks the head of the left fork of Fusier Canyon and, on the other, a branch of Vogel Canyon. As the trail continues to climb it contours in and out of a series of canyons some of which may have some running water. There is a particularly lovely shaded glade with a little waterfall at 3420ft which you will pass about 1.5hr from the start.
The penultimate 150ft rappel
The trail contours through a deep recess and then rounds a promontory. As it does so you get your first overhead view of the Big Tujunga Reservoir and of White Oak Canyon. It continues climbing along the east side of the ridge and soon arrives at the drop-in point at 34o18.26'N 118o11.92'W and an elevation of 3890ft. This drop-in point is at the first obvious saddle where the trail switches from the east side of the ridge to the west side. There is an obvious cliff to the north of the saddle and a rough, steep, and fairly brush-free gully that drops down from this saddle into White Oak Canyon. You should reach this drop-in point about 2hr 20min and 3.8mi from the start. It would be wise to gear up here on the trail in preparation for the rough descent ahead.
From the drop-in point you descend a steep, broad gully that is relatively free of brush but is slow going because of the loose rock and gravel. Gradually the slope eases and there are sections of bedrock with occasional downclimbs including a couple of places where you may choose to set up short, 15ft rappels (or rope-assisted downclimbs) using the omniponent bushes for anchor. As you near the junction with the main canyon there is one section of dense brush bushwhacking where you might make better progress a little way up on the left side of the gully. This thick brush ends where the gully deepens and travel in the gully bottom becomes easier. From the drop-in point, it takes about 2hrs to reach the junction with the main canyon at 34o18.19'N 118o11.60'W and and elevation of 2980ft. Thus you should reach the confluence about 4hr 20min from the start having covered 4.2mi. An easy 10ft downclimb is needed at the junction in order to descend into the main canyon bottom.
White Oak Canyon itself is relatively brush free and has some water flow (at least for most of the year) with many nice small pools in the bedrock. There are some good lunch spots just downstream of the confluence. All the rappels are in the bottom part of the canyon and you will arrive at the first substantial drop about 30min below the confluence at an elevation of 2820ft. This is a broad bedrock step that could be downclimbed but is better descended by a 30ft sloping rappel from a bush just above the left lip. This is immediately followed by the first obligatory rappel, a vertical 40ft drop from a bush anchor on the left side of the lip. This is a pretty water-dripping, moss-covered drop. It is immediately followed by a 20ft assisted downclimb using a bush to the left side of the lip.
Just a few yards below this assisted downclimb you will arrive at the top of the first of the two big rappels. You should reach this point at an elevation of 2700ft about 5hrs 20min after the morning start. You cannot see the bottom of the rappel because you first descend about 30ft over sloping bedrock into a hanging pool and then drop down a steep, wet, moss and slime covered rockface for another 120ft for a total rope length of 150ft. The anchor is a large tree just a little back from the lip. With the two intervening lips the rope pull can be a little difficult here. The rappel sets you down in a leafy glade with a small pool.
The section of canyon below this rappel is the prettiest in this hike, a tree-shaded refuge with a stream and many lovely pools. About 300yds downstream you arrive at the dramatic top of the last rappel. Here you peer through a narrow slot at a huge cliff-ringed bowl. Again the landing area cannot be seen from the top but the total drop is about 130ft. The rappel is anchored by a huge tree just a few yards upstream of the lip and provides for one of the most glorious descents in the San Gabriels as it drops down a dripping, moss-covered face with a 70ft section of exciting free rappel in the dripping water. The landing area is a pretty wooded glade where you could rest and prepare for the exit hike.
The final 130ft rappel
Below this last rappel, the canyon gradually dries up as the water soaks into the canyon bottom gravel and the last section of White Oak Canyon is a dry, bouldery hike down to the junction with the Big Tujunga. You should reach this obvious canyon exit at 34o18.00'N 118o11.12'W and an elevation of 2270ft about 7hrs after the morning start having travelled about 4.8mi. At this exit one of several challenges could face you. Though the nominal Big Tujunga Reservoir level on the topo map is shown at the dam spillway level of 2290ft, in recent years the level has been maintained significantly lower so that the shore of the reservoir has been a short distance downstream of the White Oak Canyon exit. This means that hiking access upstream to the gravel flats of the Big Tujunga has been a simple matter of crossing, at worst, a muddy flat. However, there have been times when the reservoir has extended upstream of the White Oak Canyon exit and, during such times, it is necessary to swim and wade about 25yds across the reservoir to access the route up the Big Tujunga. Before beginning this hike you may be able to determine the prevailing conditions from the Big Tujunga Canyon Road during the morning car shuttle. Otherwise you might bring a drybag for this crossing.
Whether swimming or hiking across the mud flats, the crossing of the Big Tujunga is a little confusing because of the large rock island in the middle of the Big Tujunga just opposite the White Oak Canyon exit. Though it is possible to turn left at the exit and proceed around the left side of this island (along this route there is a pretty waterfall on the canyon sidewall) it is much easier to proceed straight across the Big Tujunga around the right side of the island. Once around the island and on the sand and gravel flats of the Big Tujunga, you should hike upstream for about 1mi, past the exit of Fox Canyon in order to access the Josephine trail for the trail hike up to the Big Tujunga Canyon Road. For a description of this trail location, see choice two of the exit trails described in the Lower Fox Canyon hike. The start of this exit trail is at 34o18.03'N 118o10.41'W and 2310ft and you should reach the top and your return vehicle at 34o17.83'N 118o10.63'W and 2810ft about 8.5hrs from the morning start having travelled about 7mi.
Last updated 8/25/06.
Christopher E. Brennen