A loop on multiple trails through one of the most picturesque and popular canyons in the San Gabriels. Multiple stream crossings, river cascades, shaded canyons and a 50 foot waterfall give way to thick forests, vine-covered trails, Jeffrey Pines, and eventually chaparral slopes of the front range. A beautiful trail with varied landscapes and plenty of places to extend your stay – either by camping or taking spur trails deeper into the mountains. A highly-recommended trail.
Santa Anita Canyon is a beautiful area of the San Gabriels, full of varied landscapes and a fairly dependable 50 foot waterfall – Sturtevant Falls – which doesn’t take all that long to get to. The landscape is populated by turn-of-the-century Forest Service canyons, a few campgrounds, and an old outdoor resort. It’s also pretty close to the L.A. basin sprawl, which means this area is capital c Crowded.
From the parking lot, head south to the trailhead, which follows a narrow paved road down a sharp decline. It descends 325 feet on hard pavement, without shade. It’s not necessarily the most pleasant way to begin or end a hike, but it’s the fastest way down – so what are ya gonna do?
But for the purposes of this trail, stick to the pavement.
The road winds and switchbacks its way down into Santa Anita Canyon, where it eventually turns into a more narrow road, then a dirt road, then a more traditional dirt trail.
On the descent, you’ll hear the sound of falling water. If you like that sound (and you should), be happy – because you’ll be hearing a lot of it for the rest of the hike. After the floods of ’38, a series of concrete flood control dams were built over much of the canyon watershed near Los Angeles. Over time, the dams have become overgrown with greenery and moss, so they’re not nearly as intrusive as you’d imagine a large concrete dam to be in the middle of the forest.
You’ll skirt alongside the roaring (at least, in the wet season) creek and quickly come upon the first of the many rustic Forest Service cabins you’ll see along the route.
Some other hikers have criticized this trail for not ever feeling like a wilderness — and that’s a fair criticism — especially for these early parts of the trail, where most of the crowds are congregated. But smelling the cabins’ campfires on the weekends, or watching a few cabin-dwellers work on their labors of love outside really gives the impression of hiking through one of the old mountain resorts that used to dot these landscapes. It’s an experience that’s rarely duplicated near Los Angeles and should definitely be appreciated.
The trail continues through a few small “villages” of these cabins before splitting away from the water and heading into the ridge above the creek. At this point, you can continue north toward a cabin called “Fiddlers’ Crossing.” This trail will cross the creek three times — which can be a bit tricky if the water’s running high — cut through some ivy-covered landscapes, and take you to the base of Sturtevant Falls.
More importantly, the Upper Trail misses some of the best scenery in the entire canyon. So skip it and head on the Lower Trail instead.
This section of the trail is single-track, and will probably be much more secluded than anything you’ve hiked so far. Most people who hike along the creek are just headed to the Falls and back, so you’ll have a bit more private time as the trail ascends a steep ridge that overlooks the section of the creek you just hopped through. Eventually, you’ll get yourself a nice semi-aerial view of the falls, too.
The trail then wraps around the southern edge of the waterfall and leads right to the top of the falls, themselves. You can get yourself some dizzying straight-down views, overlooking the cascading water beneath you. Also, you can look really cool to the people at the bottom of the falls, who probably won’t know how you got up there. Here’s a view of some fellow hikers resting to the right of the big drop.
The trail continues along the creekside through dense, cool forest until it reaches the rather expansive Spruce Grove trail camp. While still technically a trailcamp, this is one of the more developed backcountry campgrounds I’ve seen in the San Gabriels. Lots of fire pits, stoves, tables, and even a pair of vault toilets. When I walked through, there was a large group of hikers sitting and eating their lunches at the tables. It didn’t look like any of them had backpacking gear, so I’m guessing they were either a hiking group out for the day or a group coming back from Sturtevant Camp, which is just a few minutes further along the creek. I’m a sucker for camping next to water, so I may have to head back up here with a tent sometime soon.
You’ll pass near the entrance to Sturtevant Camp, the last remaining working camp from L.A.’s “Golden Age of Hiking.” It’s a fully functioning backcountry resort, and has a handbuilt log U.S. Forest Ranger station that’s the oldest surviving one in the country (built 1903). Unfortunately, the camp is privately owned by the United Methodist Church, so don’t go poking around unless someone knows you’re up there.
Continue along the Sturtevant Trail as it skirts along the flood control dam and crosses the creek. At the junction with the Upper Zion Trail, hop onto the Upper Zion and say goodbye to the water and cool canyon breezes. This section of the trip crawls up the north side of the Mount Zion ridge, passing through a short section of Jeffrey Pines before getting back to that all-too-familiar low San Gabriel scrub.
This section of the trail has its fair share of history, too. This was the original route of the trail to Sturtevant Camp, built in 1896 by Wilbur Sturtevant himself (and, one assumes, some helpers). After a series of fires and landslides in the 1950s, the trail fell out of use until the Sierra Club and volunteers from the Big Santa Anita Gang rebuilt the route in 1985. There is a small plaque dedicated to these volunteers at a short spur trail that leads to the peak of Mount Zion.
If that’s the case, worry not. It’s only one and a quarter miles to Hoagee’s Camp, the former site of another group of riverside cabins, destroyed by fire in 1953. It is now another well-maintained trail camp, with a few of the old foundations and chimneys of the cabins still surviving.
The Lower Winter Creek Trail, however, is far more picturesque, and has the added benefit of being next to the water for the entire time. If you take this route, you’ll pass a few more cabins, cross the water about another half-dozen times, and hike for just 2 miles before getting back to the Chantry Flats trailhead.
When you’re done, be sure to stop by Adams’ Pack Station for some good food and conversation. The weekend barbecues are super tasty!
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on February 17, 2008