Sunday, April 23, 2017

Becoming Less of a Douche in Trail Canyon

Now those memories come back to haunt me
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river
though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river my baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride.
~Bruce Springsteen, The River

I've been wanting to get up Trail Canyon for quite awhile now. Initially, I was interested in the canyon as the most direct route to Condor Peak which I have yet to visit. Then, after the Station Fire ravaged the area and Mother Nature reclaimed the upper-most stretches of the canyon making it virtually impassable to most mortals, I tempered my expectations, focusing instead on visiting the ever-popular falls and Tom Lucas trail camp. The problem was that every time I made an effort to satisfy my curiosity and actually hike the canyon, I was stymied mostly by myself.

I once had a bad experience at the entrance to Gold Creek Road while I was out for the day exploring Mt. McKinley - vandals broke into my car by smashing my passenger side window - so the trailhead holds some residual bad juju for me. That kept me away for a spell, always looking for places to explore other than Trail Canyon. But then the skies finally opened up this winter and let loose enough rain to allow the governor to declare the drought "over." And suddenly the prospect of seeing real water cascading over the falls swept aside any thoughts of another break-in.

The problem became other obstacles, real and imagined, that kept running interference. First, I tried to visit too soon after the rains when the trail bed was a sloppy mess and the creek a raging torrent. Then, what I'll call my "trail elitism" took over and I wasted another few weeks going other places while the flow in the local creeks slowly began to die. This "trail elitism" involved my refusal to explore the canyon if there were more than a few cars parked at the trailhead (ironically, this compulsion to have the trail, and the trailhead, to myself probably contributed to my previous episode involving vandals). So when I approached the entrance to Trail Canyon on my next planned visit and found Big Tujunga Canyon Road clogged with cars and hikers at Gold Creek, I just kept driving. In fact, all I ended up doing was driving that day. I did the exact same thing on a subsequent visit, although on that occasion, I actually ended up hiking another route instead of just burning fuel.

But this past weekend, I set aside my trail elitism in favor of a more hiking-friendly, egalitarianism. So when I arrived at Gold Creek and the entrance to Trail Canyon this time and found it predictably over-flowing with automobiles once again, I didn't keep driving. Instead, I stopped, got out of the car, and began hiking.

As expected, I encountered a fair number of hikers on my way up this justly popular trail. Most of them were in groups and going in the opposite direction as me. No one was overtly unfriendly, but I did get forced to the exposed, downslope side of the narrow trail in several instances by descending clumps of spandex-clad hikers who mostly didn't adhere to the generally accepted tenets of trail etiquette. In my experience, that's not an uncommon phenomenon on trails that are popular with the mall-walking masses. It's not a malicious thing, I just don't think they are sensitive to the potential danger they might be putting other hikers in.

Trail Canyon is classic front-side, scrub-dominated western San Gabriels. Yucca, manzanita, ceanothus, scrub oak, and other native fauna typical of chaparral communities dominate here. Poison Oak is plentiful near and along the stream bed. The canyon's north side is bounded by the western slopes of Condor Peak and its steep and rocky western ridge. Pt. 3520 dramatically hangs over the canyon and was a constant companion as I climbed.

Just south of where McKinley Canyon comes in from the left and Condor Canyon comes in from the right, the path horseshoes around a ridgeline and the falls come into view. Fortunately, the creek still had a decent amount of flow it in so that falls were still falling. My self-imposed delay tactics hadn't prevented me from experiencing this ephemeral beauty after all. Down the very steep, rope-assisted use path and I was standing at the base of the falls.

There were a few folks milling about in the cool alcove where the stream from above cascades into a small pool. To my pleasant surprise, the trash and graffiti that is the typical hallmark of well-visited spots like this was absent. Since the day was warm, I promptly dropped my pack, stripped off my shirt and shoes, and made a spectacle of myself by standing directly beneath the cool, luxurious water of the falls. No one said anything, but I'm sure the sight of an old guy with a slight paunch and a fluorescent-light tan was an ugly sight that my fellow hikers would have preferred to not witness.

Now soggy but refreshed, I continued up the canyon where the number of other hikers I encountered dwindled to zero. My plan was to visit Tom Lucas trail camp before turning around and retracing my steps back to the trailhead. I understand from numerous anecdotal sources that beyond Tom Lucas, the trail to the ridgeline high above is an obliterated and difficult-to-navigate thrash-fest.

As I continued up canyon, the path narrowed some and brush began to intrude onto the trail. Just below Tom Lucas, I encountered a stretch where Poison Oak encroached from both sides. It was certainly passable, but I had just recovered from a bout of poisoning by Poison Oak and I wasn't terribly interested in a relapse so soon. So I chose to end my day here, opting instead to retreat down-canyon to a pleasant spot along the creek where I enjoyed snacks with a view.

Back at the trailhead, I found all my car windows fully intact. So not only did I overcome my own "I can't share the trail with anyone else" douchiness this day, but I exorcised the lingering bad vibes I had about this place from my previous experiences. A successful day. 

First Glimpse of the Beautiful Falls

The Falls Showing Off 

Stand Here for Best Results

Just Before Stepping Under the Torrent

Upper Trail Canyon

Lunch with a View

Dramatic Rocky Prominence ~ Pt. 3520 I Believe

View Down Canyon

Over the Shoulder View on the Descent

Beautiful, but Invasive

Big Tujunga Canyon


  1. I recently was guided up to Tom Lucas Campground, would be impossible for me to find without a guide. It is passable to Lazy Lucas Camp. Trail needs lots of work from Lazy Lucas Camp to Tom Lucas Campground proper.

    1. Hi Brenda- I've heard that route-finding becomes gradually more difficult the further up canyon you go. The register atop Iron #3 contains an entry by a couple of 2 well-respected mountaineers who came up via Trail Canyon about a year ago I think and said it was the worst thrashing they'd ever received. It's a shame that the trail has been let go.

  2. It's not elitism if you want the trail to yourself so that you can bathe nude in the waterfall. That's just shyness.

    1. You've seen me shirtless so you understand my reticence. I'm just trying to protect folks' retinas.

  3. Great trip, Rico! Glad you got to see the falls in their glory. I don't blame you on avoiding the poison oak. That's a special kind of misery.

    1. I was being a bit of a baby about it. But poison oak and me aren't really great buds.

      Missed you on our trek out to 6306.