There's nothing like heavy winter rains to swell Southland streams and transform weak waterfalls into vigorous ones. One wet winter beneficiary is Soldier Creek Falls, an offspring of the San Gabriel River's North Fork. The 50-foot cascade and the sylvan canyon hosting it are particularly enchanting after this rainiest of rainy seasons.
Soldier Creek is an overlooked destination, primarily because both trail head and trail are unmarked. In fact, no formal trail to the falls exists--just a creek-side route used by generations of hikers.
Most visitors to the area are bound for popular Crystal Lake, located a few miles up the road. The mountains surrounding the lake offer some splendid hiking. (My favorite is the nine-mile round trip to the top of Mt. Islip.) Those ambitious hikers who have completed a long hike through the Crystal Lake back country might consider a stop at Soldier Creek on the drive home.
Soldier Creek is a fine family walk, though smaller children will need guidance around and over boulders, particularly during high water.
Longtime San Gabriel Mountains visitors and old maps refer to Soldier Creek Falls as "Lewis Falls," in honor of forest ranger Anselmo Lewis, who once patrolled these parts.
Even in the heat of summer, after memories of wet winters and soggy springs have faded away, Soldier Creek can be an attractive destination. The creek and falls are tucked away in a narrow canyon and spared most of the effects of the intense summer sun; while nearby slopes are baking, Soldier Creek remains something of a cool, shady oasis.
Directions to trail head: From Interstate 210 (Foothill Freeway) in Azusa, exit on California Highway 39 and drive north 19 miles. Look for a small, unsigned, dirt turnout on your right, located 2.4 miles north of Coldbrook Campground. If you reach the turnoff for Falling Springs Resort, you've driven 100 yards too far up Highway 39.
In order to park at the trail head, you'll need an Adventure Pass ($30 a year, $5 a day), available at many locations throughout the Southland, and in Azusa at Milad's Chevron Service, 101 N. Azusa Ave. On the weekends, daily parking permits ($3) are available at the Forest Service's San Gabriel Canyon Entrance Station on Highway 39.
The hike: Walk up the right (east) side of the creek amid oak, bay and fir. The trail leads past some private cabins, ending abruptly at the first major crossing of Soldier Creek. Scramble alongside the creek, crossing and recrossing it, about 200 yards until you reach the base of Soldier Creek Falls.
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Soldier Creek Trail
WHERE: Crystal Lake Area, Angeles National Forest.
DISTANCE: 1 mile round trip with 200-feet elevation gain.
TERRAIN: Oak- and fir-shaded canyon.
HIGHLIGHTS: Overlooked waterfall and trail.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy.
PRECAUTIONS: Creek crossings sometimes difficult during rainy season. Parking permit required.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Angeles National Forest, San Gabriel River Ranger District; tel. (626) 335-1251.