© Christopher Earls Brennen

Hike K9. Great Falls of the Fox


This difficult but spectacular adventure takes you down the Great Falls of the Fox, the most awesome in the San Gabriel mountains. If you completed an easier hike in this same series, Lower Fox Canyon, you will have looked up at the Great Falls from below and will have tasted this adventure. In my opinion, the Great Falls of the Fox provide the most exciting adventure hike in this book.

Fox Creek collects itself on the slopes of Mount Gleason and, from there, flows south and east to enter Big Tujunga Canyon just a little distance upstream of the Big Tujunga reservoir. About a mile upstream of this junction just as it rounds the base of Fox Peak, the creek hits a mass of hard granite and has cut a deep and narrow passage through that rock. As it does so it falls dramatically through the series of seven waterfalls that we call the Great Falls of the Fox. All are contained within a short section of gorge with towering cliffs on all sides. Once you enter this gorge there is virtually no option but to rappel on down to the bottom, and that includes an awesome descent of the 100ft Great Falls.

This hike should really be a two-day affair and is recommended as such. However, this necessitates carrying a heavy pack through some very rugged terrain. On the other hand it is possible, travelling light, to complete the adventure in one long day. To do so, it would be wise to start down the trail at dawn. In fact, when we did the hike described here, we were very fortunate to be able to arrange vehicular transport along the fire road from the trailhead to the water tank saddle, a distance of 5.7mi. Not only did this mean a savings in time of nearly two hours but it also yielded a substantial savings of energy. This truck ride is reflected in the first estimates of time and distance given in the list above.

Clearly this adventure is only for the highly experienced rappeller. Moreover, it should only be attempted when the water flow is at its minimum. After any significant rainfall, it would be almost impossible (and very dangerous) to attempt to negotiate the central section that includes the Great Falls. Moreover, I strongly recommend you choose a hot summer day for you will be soaking wet for a large fraction of the time and, in the shade of the deep central canyon, you can get very cold (unless you wear a wetsuit). For the same reason another, almost essential, piece of equipment for this hike is a large, tough waterproof bag in which to stow your pack.

But any who do complete this hike will be treated to a spectacular gorge and will remember it as a truly great adventure.


The trailhead for this hike is the dirt parking area (at 34.29700oN 118.17032oW and a elevation of 3074 ft) by a locked gate on Big Tujunga Canyon Road, 0.5 miles southwest of the junction with the Angeles Forest Highway.


The first part of the hike is a walk down into Big Tujunga along the Fall Creek Fire Road, across the river (at 34.30517oN 118.16016oW, an elevation of 2383 ft and 1.72 miles from the start) and up the fire road as it climbs the other side of the canyon. Continue to the drop-in point, an overlook at 34.31538oN 118.17134oW, an elevation of 3284 ft and 4.16 miles from the start with a marvellous but distant view of the Great Falls of the Fox. For this reason we call it Falls View Saddle. Here, on a winter's day with the river flowing full you can hear the roar of the falls from about half a mile away.

At the Falls View Saddle it would be wise to dress in long sleeves and pants (or gaiters) for the next part of the hike requires much bushwhacking. While there are a number of ways to get from this Saddle to the top of the Great Falls gorge, we describe here the route pioneered by Matt Maxon since it is probably the least brushy though still navigationally challenging. It is therefore advisable to follow the GPS waypoints described here for otherwise you could be cliffed out.

Following the Maxon Route you first you descend into the gully to the west known as Little Fox Creek, cross over the streambed and then climb through brush to a flatter area where you turn west and head for the most important waypoint on the Maxon Route at 34.31597oN 118.17703oW and a elevation of 3571 ft on the ridge between the Great Falls gorge and Fox Creek further upstream. From here you descend a short distance down the ridge to 34.31572oN 118.17708oW and a elevation of 3435 ft (about 4.51 miles from the start) where you should find the top of a small gully dropping down to the west into Fox Creek. This gully has much loose rock and there is one point where you may choose to rappel down a 20 ft drop. You should reach Fox Creek at 34.31518oN 118.17947oW, an elevation of 3074 ft and 4.66 miles from the start.

Proceeding downstream in Fox Creek it is about 0.25 mile to the first obstacle in the Great Falls of the Fox at 34.31212oN 118.17953oW and a elevation of 2949 ft. This is a short chute through some solid rock into several sculpted by grimy pools about 5 ft deep. It is a simple matter to wedge your way down this chute and wade through the pools. Some may choose to rap down this 30 ft drop from a tree anchor on the left. About 50 yds downstream, at an elevation of 2960 ft, you arrive at the top of the gorge of the Great Falls of the Fox. The canyon suddenly drops about 40 ft into a chasm with solid, vertical walls of granite. The lip of the canyon bottom consists of huge boulders and, from this viewpoint, you can see a third, small 12 ft waterfall downstream of the second. However, the canyon then turns to the left and what lies beyond cannot yet be seen.

Second and third rappel   Fourth rappel

The large boulders at the top of the 40 ftfalls provide excellent and numerous anchors. There is a convenient platform on the right where the boulder forming the lip allows a convenient rappel entry next to the canyon wall. There is also a foothold on the far side of this boulder that is helpful. The rappel entry is nevertheless a little awkward because of the underhang of this rock just below the foothold. However, after the first 10 ft or so, the remainder of the 40 ft rappel is straightforward. You will descend into an often deep pool from which you may need to swim ashore. The next and third waterfall, about 12 ft high, also requires rappelling. There is a large rock on the left that makes for a good anchor and a convenient entry.

The fourth falls are immediately downstream of the third and involve a vertical drop of about 30ft. A large rock in midstream a short distance upstream of the lip provides a good anchor with a convenient rappel entry down a small slot on the right. Care is however necessary to prevent the rope from becoming wedged in this slot and causing a difficult rope retrieval. Again you descend into a deep pool that may require swimming.

The canyon opens up a little at this point and so it is a good place to catch some sun, to warm up and to get your breath back. The gorge you have descended is an awesome sight above you so you should take time to enjoy it before the major challenge ahead.

The fifth falls are a short distance from the fourth. They consist of a small 10 ft vertical drop after a short, easily walked chute. Unfortunately there is no easy anchor here. Some might choose to jump the 10 ft into a pool that is sometimes deep enough, though at other times only thigh deep. On one transit, the two young people I was with held the rope around the rock while I rappelled. Then they threw down the rope and jumped. On another occasion, the pool was too shallow and we devised a makeshift anchor using a piton in a crack in the rock wall on the right side. There is a large boulder in the middle of the pool below these fifth falls and allowed us to identify this location in some aerial photographs.

Great Falls of the Fox   Great Falls in the spring

This first series of five waterfalls will take about 2hrs. Downstream of the fifth falls there are two small pools and then a short flat section with trees and bushes. These terminate in a jumble of large rocks, logs and branches that mark the top of the big, 100 ft waterfall. The lip curves gradually over and so it is not easy to get a view over the falls and down into the grotto and pool that lie at the bottom. However, just a glimpse is enough to set the heart pounding. Moreover, other factors conspire to add to the feeling of adversity. Perhaps because of the natural funnel in the topography at this point, there is often a stiff wind that blows over the top of the Great Falls and nowhere else. Moreover, this wind tends to blow spray up the falls and over those who would dare to approach. On the plus side there are plenty of large rocks to use as anchors and it is best to set up the rope on the right hand side that provides a relatively dry descent at least at low flows.

Aside from the awe-inspiring height and the magnified problems of rope retrieval, this is a straightforward rappel during low stream flow. It has a gradual and easy entry with a flat but fairly rough vertical surface for most of the way. And the pool at the bottom can be waded. But, having seen it from below during higher flow rates, I know it is very different when the water is bouncing off all the walls and you must descend through that liquid environment. Even at low flows, the rappel is a spectacular experience so take time to look around and enjoy the surroundings as you descend between vertical granite walls. The grotto at the bottom adds much to the aura of the place. With awesome towering cliffs on all sides and only a narrow opening to the sky, the bottom is almost all pool (mostly quite shallow). On one side the falls have eroded away the wall so that there is a substantial undercut or cave that enhances the enclosed feeling.

Jumping the seventh falls   Pool below seventh falls

Rope retrieval after the descent of the Great Falls can be a problem for it is hindered by two factors. First, the sheer weight of 100 ft of rope makes it difficult to pull it down; and, second, the curved lip at the top adds significantly to the frictional resistance. When setting up the rope you should try and place the rappel ring as far over this lip as you feel comfortable with during rappel entry. We used two climbing ropes tied together at the top so that we could employ a double-strand rappel. The alternative is to use a retrieval cord and a single-strand rappel but this could make the retrieval harder. If you are having difficulty, a potentially useful trick is to have one member of the party send waves up the main, up-going rope while all the others pull on the retrieval cord or rope. It would also be wise to keep one rope in reserve for the rappels further downstream just in case you cannot retrieve the rope at the Great Falls.

Immediately downstream of the Great Falls and deep within this narrow defile is a beautiful little waterfall about 20 ft high that cascades into a magnificient pool again partly covered by overhang. One one passage this pool was deep enough to allow several of our party to jump the falls into the pool. On another transit the pool was too shallow. In either case I recommend descending by rappelling to the right of the waterfalls. There is no natural anchor, but fortunately three anchor bolts have been placed on the rock shelf just above this route. We replaced the webbing and used these bolts. I recommend you do the same though the anchor bolts could become unsafe at any time in the future and should be carefully tested. An alternative here would be to arrange a hook for the slot in the rock just over the edge of the shelf. This seems a good point at which to emphasize that anchors may change significantly as a result of winter storm floods. For this reason, it might be wise to carry a bolt kit with you on this hike.

Gathering above eighth falls   Lower falls in Fox Canyon

The eigth and last of the waterfalls in the central gorge is straightforward but somewhat blind. The anchor is a webbing wrap around a large rock wedged in the V-shaped canyon just downstream of the seventh falls. The webbing should be replaced, an awkward task since you must reach down over the rock. The anchor rock is about 30 ft back from the lip of the falls. Between it and the lip is a narrow V-shaped slot with a mostly horizontal, water-filled bottom. The best strategy is to set up the anchor, rappel ring and rope (a double-stranded rappel with a 180 ft rope or a single-stranded rappel with 100 ft rope and retrieval cord) while above the anchor rock. Then one member of the party should climb down into the slot and supervise the rappel from the lip. The rappel below the lip is an easy 35 ft descent with a shelf about midway; it ends in a broad, shallow pool.

Here at 34.31298oN 118.17800oW and an elevation of 2684 ft you have emerged from the gorge into a broad canyon that the sun reaches more readily. It is good place to rest, warm up and change to a hiking mode. And the view of the Great Falls from below presents an awesome spectacle that engenders a real feeling of accomplishment.

It is about a 1 hr hike from this point to the top of the last rappel at the exit from the canyon. There are a few minor obstacles to overcome just downstream of the exit pool but otherwise the going is fairly easy though it requires much wading and a little scrambling. This is a quiet, bucolic and attractive stretch of canyon. It takes about 1 hr to reach the large exit falls (the ninth and final rappel in this adventure) at 34.30400oN 118.17838oW, an elevation of 2316 ft and 6.00 miles from the start. These Lower Fox Falls come upon you quite abruptly just as it seems you are about to reach the junction with Big Tujunga Canyon. From above they are an impressive sight as they plunge 65 ft down a vertical cliff into a deep pool. There is virtually no way to travel up canyon past this obstacle unless you are an expert rock climber. Fortunately for those descending, there are two large trees about 15 ft back from the edge that are ideally placed to serve as anchors. The rappel down the vertical cliff to the left of the falls is straightforward and has a moderately easy entry. You descend into a large pool that can vary greatly in depth from year to year. When we first did the easier Lower Fox Canyon hike it was was well over 6 ft deep and we had to swim about 15 yds before we could wade. On the other hand, a couple of years later when we first did the Great Falls hike it was only necessary to swim about 2 yds back from the wall before you could stand on a sand bank.

Enigmatic sign in Big Tujunga

Downstream of the Lower Falls, you should follow the use-trail along the large benches on either side of the canyon. The trail switches sides several times and it only takes about 10 min to reach the junction with Big Tujunga Canyon (34.30270oN 118.17669oW, an elevation of 2313 ft and 6.15 miles from the start). Here you are near the upstream limit of the lake behind the dam and the floor of the big canyon consists of gravel flats. The next tesk after exiting Fox Canyon is to find a steep use-trail that climbs from the gravel flats up to the road above. Turn left after leaving Fox Canyon and proceed about 300 yds up Big Tujunga Canyon. As the canyon makes a right turn you, stay beside the right wall and find a place in the entrance to a side canyon (at 34.30039oN 118.17373oW, an elevation of 2329 ft and 6.52 miles from the start) where a rough trail climbs up a steep outcropping. A short way up this becomes a good trail, variously known at the Big Tujunga Canyon Trail or, in more recent times, as the Josephine Trail. This trail switchbacks up the canyon wall to the Big Tujunga Canyon Road (at 34.29721oN 118.17719oW, an elevation of 2838 ft and 7.09 miles from the start). It is then an easy 0.5 mile walk up the road to the parking lot where you started at 34.29700oN 118.17032oW and a elevation of 3074 ft).

Last updated 7/4/05.
Christopher E. Brennen