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An Autumnal Jaunt in Arroyo Seco

November 25, 2001|JOHN McKINNEY

A hike down the Arroyo Seco is as one of my favorite fall outings. I love tramping beside a rain-recharged creek and seeing big-leaf maples brighten the canyon with an autumnal yellow. The color display won't dazzle New England leaf peepers, but it might surprise hikers who think the Southland landscape doesn't change from season to season.

The Arroyo Seco is among the best-known canyons in Southern California, in part because it's the site of the Rose Bowl. But the arroyo is a recreational wonder too, with 10 miles of wild and rugged watershed that spill from the shoulder of Mt. Wilson and get a hiker's heart pumping.

Since the 1800s, the canyon has been a playground for nature-loving Pasadenans, as well as for hikers from around the Southland. Old photos show a verdant canyon with trails meandering along wooded banks. I'm happy to report the same lovely scenery remains--astonishing when you consider that the canyon lies 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

The arroyo hasn't always been so seco (Spanish for dry). During some winters, torrents rushed down the canyon. The great flood of 1938 wiped out the road and most development on the canyon bottom. Upper Arroyo Seco has been one of the few places in the San Gabriel Mountains that has become wilder with time.

Hikers saunter beneath boughs of oak, sycamore and bay trees on Forest Service trails and the remains of a 1920s auto road. Because the path is part of the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail, it's usually kept in good condition.

The mostly downhill passage from the upper trail head through the arroyo makes an ideal one-way jaunt. Convince a companion to drop you off, then have him or her hang out for a couple of hours at the shops and cafes in Old Town Pasadena before picking you up at the lower trail head nearby.

Keep alert for mountain bikers on the upper half of the trail, a narrow path with steep drop-offs on one side. Although not a difficult path for hikers, it does pose a challenge even for expert riders. Some who race down the trail are neither expert nor particularly courteous.

Directions to trail head: Start this hike at the upper trail head. From La Canada Flintridge, take California 2 (Angeles Crest Highway) for 10 miles. After the junction with County Highway N3 (Angeles Forest Highway), you'll see the Angeles National Forest Clear Creek Information Station on the right.

Half a mile past the station, park in the Forest Service lot on the right side of the highway. Walk down the paved road a quarter of a mile to Switzer Picnic Area. The trail begins across the bridge at the lower end of the picnic grounds.

Hikers can be picked up at the lower trail head. From Interstate 210 in Pasadena, take the Arroyo Boulevard/Windsor Avenue exit. Drive three-quarters of a mile north on Arroyo, which almost immediately becomes Windsor. Just before Ventura Street, turn into the small parking lot on the left. From the lot you can look down into the bottom of the Arroyo Seco and see NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory .

The hike: Cross the bridge at the upper trail head and follow the path into the canyon. The trail meanders under alder and spruce. You'll cross the stream several times and hop some boulders. In a mile, you'll reach Commodore Switzer Campground. Perched on a bench just above the falls, it's an inviting place with picnic tables. The creek trail below the camp ends above the falls.

From the camp, cross the stream and follow the trail on the west slope. You'll get a nice view of the falls before reaching a signed junction. To the right (southwest) is the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail, the main trail down to Oakwilde Campground and Pasadena. (For a pleasant detour, bear left here and hike down into the gorge of the Arroyo Seco below the falls. When you reach the creek, turn upstream a quarter of a mile to the falls. Heed the warning signs and don't climb the falls.)

The Gabrielino trail leaves the Arroyo Seco's main canyon, crosses a chaparral-cloaked ridge and drops into Long Canyon. The trail then descends to the Arroyo Seco creek bottom and follows the water an easy mile to tranquil Oakwilde Campground, about the midpoint of this journey.

From the campground, the path widens and then climbs around the Brown Canyon dam. The trail returns to the arroyo bottom and passes a series of lovely rest stops such as Paul Little Picnic Area and Gould Mesa Campground. As you approach civilization again, the trail becomes a dirt road, then a paved service road.


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