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Day Hike

Cool, Quiet Arroyo Seco Canyon Invites Picnics, Nature Walks

June 06, 1987|JOHN McKINNEY

Arroyo Seco is undoubtedly the best-known canyon in Southern California. It's the site of the Rose Bowl and has the dubious distinction of hosting California's first freeway, the Pasadena. But the 10 miles of civilized urban canyon bear little resemblance to the 10 miles of rugged mountain arroyo, which begins near the north slope of Mt. Wilson. A quiet stream lined with colonnades of alder and live oak cascades over boulders of big gray granite--these are some of the joys of the wild arroyo that will greet you.

Perry Switzer, a carpenter who regained his health in the invigorating climate of the San Gabriel Mountains, built a trail up the Arroyo Seco and decided to build a trail resort. He put up some rough log cabins, despite arguments that "no one would want to pay for a bed up among the grizzlies, mountain lions and bobcats." He earned the nickname "Commodore" because of his skill in navigating his burro squadron as they forded the Arroyo Seco. His hospitality made Switzer's the most popular trail camp in the San Gabriels.

The resort passed into the hands of Lloyd Austin, who added a tennis court, chapel and dance floor. A sign across from the resort greeted visitors: "Leave your cares and animals this side of the stream." Switzer-land was popular with hikers well into the 1930s, until the Angeles Crest Highway rendered the peaceful camp obsolete.

During the "Great Hiking Era," a hiker could venture up the Arroyo Seco and within an hour lose all signs of civilization. Amazingly, you still can today. This hike takes you past the site of Switzer's retreat and visits Switzer Falls. Further exploration of the Arroyo Seco country is possible by taking an optional trail to Bear Canyon.

Directions to trailhead: Take Angeles Crest Highway (California 2) north from La Canada for 10 miles. A short way past the junction of Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest (N3) Highways, you'll see the Angeles National Forest Clear Creek Information Station on your right. You can inquire about trails or road conditions here and buy an Angeles National Forest map. The station is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Information: (818) 797-9959.

Half of a mile past the information station is the turnoff to Switzer Picnic Area. The picnic area is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Rangers lock the gates at night. Early risers/hikers can park in a small lot along Angeles Crest Highway. Later risers/hikers will drive another quarter of a mile down the steep road to the picnic area. Know that Switzer picnic area is very popular on the weekends and plan accordingly. The trail begins across the bridge at the lower end of the picnic ground.

The hike: Cross the bridge and follow the trail into the canyon. The pathway meanders with the stream under oak, alder and spruce trees. You'll cross and re-cross the stream several times. The water level is low and the crossings are easy.

In a mile, you'll reach Commodore Switzer Camp. Perched above the falls, it's an inviting place for a picnic. The creek trail below the camp dead-ends above the falls. Please heed the Forest Service warning signs and do not attempt to climb down to the falls. People have been seriously injured trying to get a close-up view of them.

From the camp, cross the stream and follow the trail on the west slope. You'll soon get a nice view of the falls. Because this has been such a dry year, the falls aren't exactly thunderous, but they are a pretty sight and it's easy to understand why hikers of an earlier era enjoyed Switzer's Camp.

A signed trail junction soon appears. To the right (southwest) is the main trail--the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail--which leads down to Oakwilde Camp and Pasadena. The trail leaves the main Arroyo Seco canyon, crosses a chaparral ridge, drops into Long Canyon and then returns to the Arroyo Seco creek bottom. Alder and oak shade a pleasant campground and picnic area. Keep this trail in mind for another day hike.

Bear left instead at the trail junction and hike down into the gorge of the Arroyo Seco below the falls. When you reach the creek, you may turn upstream a short distance to the lower cascades of the falls. Don't try to climb the falls; it's very dangerous.

To reach Bear Canyon Camp, continue down the Arroyo Seco gorge on a mediocre trail. The path is slowly being restored thanks to the efforts of the Sierra Club, the Forest Service and the San Gabriel Mountain Trail Builders club.

After three-quarters of a mile, the trail reaches Bear Canyon and heads east up the canyon, crossing and re-crossing the creek. Along the way are some nice pools. The trail, shaded by big cone spruce, closely parallels the creek.

When you look at an Angeles National Forest map, you'll discover that Bear Canyon is surrounded by highways, dams and development. The canyon has no right to be so quiet, but it is. As you boulder-hop from bank to bank, the only sound you'll hear is that of water cascading over granite into clear pools. Give thanks that there is at least one spot in the front range of the San Gabriels that is untouched wilderness, and continue to Bear Canyon Camp, two miles up the canyon.

Return the same way.

Gabrielino National Recreation Trail

Switzer Picnic Area to Commodore Switzer Camp: two miles round trip, 200-foot elevation loss.

Switzer Picnic Area to Bear Canyon: eight miles round trip, 1,000-foot elevation gain.

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