It is a charming little thing, with a low, sweet voice, singing like a bird, as it pours from a notch in a short ledge, some 35 or 40 feet into a round mirror-pool.
--Eaton Falls, as admired by John Muir in 1877, from "The Mountains of California"
Late one August afternoon in 1877, John Muir set out from Pasadena to begin his exploration of the San Gabriel Mountains. He spent the night camped with a blindly optimistic, half-Irish, half-Spanish water prospector who was convinced that his digging would soon result in a wealth of water. Muir was dubious of this cash flow, and the next morning bade his acquaintance farewell and began tramping up the canyon. After enjoying Eaton Falls, Muir followed bear trails, sometimes on all fours, up the chaparral-smothered ridges of the San Gabriel Mountains.
It was not that water prospector but Judge Benjamin Eaton who channeled and piped the canyon's waters to ranches. The judge's neighbors laughed when he planted grapevines, but the vines were quite successful and commanded a high price. San Gabriel Valley farmers knew a good thing when they saw it, and soon grapes joined oranges as the crop of choice.
Much of the canyon named for Judge Eaton is now part of Eaton Canyon County Park. The park's nature center has exhibits that emphasize Southern California flora and fauna. Children will love the park's Naturalist's Room (open Saturdays 9 a.m.-3 p.m.), which features live animals. Park nature trails explore a variety of native-plant communities--chaparral, coastal sage and oak-sycamore woodland.
Eaton Canyon County Park is a busy place on the weekends. Family nature walks are conducted by docent naturalists beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturdays. The park also has bird walks, natural history classes and "nature-cize" hikes.
(Information about the park's many hiking and nature study classes: (818) 794-1866.)
The walk up Eaton Canyon to the falls is an easy one. Eaton Canyon Trail leads through a wide wash along the east side of the canyon to a junction with Mt. Wilson Toll Road (no tolls are collected). In fact, Eaton Canyon Trail was once a toll road itself; fees were collected from 1890 to 1911.
The hiker seeking strenuous exercise can swing right on Mt. Wilson Road for a steep, 8-mile ascent of Mt. Wilson.
Directions to trailhead: From the Foothill Freeway in Pasadena, exit on Altadena Drive. Proceed north 1 3/4 miles to the entrance of Eaton Canyon County Park. Turn right into the park and leave your car in the large lot near the Nature Center.
The hike: From the parking lot, head north on the wide dirt road. You meander beneath the boughs of large oaks and pass a junction with a connector trail that leads to the Mt. Wilson Toll Road.
To the east, you'll spy the plateau overlooking Eaton Canyon. A hundred years ago this land belonged to a wealthy capitalist, pioneer forester, public library founder and builder of Venice, Abbott Kinney, and was part of his Kinneola Ranch. Kinney loved this area and was a bit miffed when a nearby peak was named Mt. Harvard for the university that built an observatory atop the mountain, rather than being named for him.
The trail leads along the wide arroyo. Eaton Canyon was widened considerably by a 1969 flood that washed away canyon walls. This flood and the many floods before and since have spread alluvium, or water-transported sand and rock, across the canyon floor. It takes a hearty group of drought-resistant plants to survive in this soil and Southern California's sometimes not-so-benign Mediterranean climate.
Notice the steepness of the canyon's walls. Early Spanish settlers called the canyon El Precipio.
Long, Steep Ascent
A mile's travel from the Nature Center brings you to the Mt. Wilson Toll Road bridge. A right turn on the toll road will take you on a long, steep ascent to the top of Mt. Wilson. A left turn on Mt. Wilson Toll Road will bring you a short distance to the unsigned junction with Altadena Crest Trail. This rather dull trail travels 2 miles above the reservoirs and back yards of residential Altadena. Walking 1/2 mile on Altadena Crest Trail to a vista point will reward you with great clear-day views of the Los Angeles Basin.
To reach Eaton Falls, continue straight up Eaton Canyon Wash. You'll rock-hop across the creek several times as you walk to trail's end at the falls.
When John Muir visited the canyon a century ago, the great naturalist reported: "Hither come the San Gabriel lads and lassies, to gather ferns and dabble away their hot holidays in the cool waters, glad to escape their commonplace palm gardens and orange groves."
Alas, the local youth of today aren't quite as well mannered. Cretins have desecrated some of the canyon's boulders with graffiti.
After you've enjoyed the fall Muir called "the finest yet discovered in the San Gabriel Mountains," return the same way.
Eaton Canyon Trail
\o7 Nature Center to Eaton Falls: 3 miles round trip; 200-foot elevation gain. \f7