Thursday, January 1, 2015

Taming Bear Canyon

I’ve peered down into mysterious Bear Canyon from the Markham Saddle on more than one occasion and wondered about the secrets it might hold. The topo maps all told me that there is, or at least there once was, a trail from the Tom Sloane Saddle to the Arroyo Seco that cuts directly through the heart of Bear Canyon, but post-Station fire accounts of the condition of that trail were few and far between. I’d read a snippet here, heard a mention there, but nothing that gave me confidence that the trail was still in regular use or even passable. Had Mother Nature in her shaggy exuberance reclaimed the canyon as her own personal paradise, or were folks simply keeping quiet about this jewel hidden in plain sight in order to keep me and my ilk out? I didn’t really know, but I was itching to find out.

So about a week or so ago, some kindred spirits and I decided to give Bear Canyon a go. The planned route involved an 18 mile loop starting from Red Box that took us up the Bill Reilly trail to the San Gabriel Peak-Mt. Disappointment divide, down to the Markham Saddle, along the Mt. Lowe fire road, over the Tom Sloane Saddle Trail, up to the summit of Brown Mountain, back to Tom Sloane Saddle, into and through Bear Canyon, out the Arroyo Seco to Switzer, and then back up the Gabrieleno Trail to the starting point at Red Box. We left a vehicle at Switzer as our bail-out point just in case Bear Canyon ended up being an unbearably time-consuming suffer-fest through deadfall, poisonous plants, and slippery rock.

Sunrise from Red Box

West Fork of the San Gabriel River (foreground) and Mt. Baldy (background)

San Gabriel Peak from the Bill Reilly Trail

We arrived at Red Box as the rising sun spilled salmon and magenta across eastern horizon. As we climbed the Bill Reilly Trail, the sky lightened and we were treated to inspiring views into the West Fork of the San Gabriel River and of snow-capped Mt. Baldy in the distance. Massive San Gabriel Peak stood silent sentinel in front of us. But this silence was soon broken by the mechanized sounds of chainsaws echoing in the forest ahead. As it turned out, crews were out curiously early that morning trimming back unruly Manzanita and everything else that grew within 20 yards of either side of the trail.  
Descending the San Gabriel Peak Trail, we were surprised to see a group of about 20 hikers congregated at the Markham Saddle. We were even more surprised to learn that there was still another group of 26 hikers coming up the fire road from Eaton Saddle. The first group was planning to bag a number of other peaks in the area that were not on our itinerary. The second group, however, was heading to Brown Mountain so we would have company. A lot of it. 

Water Tank at Markham Saddle

Upper Bear Canyon from the Mr. Lowe Fire Road

My Trail Crew Taking in the Views

From the Markham Saddle our route tacked west following the old Mt. Lowe fire road that skirts the north side of Mt. Lowe and the south rim of Bear Canyon. Eventually, this fire road doubles back on itself heading east for a short distance before dropping south into the Mt. Lowe trail camp. The Tom Sloane Saddle Trail continues west at this hairpin turn as an obvious single-track that descends to the Tom Sloane Saddle, a four-way trail junction at which the trail from the Dawn Mine to the south and the trail into Bear Canyon to the north intersect. The path then climbs an undulating ridgeline with a series of false summits before its terminus at Brown Mountain. The entire path from the Markham Saddle to the summit of Brown Mountain is obvious and easy to follow.
It was along this stretch that we were overtaken by a number of folks in the hiking contingent behind us. We weren’t moving particularly slowly, but these folks seemed oddly focused on getting to Brown’s summit before anyone else, including the remaining hikers in their group. A number of them were actually running down the trail in their hiking boots and with packs strapped to their backs. Hiking as competitive sport I suppose. When we ultimately reached Brown’s summit, I overheard someone mention that this hiking group had predictably lost track of 3 of their own.

Looking toward Brown Mountain from the Tom Sloane Saddle Trail

Descending the Tom Sloane Saddle Trail

Brown Mountain

We took some time on the summit of Brown to refuel and take in the expansive views. The hordes of hikers soon scurried off as hurriedly as they had come leaving us to wrestle with the sudden solitude. But the real fun was still in front of us, so we tracked back to the Tom Sloane Saddle in anticipation of our imminent foray into Bear Canyon.
Mi Trail Companeros atop Brown Mountain
Getting into Bear Canyon from the Tom Sloane Saddle is an easy descent down a plainly evident footpath that is in surprisingly good condition. There is a minor obstacle or two along the way, but someone has recently cut back the trailside brush making travel here pretty dang easy. Where the trail finally hits the canyon bottom, however, conditions change rather dramatically. In short, if there was once a trail here previously, it exists no longer.  Navigation involves climbing on, over, and under fallen trees, splashing back and forth through the creek, and negotiating a jumble of overgrowth which includes both poison oak and the notorious Poodle Dog Bush. Fortunately, there has been some work done in the canyon bottom with someone stringing bright pink and red tape along the creek bed to highlight the way forward.
Trail Into Bear Canyon at Tom Sloane Saddle

Cucamonga Man and Cecelia Dropping Into Bear Canyon

Looking Up Bear Canyon to the Markham Saddle

Trailside Conclave - Cucamonga Man, Cecelia, and Teke
Despite the rough sledding, the canyon itself is an untamed and beautiful place that feels remote because of its remoteness. Stately evergreens dot the steep canyon hillsides. A variety of deciduous trees populate the riparian bottomlands. Clear water cascades over falls and spills out of side canyons to join the main creek flow which courses toward the Arroyo Seco deeper down the canyon’s maw. And ferns, moss, and an assortment of colorful fungi carpet the moist canyon floor and colonize the innumerable fallen logs and slippery stones. It is one of the special places to be found in the vast San Gabriel Mountains.
Route Finding in Bear Canyon

Bear Canyon Fungus

More Fungus Amongus

Nearing Bear Canyon Trail Camp

As the trail neared idyllic Bear Canyon trail camp, conditions improved and the old path once again became discernible. Beyond the camp, conditions improved dramatically with the trail becoming obvious and fairly well traveled. That improved accessibility probably explains the group of 15 or so additional folks that we encountered enjoying Bear Canyon trail camp. Oddly enough, when we had begun the day, I was expecting to encounter far fewer people than you’d normally see on some of the more popular trails in the Front Range. As it turned out, and except for Echo Mountain, we crossed paths with as many hikers on this day as I can recall ever seeing on the trails. Who knew?

One of the Camp Sites at Bear Canyon Trail Camp

One of the Many Stream Crossing Below Bear Canyon Trail Camp

Pool Along Bear Canyon Creek

Trail Conditions Below Bear Canyon Trail Camp
Below the trail camp, Bear Canyon joins the Arroyo Seco. A short distance later, the trail climbs a couple hundred feet out of the canyon to join the Gabrieleno Trail just south of where Commodore Switzer’s historic trail camp was once located. From that point, it’s a gentle walk back up the Arroyo Seco to the canopied Switzer Picnic Area.

Arroyo Seco at Junction with Bear Canyon

Pool in the Arroyo Seco
When we finally arrived at Switzer, we paused and took stock of the situation. We had about an hour of daylight left and approximately 4 additional miles to cover. That meant that we would be getting back to Red Box after dark if we decided the complete the circuit. That wasn’t a huge deal, but other than for bragging rights, none of us found walking the remaining stretch to be that compelling of a proposition. So we loaded into the car we had strategically left at Switzer earlier that morning and made our way back to our starting point by way of the Angeles Crest Highway.

For additional information and pics of Bear Canyon, read Keith Winston's account of our day here at his informative blog Iron Hiker.


  1. If you were to do this in two days where along the trail would you suggest making a camp?

    1. Hey Collapsible. I'd spend a night at the Bear Canyon trail camp. Nice little spot. Next day out would be short if you exit a Switzer. But if you made the circuit back up to Red Box, I'm guessing the trail camp would be roughly mid-way.