The Fall Hike
first appeared in the November 1998 issue
Fall's here - with winter soon to come - and once again you can safely venture onto the slopes of the San Gabriels and not be in danger of being roasted by the sun (in your own juices!). But until the rains begin, those hillsides are awfully brown and dry. That's not to say they can't be interesting - certainly, on a clear day there's lots to see in the distance - but in general, the nearby scenic content can be a little low (not to mention flammable).
So here's a hike that both gets you up on the slopes for views of Pasadena and Altadena below (and on one of those clear days, clear out to Palos Verdes or even Catalina), then drops you down into Millard Canyon for some of the last green of the season and - for a little while longer - some of those classic Fall colors that much of the local area lacks.
Now the trail in Millard Canyon below the falls - with the possible exception of the one in Lower Eaton Canyon - may see some of the heaviest traffic of any of the local hikes, thanks to its shortness (half a mile) and that nice, convenient parking lot at the start. But above the falls isn't nearly as heavily visited and the people you meet there are less likely to be tossing beer cans around. Days are getting shorter, so this is still a short hike (slightly less than a mile, each way) - though easy to make longer, if you want.
Head up to Loma Alta Drive, in Altadena. Just west of Fair Oaks you see a flashing light strung over the road. This marks the intersection of "Chaney Trail" - a road, in spite of its name. Turn onto Chaney Trail and drive up one short mile until it just begins to descend over a ridge. There it "T's" - to the left, down into Millard Canyon, to the right, a short fifty, sixty feet to a locked gate. Go right, and with luck, you'll find some place to park: There are not too many spots, you'll need a "Forest Adventure Pass" to park here, and it really helps to drive up early. It might be better just to have someone drop you off. Do so and start hiking up the fire road, eastwards, past the gate.
The road runs along the top of the ridge. As you hike, on your right you'll first pass the ruins of a former Ranger's Station, then a small reservoir (listen for the gurgle of water being pumped up from the canyon below), then you'll be able to look out over the San Gabriel Valley and - with luck - clear out to sea. And on your left, you look down at Millard Canyon, the parking lot, the campground/picnic area, and some of the cabins that rest with its tree-filled depths.
After about a quarter mile, the road swings north. Keep an eye out on your left. Pretty soon you'll see a trailhead with a sign saying "Sunset Ridge Trail" along with some amusingly imprecise distance measurements. While the road continues to climb, you'll note that the trail actually stays pretty level. Take this trail.
The trail winds along the steep slope, high above Millard. After just a few minutes, it swings around the mountain and heads east again. Take a quick look back: You should be able to see where you parked your car.
Now look ahead, up and across the canyon and you'll see - and hear - Millard Falls in the distance. Soon, the trail dips through a small grove of oak trees, then bends northward again and back out into the sun and chaparral
One more bend, and you're going east once more. Take a look down: You're now about eight-tenths of a mile from your car and directly above Millard Falls, which thanks to the El Niño rains, still has quite a bit of water flowing over it. Keep walking. It's not far now. As you pass the falls, their sound is joined, then gradually replaced, by the gurgle of the stream you're now descending towards. Nearly there, you drop back into a grove of beautiful old oaks. On your right you'll see a trail marked "Sunset Trail" heading back up the canyon side. We're not going that way at the moment, so keep to the left. Twenty feet beyond, you'll cross over a tiny bridge, apparently built mostly of scrap metal.
Just beyond the bridge is an old cabin, now owned by Altadena Mountain Rescue, perched on the side of the canyon. The trail curves down past it, and deposits you finally at the stream. This makes an excellent place to stop and have lunch. You may want to walk down-canyon a little ways to the top of the falls. It isn't far and I suggest you keep that in mind and walk carefully, because it can come up on you very fast. Plummeting to your death can ruin an otherwise enjoyable hike...
Following lunch (and you did pick up after yourself, didn't you?) you can either head back the way you came, or - with more time - take one of several hikes.
If you head back to "Sunset Trail" and take it up you'll find that, after a couple of miles, this will connect with the fire road near "Cape of Good Hope" - which if you read my Mt. Lowe hikes - means you're now within spitting distance (assuming you can spit half, three-quarters of a mile) of Echo Mountain. Or you can just walk back down that fire road all the way to your car (it's steep, I have to warn you).
If you just continue up the canyon itself, you'll reach the site of the old "Dawn Gold Mine"...but that's a tale for another month.