A 10 mile trek down the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, following the path of an attempted highway. This hike features multiple river crossings, plenty of opportunities to swim, historic sections of visible roads and tunnels, and the Bridge to Nowhere — a 120 foot high concrete bridge in the middle of the canyon. The bridge is an odd and beautiful sight that is unparalleled in the San Gabriels — and it’s also the only place in California were bungee jumping is allowed (on weekends).
Note: I wrote this hike up without a GPS track last summer. What follows is a more technical review of the route with GPS waypoints and maps.
I’d planned an East Fork adventure on a hot day for a reason — the San Gabriel River. The chilly, clear waters of the rivers and streams in the San Gabriel Mountains would be the perfect antidote to the stagnant haze that all-too-often settles over the Los Angeles basin.
The trail starts at Coyote Flat at a locked gate at the end of East Fork Road (or USFS 8W16). There is a small parking lot at the end of the road, but by the time we’d reached the trailhead, cars were already overflowing onto the rest of the road.
The area is a very popular swimming destination, and on hot days you’ll often see tents and swimmers lined up along the entire river on the way in. Most of these bathers rarely venture a few hundred feet from their parked cars, however, so don’t let a crowded parking situation deter you from setting foot on the trail.
After walking around the gate, the trail descends on a wide dirt road. The road is unremarkable, although it does offer tremendous views of the landscape you’re about to enter.
The dirt road ends at the junction with Heaton Flats Trail — the turnoff for the grueling ascent toward Iron Mountain. Skip this trail, hit up the bathroom if you need to, and continue along the road. It quickly narrows and makes a bee-line for the water’s edge.
As with many sections on this trail, you can choose to walk in the loose sand of the river’s flood plain, or follow one of many well-worn footpaths on higher ground. Right here, however, either path will shortly force you to a choke point along the water. Depending on the water’s level, you will have to ford through a small section, staying on the east shore, or you can hop over a few boulders like my traveling companions did.
Stay on the river’s eastern shore, walking along the boulders as you make your way north. This section of the trail may still be crowded with those slightly-more-adventuresome bathers, who have taken to creating numerous dams near choice swimming holes in the river.
At a point where the river makes a slight bend, the trail crosses the river to the western bank and ascends a low rocky ridge, away from the water.
The trail stays away from the river for a short distance, cutting a clear path through brush and grass as it follows the river north.
The second crossing is just after this brushy area, and on the east bank, the trail splits into several use trails continuing north. There are several different paths, many of them marked with cairns. While there is no “correct” route, they all do go to the same place, so just keep trying to follow the river and watch out for Spanish Bayonets.
The trail stays to the east of the river at the junction with Shoemaker Canyon, a decidedly sharp curve in the river to the northeast. You’ll be able to note this location by looking both down and up — up at the western mountains to see the final tunnel in the abandoned Shoemaker Canyon Road, and down to notice the old overgrown asphalt on the failed San Gabriel River Road. This is what a Southern Californian mountain road looks like after almost 70 years of disuse.
The trail turns toward the northeast and crosses the river twice. By now, you should be experiencing some moments of solitude. You might want to stop and enjoy the river for a bit, or just listen to its white noise while you stop for a quick snack.
The trail continues east, in the shadow of some high ridges — some of which have a sizable amount of poison oak growing near them, so be aware.
When the river reaches Laurel Gulch, it makes a sharp turn toward the north again. The trail follows the river, and passes a sign marking the entrance to the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Area.
Here, the trail enters a broad, dry wash in the river (depending on water levels, of course). Before the trail leaves the riverbed to make a very short bypass to nearby Allison Gulch, be sure to look at the rock walls to your west. You should be able to make out an unusual ribbon of quartz running through an otherwise dark formation, which is known as Swan Rock.
If you reach this point of the hike in the mid-day, you might not be able to see it … but in indirect sunlight it’s very apparent.
Cross the river twice again just north of Allison Gulch, enjoying the small shaded areas and deep swimming holes if it’s getting too hot out for ya.
Just beyond these two close crossings, the trail leaves the riverside again and meets up with another section of broken-down pavement. This section of the trail follows a very distinct path, which only occasionally winds around troublesome bayonets. Keep following north until it descends back down to a wide, rocky area of riverbed.
Here, the river makes a sharp bend to the west as it continues to meander north. There are several clear, marked trails that leave the riverbed and ascend back up to the old road ridge. IGNORE them and continue along the river. A lower route will appear and continue.
Taking the upper routes will get you to the top of a ridge overlooking the river, with an apparent ridge route along what is left of the road grade. This route is possible to travel, but it is unnecessarily dangerous and not recommended.
Instead, continue along the lower route near the river, crossing once to a low sandbar-type island in the middle of the river, then once again back to the eastern bank — again, taking time to stop and enjoy your surroundings.
After the two crossings, continue northeast, toward the higher road grade. There is a short path that scrambles up to join this route. It’s pretty easy to find, even without this creative help left behind by some hikers with too much time on their hands.
From here, it’s pretty easy going the rest of the way. Continue gaining elevation through brush as the old road grade gets further above the water. At a bend just before Devil Gulch, the trail hooks northeast and passes a sign marking the boundary of private property.
There are a few steep drop-offs near this section, but nothing any moderately cautious hiker shouldn’t be able to handle. Very shortly, you will pass a small metal cabin and get your first glimpse of the Bridge, which doesn’t look all that special when you first approach it.
It’s only when you cross the bridge and turn around do you get to see some really striking views — and if you go on the weekend, you might be treated to a large bungee jumping show, too.
[qt:http://modernhiker.com/wp-content/videos/eastforkjump.mov 480 380]
After you’ve had your fill of the sight of the bridge, you have a few options — you can continue on the trail just around the next meander in the canyon to the beginnings of a blasted tunnel, continue even further past that to the Narrows — the deepest gorge in the San Gabriels — or just scramble down a use trail to some exquisite swimming holes with great views of the bridge.
We were happy to swim, but I think it may very well be impossible not to have a great time, no matter what you decide to do along this trail.
Just remember to leave some energy for the hike out! Although this hike is mostly-flat, I’m always surprised at just how zonked out I am after getting back to my car. Be sure to bring more water than you think you need and take breaks if you need them.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on August 11, 2008