The Arroyo Run
first appeared in the May 2000 issue
For a change, this hike is going to be a long one. And - for an even bigger change - it's going to be a hike wholly in the mountains!
Ten a.m., and Dee Dee's dropping me off in the middle of the mountains and driving away. I'm at the upper parking area for "Switzers Picnic Area" (clearly marked with that name), which is just off the Angeles Crest Highway, just east of where the Angeles Forest Highway branches off. The plan - such as it is - is to walk down the full length of the Arroyo Seco to Altadena.
WARNING: This is not an easy hike. It's ten miles (as I walked it - though you can manage a mile or two shorter, depending), and it's a good two-thousand foot drop. Sure, downhill sounds easier than up (well, it is, actually), but ten miles of down and it begins to wear. Heck, it's three days later and my calves still ache. Also - and I shouldn't have to say this - remember to bring water. Even on a cool day, you're going to get real thirsty, so bring at least a one-and-a-half liter bottle.
I started right from the top, but you can drive down to the picnic area these days (the gate was closed for years) and that'll save you a half-mile of very steep down. Anywho, it doesn't take long to walk that half mile, so let's start from the picnic area.
The canyon is cool and tree-shrouded down here - and will be for much of your hike. Take the narrow footbridge that crosses the stream (and is marked by a sign stating it to be the "Gabrielino Trail") and head downstream (southwest), passing picnic tables and firepits and - most importantly - some outhouses. You may wish to use these, 'cause your next chance isn't for nearly six miles.
Initially, you're walking on a narrow asphalted road, but after five minutes, the asphalt vanishes and as you travel on, the road itself gets rather more problematical. Eventually, the only remnants of this road are occasional retaining walls, now "retaining" nothing.
About fifteen minutes down the trail and you reach the first of what is going to be a lot of stream crossings. This time of year is probably ideal for hiking the Arroyo: Not too hot, not too cold, nicely green, and while there's water, you can get across the stream without getting your feet wet (well, usually). The canyon is filled with long stretches of tiny cascades and cool green pools. If you're looking for a shorter hike, in fact, just the walk down and back to Switzers Trail Camp is a nice - four mile - journey.
It's actually not too long a trip - a little over a mile - to the remains of the old "Switzers Trail Camp." Once this was one of the most popular resorts in the San Gabriels, from 1884 to 1959, but once the Angeles Crest was built, people started hiking less, and the camp lost a lot of its charm. It's now a Forest Service trail camp and all that remains today of its glory are some of the foundations and a patch of blackberry bushes.
When you reach the camp, keep an eye open on the right for the trail as it crosses the stream and begins to climb up the side of the canyon. You need to do this because if you keep going the way you are, about a quarter-mile below you is the top of Switzers Falls and that's not really a good way to go, what with them being fifty feet tall and all.
The trail climbs pretty steeply up till you're about a hundred feet above the campground, then continues on down the canyon. Soon you reach the "Switzers Falls Overlook" where you can see the falls plunging down into the narrow canyon below. Admittedly, they're pretty far off and you have to peer through trees and bushes to see them, but you can see them. Across the canyon, above and to the right of the falls, is the outcrop where once Switzers had a tiny (shed-sized) chapel, perched overlooking them. The Forest Service blew this up in 1959.
A little ways after you first see the falls, you'll come to a trail junction. Down and to the left runs the Bear Canyon trail, which will after many miles take you to Mount Wilson. It'll also take you to the base of the falls (if you go up canyon once you reach the bottom) - another destination for a nice hike. But we're continuing on down the Arroyo, so let's head right and up.
The trail now climbs around and over a long ridge, eventually dropping you down into the east fork of "Long Canyon." This is done basically to avoid a section of the Arroyo known as the "Royal Gorge," which is filled with cascades, drops, and falls all of which would make hiking there...difficult.
For the first time since you started, you're out from under the trees and it can get pretty hot on this chaparral-covered slope. But this day, it wasn't too bad. And thanks to our late rains the chaparral is still green and flowers still dot the sides of the trail, attracting butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.
As the trail swings around the ridge off in the distance you see the Angeles Crest Highway, as it winds its way up to where you started. Now the trail turns northwards and descends into Long Canyon. At this time of year, a couple of small streamlets cross the trail as you near the bottom. Then, at a small waterfall, the trail swings south again and you start heading downstream.
The canyon is narrow, dark, and ferns drape its steep, rocky sides. The trail itself clings on the left wall, anywhere from ten to a hundred feet above the stream. It's a cool, moist, beautiful place, very quiet, for few people hike the trail below Switzers or above Oakwilde (I only passed three people in this whole three-and-a-half mile stretch - on a Saturday!). Pretty as it is, though, you should be careful through here as the trail is narrow and frequently beset by washouts. It's also pretty steep!
On the other hand, you don't have to do stream crossings!
About an hour later, it meets back up with the Arroyo Seco, with the trail crossing right over the top of the twenty-foot fall of Long Canyon's stream pouring into the Arroyo's. Descending into the Arroyo, you find it is much wider than Long Canyon was and sunlight streams down through the trees. Now you begin to make stream crossings again. There are some bad spots in the trail, but in general it improves as you head downstream.
Soon you pass a trail marked "Burton Trail," which heads off of to your left to meet up with Brown Mountain Fire Road. If you go this way, it'll eventually take you to Millard Campground, at the top of Chaney Trail in Altadena. 'Course, I've never gone this way, so I can't tell you how easy/hard it may be!
But right after this trail junction, you reach the remains of Camp Oakwilde: Like Switzers, once a famous resort of the "Great Hiking Era." Unlike Switzers, though, it had its own road, running five miles up the Arroyo from Altadena, and ran "stages" up and down this road to transport its patrons - and those who wanted to shave those five miles off the hike to Switzers!
That lasted till the "Great Flood of 1938," which caused a lot of damage to the camp and the road. But before anything could be repaired, the Pasadena Water Department came in and fenced off the lower Arroyo - including the road - to "protect" Pasadena's water supply (parts of the Arroyo are still fenced today - as you'll see). Another part of that "protection" was the building of a big debris dam just downstream from the camp, adding a wall of concrete to the fencing that cut off the road.
Like Switzers, Oakwilde today is just foundations, with a few picnic tables tossed in for hikers. The canyon is wide and shallow here, and it marks about the halfway point of your trip. This makes a good place to stop for lunch - if you brought some. And if you're hiking up the canyon, this makes the ideal turnaround point to head back from.
After your lunch, you continue downstream. The canyon bottom now is a mix of soft, sandy soil and fields of medium-sized rocks - thanks, I suspect, to the debris dam just below you. The going can be tough, in spite of the open nature of the canyon, and keep your eye open for the trail when it starts to climb away up to your left - it can be tricky to spot. If you hit the top of the debris dam, well, you've gone too far.
The trail climbs steeply up the mountainside. At the highest point, if you look down into the canyon, you can see the debris dam - the cause of all this climbing - far below. You now drop back into the canyon just as steeply and soon you reach Paul Little Picnic area, a group of tables set on old stone foundations and - lucky you - an outhouse!
A nice side trip at this point is a quick walk up the canyon from Paul Little to the base of the debris dam. It's only about a quarter-mile and remnants of the road the dam amputated still exist. On this particular hike, there was a fair amount of water coming over the top of the dam, making one of the highest waterfalls in the San Gabriels.
Below Oakwilde - and especially below Paul Little - you begin to pass a lot more people. The lower Arroyo here is a very popular hiking spot. Be prepared to dodge many, many mountain-bikers!
As you now go downstream from Paul Little, you notice yourself passing lots of foundations. Some are from the road, others are from the many cabins that used to be in this canyon. Another sign of an old cabin - even if the foundations are gone - is seeing ivy. It's not a native plant to the area, but back in the day, people liked nice ivy-covered cabins and whatnot, so they often planted it around their works. Now, it's often the only thing still there.
Eucalyptus, also a non-native, is another good sign of former habitation...
At stream crossings there'll often be a concrete paving beneath - this was how the road made most of its crossings, you just drove right through it. Now days, you pick your way across on rocks or, if you don't care about wet feet, just splash right in.
Half a mile or so below Paul Little, the trail diverges from the stream through a narrow cut before returning to it. And from here, "trail" becomes "road" in an increasingly obvious sense. Oh, it's a narrow dirt fireroad, that you wouldn't want to drive unless you had a small, aggressively 4WD vehicle, but it's a road for all that. Soon, it even passes over an intact bridge!
Right after that, you'll hit Niño Picnic Area and - a little later - another intact bridge. This one looks new, actually, and as the road you're now on had decayed to nonexistence two-decades ago, I strongly suspect it is new (it is now possible - assuming you're a Ranger - to drive all the way from the mouth of the canyon to the cut below Paul Little - as late as the 80's, the only thing that could drive that far would have been a dirt bike).
Actually, from a technical standpoint, I suspect all the bridges you'll cross are "new" - at least in the sense that they don't date from the old road to Oakwilde. I think they were built in 1940 to carry the equipment to build the debris dam. I'm pretty sure the old road stuck with those drive-through stream crossings.
A third mile later you hit Gould Mesa Campground: A fair-sized trail camp and the junction of the Arroyo road and a fireroad coming down from the Angeles Crest above. It's also a nice destination for a picnic if you're hiking up canyon.
Below Gould Mesa, while the road is now intact, it's easy to see it no longer follows the old route, for you pass two bridges with their spans now missing off to the sides of the road. Soon you pass a third. This has a span that is intact, but it leads off into nothingness above the current bed of the river. When I first saw this bridge, back in the 70's, it had a sign on it declaring it to be the "Elmer L. Smith Bridge" - as a joke, I suspect, as I haven't got a clue who "Elmer L. Smith" was or is.
Amusingly, another sign, posted on the span, still reads that "Fishing prohibited below bridge" - in spite of the fact that the water hasn't flowed below the bridge in at least three decades.
You're now in the final stretch, less than two miles to go. You cross over three intact bridges, then a picnic area labeled "Teddy's Outpost" (once, briefly, another small resort). After another bridge, fences spring up between you and the stream, fences built by the Pasadena Water Department to protect its water and, not incidentally, ruin the view.
Now you pass by Forest Service housing, a small group of homes on the eastside of the trail, provided for some of their employees. Just south of this, a road/trail branches off towards the Brown Mountain fireroad and - after eight miles - Millard Campground.
The trees have mostly vanished by now and you're winding between two chaparral-covered slopes that are opening up, exposing a widening "V" of blue sky and Altadena before you. Houses appear on the ridge tops above and soon you pass the interesting mix of Quonset-huts and office buildings that is JPL on your right. Now you begin a long, straight climb - about three-fourths of a mile - that leads out of the Arroyo and, passing a locked gate, deposits you at the corner of Ventura Street and Windsor Avenue in Altadena, your ten miles complete.
Now, if you just remember to arrange for a pick-up...