A short hike to one of the most popular and easily-accessible waterfalls in the Angeles National Forest. Includes a trip further down the canyon to Bear Canyon Campground, an easy way to get away from the crowds at Switzer and find some swimming holes you can keep to yourself.
- Distance: 6.94 miles. It’s about 3 miles round trip if you’re just going to the Falls and back.
– Elevation Gain: About 1000 ft, but you’ll only notice it on the small portion of the trail that climbs out of the canyon.
– Time: 3-4 hours, depending on how long you’ll want to just lay near the river and relax.
– Trail Condition: Excellent near Switzer’s and through to Switzer Falls. Trail begins paved and becomes a very rocky footpath with several easy stream crossings. The Bear Canyon trail is a bit less used, and is more rugged. It is still easily passable, though.
- How to Get There: From the 210, exit on California Route 2 East in La Canada Flintridge. Follow the Angeles Crest Highway past the Clear Creek Ranger Station and turn right at Switzer’s Picnic Area. Park (if you can find a spot) and display your Adventure Pass.
- Map It
- Easily accessible waterfall.
– Hike along a river for almost the entire journey.
– Site of historic Commodore Switzer’s Camp.
- Lots of shade and swimming holes in Bear Canyon, especially the farther you get from Switzer’s.
Extending Your Stay:
- This trail system stretches onward in almost every direction. You can hitch up with the Gabrelino Trail and continue southwest to the Oakwilde Picnic Area / Campground from Switzer Camp. You can also continue past Bear Canyon Camp to Tom Sloan Saddle, where you can scramble down to Dawn Mine and Altadena or take a trail to Mount Lowe (and then south to Echo Mountain and Altadena or north to San Gabriel Peak and Mount Disappointment). Lots and lots of options here.
My left knee has been giving me trouble on descents for the past three weeks, so I wanted to take it a bit easier this week. Of course, staying home was completely out of the question, and with the temperature forecast to hit the 90 degree mark, I wanted to make sure I was near some water. And so I decided to pack a book and head to the Switzer’s Picnic Area in the Angeles National Forest.
Switzer’s, like any Picnic Area, is easily accessible and almost always overcrowded. With a healthy river running through it and a short hike to a waterfall, it’s even more crowded on hot days, and today was no exception. Luckily, I managed to snag the last parking spot in the lot. There’s a spillover lot closer to the Angeles Crest Highway, but it’s a nasty elevation gain on the way back up.
For the crowd, it actually wasn’t too bad today. There were a few picnics going on, but everyone looked like they were keeping their garbage and noise in check. I’ve been there before when full-on parties were raging in the picnic area, complete with boomboxes blasting music against the canyon walls. It’s not a pretty sight.
I stretched out by the main trail sign and started in.
The first section of the trail is on paved asphalt, and travels near several more picnic areas. A few more small cookouts were getting started up, and a large stream of people were coming up out of the canyon – many of them with dogs in tow. I’m not kidding when I say this is a popular trail.
The pavement doesn’t last for long, and soon you’re hopping across boulders and getting up close and personal with the Arroyo Seco, which is easily passable in all but the highest floods. The recent warm weather we’d been having looked like it was starting to wake up some of the plant life from its winter hibernation. Trees were starting to bud, grass was sprouting, and some flowers bloomed along the riverbank.
That also meant the flies were awake, and I had a few dozen flying companions following me for most of the hike. Irritating at first, but once you resign yourself to their presence, they’re pretty easy to ignore. And it helps that you’re walking through a shaded canyon with some nice gurgling water beside you, too.
About a mile into the trail, you reach a small junction at a stream crossing. The trail to the left takes you through the ruins of Switzer’s Camp, one of the early wilderness resorts in the mountains. There’s not a whole lot left, and you wouldn’t even know you were walking through ruins unless you read about it ahead of time. You can walk up to the spot where a small chapel once stood overlooking a waterfall. The Forest Service tore it down for safety’s sake, but you can still see some of the arched foundations scattered along the ridge.
If you take the right hand side, you’ll cross the stream. This is the one section of the trail that climbs out of the canyon’s shade and into the scrub of the higher elevations. There’s very little shade here, and if the sun’s beating down you’ll definitely feel it. But you’ll also get great vistas of the mountains surrounding you, which can go completely unnoticed when you’re by the riverside.
At the junction, stay left and continue on the Bear Canyon Trail. In another mile or so, you’ll be back down at the canyon floor near the Arroyo Seco again, deep under the cover of shade. Here, there’s another junction. If you go left, you’ll get to Switzer’s Falls and the endless crowds that plague it. If you go right, you’ll head down Bear Canyon, where you’ll at least have a fighting chance for solitude. There’s also some top-notch swimming holes down here.
I reached the first one just ten minutes after the junction – it’s a huge, multilayered pool, complete with rope swing for the adventurous. The jump’s not that tall and the pool’s pretty deep, so you should be alright. Or, if you’re paranoid like me, you can wade in from the other end. Either way, nothing has the simultaneous waking-up and calming-down effect like a good splash in ice-cold mountain water.
If this pool’s occupied, there’s another, smaller one about 5 minutes further down the canyon. That one’s got the added bonus of having fish swimming around in it. There were actually a couple of anglers casting into the pool when I hiked by this time.
Shortly after the second pool, you’ll reach a junction where Bear Canyon Creek meets up with the Arroyo Seco before continuing south. The trail sticks to the canyon wall and keeps going up Bear Canyon to the east. This is about the place where I found a nice flat rock in the stream and sat in the sun for 90 minutes, reading and enjoying nature’s best white noise.
In sharp contrast to the earlier parts of the trail, only two other hikers passed by me while I was sitting out there. So it’s not the total solitude you can get elsewhere, but it’s still pretty nice. Beats the beach crowds any day, though.
After the relaxation I’d come out for, I picked up and continued on along the Bear Canyon Trail, which climbed up piles of fallen, smoothed boulders as the canyon walls closed in. Other than the occasional scramble up and down to the river, the trail kept a pretty level elevation, so it wasn’t too tough.
After lots of meandering and boulder hopping, I eventually made it to the surprisingly remote, surprisingly large and well-maintained Bear Canyon Campground.
The campground had lots of cleared space, plenty of metal fire rings, picnic tables, and even some metal stoves. Although the camp felt pretty out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, it’s really only a bit more than three miles in from Switzer’s and just a little farther from the other side of the mountains in Altadena. I’m still going to mark it as a stop if I ever do the multi-day trip through the San Gabriels that I’m secretly, constantly planning in the back of my head.
A short hour later, and I was back at the Switzer’s Falls junction. Just to check – and to mark it on my GPS – I decided to take a quick detour. And yes, the falls were crowded. Sometimes, this place can feel more like a community swimming pool than a wilderness waterfall.
It is still a very nice area, though, and worth checking out. If you’re careful, you can scramble up a use trail to the right of the falls, which will get you to a deep swimming hole just above the plunge. If you keep climbing up a bit farther, you can make it to an even more secluded and larger canyon swimming hole, with more water streaming down the sides. The trail dead-ends there. I didn’t go up on this trip, but this is a picture of the pool from last August:
While I was on the exposed section of the trail on the way out, I heard a few people yelling to each other from the canyon below me. Usually, if there are kids by the falls, you can hear their playing echoing up, but these were adult voices. I looked out from over the canyon ledge, and saw three tiny people slowly and tentatively sliding their way down toward the falls from the chapel overlook. Not necessarily the best way to get down.
… Especially when they hit that pool and realize they’re going to have to swim through it to keep going.
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