East Fork of the San Gabriel River to the Bridge To Nowhere
Date Hiked: July 18, 2009
Best Season: Spring Summer
Check Trail Conditions: San Gabriel River Ranger District (626) 335-1251
Notes: Dogs are permitted on the trail, but we saw too many with torn up paw pads to recommend it.
- Distance: 10 miles round-trip
- Elevation Gain: 980 feet
- Route Type: Out-and-Back
- Trail Type: Dirt, rock, water crossings
- Difficulty: Strenuous
We’re still relatively amateurish hikers. We’ve got decent gear, and a sense of adventure, but our level of fitness just doesn’t let us do something like Mount Whitney. Our farthest hike has been around 12 miles, and our maximum climb is somewhere around 1500 feet (though we once descended over 3,000, which didn’t go well…). Within those parameters, one of our very favorite hikes (and most grueling) was the hike to the Bridge to Nowhere, on the East Fork of the San Gabriel River in the Angeles National Forest (hiked July 18, 2009).
It’s awesomeness comes from it being the longest hike we’d made to date (approximately 10 miles), the 14 or so water crossings (round trip), the wonderfully refreshing swimming holes at the far end of the hike, the crazy elaborate bridge with bungy jumpers hopping off it, and WE SAW A WILD FRIGGIN’ BIGHORN SHEEP IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA!!!
It doesn’t start all that impressively. As crowd-phobic hikers, we were more than a bit concerned as we headed up CA-39 (Azusa Canyon Rd/San Gabriel Canyon Rd) on a very hot July Saturday. From the 210, you pass through Azusa proper, then head up the canyon. Literally every pull-out along the way up the canyon had cars parked in it, with people wading, swimming and playing in the water of the refreshing river below. The higher we went, the more cars we saw. As you head up through the canyon, you’ll first pass a dam for Morris Reservoir, and then another dam and San Gabriel Reservoir. As you pass the end of the reservoir, there is a fork in the road. Bearing left will take you toward Crystal Lake, and turning right will take you towards Burro Canyon Shooting Park and the East Fork of the San Gabriel River.
Some years the San Gabriel Reservoir is very full, but other years, the area under the bridge towards East Fork is over mostly dry land, populated by Jeeps and other 4WD vehicles from the nearby off-road recreation area. But even in a dry year, the upper forks of the San Gabriel River seems to flow pretty steadily even late into the summer.
And on a hot summer Saturday, people love to jump into the river. By the time we were getting close to the trailhead, at the East Fork Station parking lot, the cars lined both sides of the road, and there was no hope at all of parking in the parking lot at an admittedly late 11am or so. We lucked out in finding a spot on the road only a 1/4-1/2 mile back down the road from the parking lot, so our trek started there.
The first half mile from the locked gate at the parking lot was a fire road, heading down to Heaton Camp (a walk-in campground). The river in the valley to the left was crowded with families toting bbqs and strollers and ice chests. Shortly on the other side of Heaton Camp, the trail turns into a single track and leaves most of the families behind. From here, we saw a few more families in modified swimming holes and some gold panners, but pretty quickly the trail was left to serious hikers only.
That was about the place that the trail has it’s first official river crossing, and it isn’t the rock-hopper that we were accustomed to. Even in July of a dry year, every river crossing was a genuine you’re-going-to-get-wet water experience, some deeper than others. Which brings up a big consideration before making this trek–what the hell kind of footwear do you wear? We decided on decent river/hiking sandals to where, and packed our boots in our backpacks in case we wanted them–though we never did. The problem with this trail is that even if you wear waterproof boots, they will get filled with water on nearly every crossing and never dry out, making for an uncomfortable hike. But the crossings are too frequent to easily stop and take them off each time, put on river sandals (bottom of river is too rocky and too swift to go barefoot safely), take them back off, dry feet, and put socks and boots back on again (12-14 times in all). In the end, the sandals mostly worked, but we frequently got loose dirt and gravel in them and the long distance walking/hiking with wet sandals chafed and barked up our feet and ankles pretty badly. I think next time we might try some Seal Skinz or similar waterproof or wetsuit-style socks to wear under the sandals, and prevent some of the chafing, but there is no perfect solution in our mind.
The canyon quickly narrowed and for the first stretch was largely shaded. I confess that our trail map below was drawn after the fact, and is not from my GPS, so the crossing locations and exact paths aren’t exactly accurate (if you want some more accurate GPS waypoints, see Modern Hiker’s write-up), but there are multiple paths at various points along the way, and if you keep heading upstream and default to the east side of the river when you are uncertain, it is virtually impossible to get lost.
About a mile and a half in, we passed a sign for the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, a 44,000 acre part of the forest we didn’t know existed. And as I research it now–OMGWTFBBQ apparently we were supposed to get a permit!!!1! We knew we needed the Forest Service Adventure Pass for the trailhead, be we didn’t know about the Wilderness Permit–do you see any mention of that on the sign here (not that we would have turned around to get one at this point anyways)? Anyways, apparently it is available at the Ranger Station.
Anyways, after chuckling about the likelihood of actually seeing a bighorn sheep in Southern California, we stopped to check the map and Colleen asked, pointing to the trail behind us–“Is that real?” To be honest, when I first saw the ram proudly posing on a boulder right immediately above the trail we’d just walked past, I thought maybe it was a statue marking the wilderness area–it was just too perfect and too close! But sure enough, it looked at us, climbed off the boulder, walked right across the trail we’d just crossed, went through the river and hopped right up the other canyon wall. Awesome.
We resumed our trek along the creek. Really there is only one place you can get a bit off course along the way, and even that is hard to miss if you keep your eyes open. This particular spot, about 4 miles into the hike, is in a wide, exposed part of the canyon, heads up to the right onto the edge of the hillside away from the water, and stays there, dry and exposed for the last mile of the hike before it hits the bridge. The trail is unclear around this part of the river, and as you look for the right trail, you are likely to stumble upon one of the big markers left by previous hikers, as seen below. We were following the write-up from Modern Hiker, our favorite local outdoors blog, as mentioned above, but without a GPS unit or a good map and compass (rookie mistakes), we were confused a few times. But if you miss the “right” place to jump to the higher trail, you will start to descend into the canyon and the path becomes unpassable, so worst case scenario, you can backtrack a bit and find a place to scramble up the side of the hill to the very obvious path above you to the east (which is what we did).
This was by far the worst part of the hike for us. It was 100 degrees on this particular day, and up away from the river and without any shade along this stretch, after 4 miles of hiking, Colleen nearly heat stroked. I took her backpack, and we cooled her repeatedly with water and rags from our backpacks (we drank a LOT of fluids on this trip), but we were very concerned I was going to have to leave her and go find help. And unfortunately, because we did not yet own a GPS on this trip, we didn’t know whether we were closer to help and cooling waters by going to the bridge, or by turning back to where we’d already been. This was probably the last straw in our decision to get a good GPS unit that we could track our mileage and download maps on. We gambled that we were close to the end and pressed on, and were rewarded very shortly by the sight of the amazing bridge, a couple dozen bungie jumpers, and another couple dozen folks enjoying the falls, slides, and pools of the refreshing river!
Though we usually are annoyed by crowds and other people, after our near death experience, we didn’t mind as much as usual, and we hung out for at least an hour, watching idiots and adrenalin junkies jump off the bridge and enjoying the various pools along this stretch of the river–some of which were more private and relaxing than others.
The bridge itself is a crazy story. According to several accounts (one you can read here), it was built in the 30’s to take travelers through the scenic river gorge all the way to Wrightwood and Angeles Crest Highway. But right about the time they finished the awesome concrete bridge (1936 according to the bridge carving pictured below), the rest of the road washed out in the flood of ’38. Apparently the transportation officials of the day decided that it wasn’t worth re-building at that point, and abandoned the whole thing! So we’re now left with a crazy concrete structure that serves primarily as a hiking and bungee jumping location.
After reducing Colleen’s overheated core temperature to something approaching normal again, we began to head on back down the canyon. Heading back, there was no question what trail to follow, and starting with an exposed mile of trail wasn’t nearly as hard as ending with that exposed mile (though the temperature had also mercifully dropped a bit in the now-late afternoon sun).
What was starting to bother us was our feet. After 6 miles or so of wet feet and dry feet and dusty, rocky trails in open sandals, our feet were starting to get chewed up. In fact, on the way back, the river crossings were more about icing our raw feet than cooling down from the sun. And our pace was slowing considerably as well. Slow enough that we were starting to worry about making it back before sunset! In the end, we limped back into the parking lot just as it was getting dark.
So despite some of the whining above, it really was one of our favorite hikes. And we’re going to do it again, as soon as this summer. But next time we will take a few lessons with us we learned from our first try:
1. Get a wilderness permit
2. Figure out a better footwear solution–probably water socks of some sort under our river sandals
3. Bring a real map and compass and/or a gps unit with maps loaded ahead of time. It is hard to get lost here, but we’ll be more confident in where we are along the way.
4. Get up there earlier in the day, so we aren’t hiking the dry stretch at the hottest part of the day and struggling to get back before night fall.
5. Don’t go if it is supposed to be 100 degrees. The river helps a lot, but hiking in 100 degree temperatures is stupid.
6. Leave the dog behind. We didn’t own a dog when we did it the first time, and dogs are allowed on the hike, but we saw three different people with injured dogs on the hike, who had either ripped/torn their paw pads on the rough terrain, or injured something else, requiring them to be carried out by their owners. Our dog loves hikes, but unless yours is used to seriously difficult terrain and river crossings, don’t bring it along.
NOTE: Another cool nearby hike that is far less famous but equally historically bizarre is the “Road to Nowhere”, which overlooks the river below.