Background on the Various Fish Canyon Trails
Problems With The New Fish Canyon Trail
Background on the Various Fish Canyon Trails
The old Fish Canyon Trail was hike 48 in previous editions of Trails of the Angeles. The new "Trail" is hike 49 in the 1998 edition.
The Fish Canyon Trail used to be one of the most pleasant strolls to a delightful, very popular destination: Fish Canyon Falls, considered one of the best waterfalls in the ANF. The trail was an easy 5 miles round-trip, with only 900' of elevation gain total. The trail could be hiked in sneakers, and was nearly good enough that baby strollers could be pushed along it.
In 1956 Azusa Rock Company (part of CalMat, now part of Vulcan Materials Company) began its quarrying operations under a permit from the city of Azusa, in the days before Environmental Impact Reports. There is conflicting information as to when access to the Fish Canyon Trail was restricted:
Story 1: Azusa Rock's initial quarrying operations did not restrict access to the Fish Canyon Trail. Robinson in his 1976 edition makes no mention of any restrictions on the Trail. In the 1990 edition he states that public access was blocked "for more than a decade". The 1999 Fish Canyon Trail Guide says that access was "severely curtailed when Azusa Rock expanded its quarrying operation in the mid 1980s".
Story 2: John McKinney in his hiking column in the L.A. Times on June 21, 1998 says that in 1956 Azusa Rock fenced off the mouth of Fish Canyon and eliminated access to the Trail, resulting in "more than 30 years of hikers' protests and guerrilla hiking (sneaking past Azusa Rock Co. gendarmes)".
Erik Siering wrote me that at least prior to the bypass trail construction in 1997 it definitely was possible to obtain legal access to the Falls on the old nearly-level trail through the quarry. Erik hiked the trail in 11/96, needing only to sign in and out with the foreman/overseer on site. If you have more information about the status of going through the quarry in past years, please email me.
In any case, at some point Azusa Rock posted a guard to keep hikers out, even though hikers had the legal right of way to continue using a public trail. Litigation, and the fact that Azusa Rock's permit to continue quarrying was up for renewal, resulted in an agreement by Azusa Rock to restore public access.
In 1988, Azusa Rock bulldozed a road along Van Tassel Ridge from the top of its quarrying operations to the point where the Ridge became quite steep, and connected it with the old trail via a "steep, loose, and precipitous" (Robinson's delightful words in his 1990 edition of Trails) "trail" that continued up Van Tassel Ridge to the ANF boundary and then down to the old trail. To get to the top of the quarrying operations, hikers had to "scramble up" (Robinson's words) a bulldozed road along a scraped hillside denuded of any vegetation. This route added several miles and 1200' altitude gain each way to the hike.
This became the official trail that had to be used by hikers. If the new trail had been built to the usual standards of trails in the ANF, this solution might have been tolerable, even though the extra mileage and altitude gain excluded those hikers unable to exert the extra effort the new trail required. But because of the defects of the new trail, the result was that Robinson recommended that no one use the new trail, which he said was "dangerous in places" and "crosses unstable rock slopes". And this was from an author who had no trouble recommending other trails that require "experience in climbing class 3 rock" that has scared myself and others (Strawberry Peak)!
Apparently even this trail was not available to hikers for very long, since Robinson says in the 1998 edition of Trails that "for more than a decade, Fish Canyon and its Falls were blocked from public access". (Again, if someone can provide details of what happened here, please email me.)
In 1997, Azusa Rock and the cities of Duarte and Azusa received a grant to create a new trail that was completely outside the quarry operations. The trail was built by either the California Conservation Corp (Robinson 1998) or the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (McKinney 1998), and opened to great fanfare and applause on June 6, 1998, as finally providing sustained public access to the Falls.
The new trail begins at a parking lot just outside the quarry entrance, and climbs steeply to Van Tassel Ridge. It then descends to the top of the quarrying operations and joins the previously constructed 1988 trail. The parameters of the new trail are quoted as 8.5 miles round-trip and 3200' elevation gain (Robinson, 1998); and 9 miles RT and 2880' elevation gain (Fish Canyon Trail Guide from City of Duarte). I measured 10.2 miles RT with my pedometer, and Roy Randall also measured 10.2 miles using Topo!.
Problems With The New Fish Canyon Trail
First, I wish to make it perfectly clear that I am grateful for, and appreciate very much, any trail that provides public access to places of natural beauty, if that trail itself does not cause significant environmental harm. As anyone who has bushwhacked or hiked on a severely overgrown trail knows, a trail is a beautiful thing. Further, a lot of work goes into the design and construction of any trial, and we hikers owe big debts of gratitude to those who have worked hard to make it easy for us to enjoy natural areas.
However, in this particular case, hikers had enjoyed a beautiful trail to Fish Canyon Falls for as long as anyone can remember. This beautiful trail, that provided easy access, has now been replaced with an almost infinitely-worse trail that has severe problems. This is not an acceptable situation. After all, for the environmental damage that Azusa Rock is doing, they should at least have provided an alternate trail around their operations that is very nearly comparable to the trail to which they are preventing access.
(Of course, Azusa Rock should also be required to perform environmental atonement in other ways to mitigate their operations. The city of Azusa was very remiss in not requiring this when they renewed the permit of Azusa Rock, if indeed it is true that they did not do so.)
Unfortunately, the new trail was constructed to the same standards as the 1988 trail, and, if anything, is steeper and more dangerous in places. Hence the trail has received near-unanimous bad reviews:
- Article in L.A. Times on June 7, 1998, titled New Mountain Trail Throws Some Hikers for a Loop.
- John McKinney, hiking book author, in the L.A. Times on June 21, 1998:The new trail follows far too steep a course for the average hiker. My impression was that the engineers left out a couple dozen switchbacks. In short, what was an easy family hike is now a strenuous outing best left to experienced hikers and those training for a trek in Nepal.
- Letter to the editor, L.A. Times on July 19, 1998, responding to McKinney's article:After having recently completed the strenuous hike to the falls, I couldn't agree with John McKinney's article more.
- Ernest M. Scheuer:This trail is difficult, poorly constructed -- significant portions will surely wash out in the next heavy rainy season.
- Roy Randall, who in the last eight months has hiked over half of the 100 Trails of Robinson:It's a BEAST of a trail. I agree completely that one big rain will completely obliterate one or more sections of that trail.
- Two anonymous hikers on the trail, who were training to do the Walk Across England, asked me:Is there any way to avoid having to slide down many sections of the trail on one's bottom?
- An anonymous reader, whose email address didn't work when I replied to him, wrote this great account on 7/25/99:A few months ago, I had hiked the San Gabriel mountains, called Fish Canyon. The end result was a good size waterfall and a water pool (icy cold). The hiking problem, one needed to climb 2,000 feet or more, it had difficult switchbacks to a ridge route and then back down on the other side of the canyon. At the bottom, I hike the remaining few miles to a rocky high box canyon and waterfall. Returning the same difficult way, I wonder why I had taken this adventure. At home, I picked up a couple of ticks and said to each one of them, "I never return to that place again." Later, I meet my upstairs friend who had originally mentioned the trail to me. With a smile and no bad details dare him to go for it. A couple of weeks later, he said "I wouldn't have taken a dog on that hike"- He with his aching body and a doggy appearing very dirty and unhappy beside him.
However, at least person still enjoyed the first half of the trail, for which poison ivy isn't a problem. George wrote me on 11/22/99:I hiked the first half of the new fish canyon trail (to the ridge and back) this Sunday, and I disagree with your negative review of it. It is true that the trail is steeper, narrower, and looser than other trails (and in fact its starting segment crosses a landslide if you have not noticed), but I nevertheless enjoyed it. I am not fit at all (I am 215 lbs), and I took my 10 year old heavy german shepard with me (who is less fit than I am). We huffed and puffed for about 40 minutes to the top of the ridge, but I enjoyed it greatly (I do not know about my dog). It had just rained overnight, and it was misty and cool. It was a nice workout. I saw no poison oak. I think I'll do it again sometime.
I don't think the rain much improved the trail [by firming up the loose dirt]. I was just looking where I was placing my steps. My dog on the other hand, who insists on walking exactly to my left even if that means walking at the edge of the trail, did lose his footing (or pawing?) several times over the looser edge of the trail, and I had to help him pull up by pulling on his collar.
Also, I did enjoy hiking this trail once, since it has great views of the quarry operation and the local area, but do not plan on hiking it again without some compelling reason.
Even though Robinson does not pan the trail in the 1998 edition, I don't think he had an opportunity to hike the trail before the 1998 edition went to press. If he had, I don't think he would have changed his previous opinion that no one should use the new trail, which was "dangerous in places" and "crosses unstable rock slopes", since the same bad elements of the "new trail" were not corrected as part of providing the new access trail to it. Robinson was probably hoping that all the bally-hoo about the new trail meant that it would be redesigned to be a good trail.
I hiked the new trail on March 12, 1999. Note that the construction of the trail was finished on June 6, 1998, after the heavy rainy season of 1997-1998. Hence the trail was less than one year old when I hiked it, with less than 10" of rain falling during that time and no severe storms. The specific problems of the new trail are:
- The trail is far too steep given the loose material found on most of the trail. The combination of those two factors make it highly likely that even an experienced hiker using good hiking boots will lose traction in spots and slip.
- The tread of the trail is very narrow in many places, especially when it traverses steep slopes across the trail. The tread has already broken down in at least 20 distinct places along the trail, with hikers creating a parallel path in an attempt to obtain more stable footing.
- The combination of the two problems above make it quite likely that at some point a hiker will slip and then be severely injured in a fall below the trail.
- An especially curious item is that even though the trail itself is too steep, in probably ~20 places switchbacks have been cutoff by segments that go directly up the slope. In several cases, erosion has already caused the upper part of the trail to be virtually non-existent.
I have racked my brain trying to understand why hikers would make a bad situation even worse by cutting the switchbacks. The only thing I can think of is that they considered the trail itself not much of an improvement over just going directly up the slope.
- The trail is riddled with poison oak, which has been poorly cleaned from the trail. In many places, the poison oak was only stumped to the ground within the tread of the trail, and it is now growing back directly in the trail. In many other places, the poison oak grows across the trail, making it inevitable that even a lithe hiker who attempts to maneuver around the poison oak will contact a lot of poison oak along the hike. Within a few months, unless maintenance is done, one will have to bushwhack through poison oak along this trail.
This is especially ironic, since there is essentially no poison oak on the old trail along the canyon bottom.
Even experienced hikers should bring a hiking stick to aid in the downhill sections of this trail. I was glad to have done this trail once to see the Falls, but will probably not do the trail again.
On special occasions, such as the annual Family Wilderness Day in Duarte, a small number of hikers are allowed, for a fee, to use a city shuttle through the quarry to hike the rest of the original Fish Canyon Trail. The date is 1 April in 2000. For information and reservations, call the Duarte Parks and Recreation Department at (626) 357-7931. A barbecue lunch is included in the fee. Other activities on that day include a climbing wall, arts and crafts, bird watching, nature photography lessons, and panning for gold along the river trail. (LAT 3/31/00, SGV Section, p. 6)
David Czamanske wrote on 12/10/00 that it is possible to park inside the quarry property and then carpool to the trail head (by the little bridge) by prior arrangement through Susan Avila at the Vulcan Company at (323) 474-3208. I speculate that this may be only possible on the weekends when the quarry is not working.
Ryon supplied trail conditions as of 12/13/04:
I hiked the Fish Canyon trail yesterday (12/13/04), and can report that not much has changed since your last posting. The lower portion of the "new" trail (the part that "George" evidently hiked) has been maintained, but is still too gnarly and loose for the typical family to use. The second part of the climb is an ugly bulldozer scar, straight up the slope, with only water-gullies for a foothold. I can't comment about the trail down into the canyon because the gnats drove me back. It's easy to lose your way on the return. There is no marking, and the trail wanders off in directions that you really don't want to take.
This is an unacceptable way to go, if you only want to see the falls.
Various legal decisions involving Azusa Rock:
Copyright © 1999-2004 by Tom Chester.
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Updated 24 December 2004.