We’re very fortunate to live so close to Eaton Canyon. Only blocks from our home, we hike there several times each week and it has been our preparation spot for bigger hikes like Mt Whitney, Mt Shuksan and even the Himalaya of Nepal. One of the greatest adventures in our own back yard is canyoneering down Lower Eaton Canyon and its myriad of large and small waterfalls.
People who never venture out of the city don’t realize how natural and ‘alive’ the canyons are just above their city.
Before you read further, please know the following: This is one of the best day adventures in the San Gabriel mountains but ONLY for those with climbing skills and the right equipment. This should also NOT be confused with attempting to climb the sketchy trails that go up the canyon (that often end in rescues and have resulted in deaths).
You should have, as a minimum, the following gear:
- Full length climbing rope (50 m/160 ft)
- 30 m (100 ft) of webbing for anchors
- Rappel devices like an ATC or Figure 8
- Dry bags for anything that can’t get wet
Bring clothing that dries quickly and retains body heat. Even on a hot day, by the last rappel, we were very cold. Also, don’t go after the rare rainfall when the water levels are too high and the water too cloudy to see obstacles under the surface.
Lastly, don’t drop into any water that hasn’t been tested for depth and obstacles. There are whole trees lurking under the surface of some of the deep blue pools.
Getting to the drop in
We won’t bore you with details on how to get there. Eaton Canyon directions are fairly straight-forward, and the key is to plan ahead to park where you can arrive back at your car after dusk when the gates are locked.
Don’t be too surprised if parking is scarce and you need to find a spot blocks away.
An alternative to fighting the crowds is to park near the ‘back gate’ entrance off Pine Crest. The risk of parking there, however, is that the gates open at dawn and close at dusk.
The most challenging part of this hike is figuring out how to get into the canyon itself from Henninger Flats. The trick is to pass the Flats on the Mt Wilson Toll Road and take a left turn at the sign for the heliport. Follow the dirt road toward the heliport, but as soon as the trail makes a hard left, turn to the right instead and find the overgrown trail that doubles back and eventually ends up on the far side of the side canyon in front of you.
If you need help, look for the old telephone poles that line an out-of-use road and you’ll be on the right track. Watch closely for the trail’s drop into the canyon, which ends in a quick drop on loose rock and dirt.
The last section may seem steep and impossible but that’s the best way down that we’ve found. Be careful not to dislodge rocks that will hit the people below you.
From this point onward, you’re in Lower Eaton Canyon and its series of wonderful waterfalls. There are four waterfalls that must be rappelled and a series of others that, depending on the depth of the pools you encounter, can be jumped or slid into. Each obstacle along the way presents itself as a challenge to figure out and adapt accordingly. The canyon quickly becomes a problem solver’s delight.
Rappelling in the waterfalls themselves can be tricky as the rock is often moss-covered and very slippery. We found it easiest to go straight down through the water, feet high to keep better traction. Often, the most difficult move is to begin the rappel as the top of each waterfall presents either a large boulder or a wet, slippery slope to navigate.
If you haven’t been taught the proper way to rappel, you probably shouldn’t be in the canyon. Keep in mind on the slippery waterfalls that the need to keep your feet as high as your chest has never been higher. Keeping your weight from being vertical is what will allow you to ‘walk’ your way down even the worst of it.
Be ready to ‘swim’ your way off the rope as you enter the water at a bottom of at least one of the falls. The alternative is to stay attached and swim to the downstream side of the pool, but for those who can tread water well, simply detach in the pool.
The finale of the day’s adventure comes at the “First Waterfall”, as locals refer to what is for you, the final waterfall. By the late afternoon there is generally a sizable crowd on hand to be utterly surprised as you descend on ropes from a place they moments before saw as impenetrable. Enjoy the moment.