Wednesday, June 18

Thru Hike East Fork San Gabriel River


- We have since repeated this hike more recently -

More often than not when people think of hiking, an uphill struggle usually follows next in the thought process. The goal is usually a summit. A peak. Any peak. Often forgotten are the snaking twisted roots of the eroded & crumbling massif that make up a great peak. On this adventure we opt for the deep sinuous East Fork gorge that cuts directly though the Sheep Mountain Wilderness below three fantastic peaks.


This portion of the San Gabriel River is a storied place. Many people sought fortunes in it's river beds & canyon walls in the form of precious gold. Still to this day, gold panners have claims set up in the lower reaches of this chasm. Large ancient mines cling to the upper hillside, beckoning exploration & the thought of riches. We explored 1800's fugitive dwellings, 60's era plane crashes, smooth canyon narrows & an over 50 year old concrete bridge to nowhere.



Thursday after the Los Angeles traffic died, two of us drove our cars out to Heaton Flat to stage one for our finish on Sunday. If you're going to do this hike right, don't try to set up the car shuttle the morning of, it will make for a long first day & possibly poor camp selection. Friday comes & I ride my bike to work & back b/c my car is in the mountains. Gear packed all five of us squeeze in to our dear friends sedan & speed off into the night. 


We arrive at Vincent Gap to a large semi empty parking lot. There were actually people camping right next to the restrooms?! It was about 11pm & our easiest goal of the trip was to sleep on the Big Horn Mine Fire Road to get a early start on Saturday morning, about ten minutes away. With a thousand Thank Yous said, our ride departed into the night leaving us with a fantastic view of Mt. Baldy silhouetted by the night sky.




Morning comes & we pack up before the ever popular Baden Powell trail gets any people. Taking the junction that leads from the dirt road, down left into Vincent Gulch. The upper reaches of this trail are wonderful. This is the second time I have hiked this portion & always love the transition the trees & plants make the further you travel down. Great succulents if you pay close attention.




We made a side trip to Tom Vincent's cabin that is hidden off trail in the upper portions of Vincent Gulch. Short history, Tom Vincent (alias) was a gold miner from Arizona in the late 1800's that caught & killed three men jumping his claim. This necessitated a quick leave to California where he made the San Gabriels his home for thirty years, discovering the location that would become the Big Horn Gold Mine & to this day many mountain locations carry his name (alias).


After leaving the cabin we traveled four miles down Vincent Gulch to the point where we meet the East Fork river. Just before we enter the canyon proper, a detour is required to see the 1964 Cessna plane crash. This is about the extent I know of the site, but cool to see none the less. There is a fantastic camp just as Mine Gulch & Vincent Gulch come together on the northern banks. Great shade, a metal stove of sorts & water close by. However, this is where the real trail ends & I have made the walk back up Vincent Gulch, not nearly as fun as downhill. I was glad to be continuing on down the East Fork.

| Mt. Baden Powell, Big Horn Mine up high in the upper right corner |
There are cairns (ducks) marking some sections here & there, but no one particular route was going to win over another. The best approach for the upper several miles of the canyon is to move from open rock bank to the other as the canyon walls twist & turn. There was always a ton of open space to explore as the four of us sauntered along. 


After a few more miles, we would do 9.5 miles this day, we caught glimpses of our old nemesis Iron Mountain. Banter of last years hike was kicked up & all were in agreement that it was one bad ass mountain that had helped form this amazing labyrinth we were now exploring far below it's peak. The rocky walls grew taller, their age shown through the smoothed & coarse transition. It was amazing to stand there, imagining the East Fork a ten foot deep raging torrent.


With no exact measuring, I'd say around the seven or so mile mark, much before the Fish Canyon confluence, the walls become immense, towing hundreds of feet over our heads. I had read that this was the deepest canyon in all of Southern California. Yeah or nay, this place was magical. We took to some heavy bushwhacking sections, but nothing that really slowed much progress. Alder Trees grew all over the river, glowing bright green in the afternoon sun.


With a few checks of the map we were growing closer to the camp at the confluence of Fish Canyon & the East Fork. Simple enough to find, when you see water spilling out from another direction you're there. We had no idea of the heaven that awaited though. On the upper western bank there was one of the most idealic backcountry camps I've been to in the San Gabriels yet. Like I had mentioned, this canyon has been a place of much history, I can only imagine the nights spent here by others. You will have to work hard yourself to get a glimpse of this camp & make this paradise home for a night.


The dulcet mood of the camp overwhelmed us all with a slow start to the last day. We had eight miles left & some of the most drooled over sections of our topo maps. We were getting to The Narrows! In the lower reaches of the canyon we took to walking directly in the water. It was easy to keep cool & really was enjoyable, keep in mind the canyon over the peak discussion from the beginning. Throughout this trip we would drop our packs at a fine pool, jump in & then just keep on moving. Absolutely spectacular.


Turing a bend in the river there is a significant change in rock landscape that is the transition into the Narrows proper. Smooth dark rock line all sections of the riverbed, worn in all directions. There is even an anvil placed on a rock from an era gone by. Cameras are firing off while we take in all the sites & sounds of this wonderful place.


Each little bend reveals a different look to the landscape, the colors of the rocks shift, being eroded in a much more block like form than just a quarter mile up river. We made lunch part way down through this section, on a sandy beach with all our wet stuff laying out. At this time an intrepid group of adults came by us that was doing the same hike, but in one day. We congratulated them, but they agreed they couldn't take in all the beauty at their pace. Hell, they never even jumped in any of the hundreds of swimming pools we'd passed.


Shouldering our packs we had one more historical site to see on our way out of the canyon. In the late 1930's there was plan to build a highway through the East Fork up to Angeles Crest Highway. Construction began, but in March of 1938 a massive flood washed away the few miles of road that had been built, leaving an arching concrete bridge in the middle of the San Gabriel Mts, dubbed the Bridge To Nowhere.


From the Bridge there is five miles of trail to the parking lot. Thus, the Bridge to Nowhere is one of LA's most popular hikes from Heaton Flat. I told myself long ago, if I was ever going to see this Bridge, it was going to be the hard way. I had no desire to walk with hundreds of others to this monstrosity. It felt good to round that bend, see the bridge & a take nice flying leap into one of the many pools around it's base. Sure enough tons of people were there & we hightailed it up the canyon side & back on the first trail since the morning before.



The last five miles went quite smooth. The trail is easy to follow & allowed us to make much better time than the rock strew river bed. The only event to speak of after the bridge was seeing Swan Rock. Really a neat formation high on the upper reaches of a canyon wall. Once the Iron Mt trailhead was insight we knew our hike was just about done. Around another corner or two & Heaton Flat parking lot came into sight. Only two questions came up after that, where to go for beer & what was the next adventure?


| Swan Rock |

The East Fork was a top of the list type of adventure. I'm sure in time it will be repeated & a whole new hike will be experienced. My best advice is to set up the shuttle early, stay to the banks in the upper sections crossing back & forth. On the last day walk directly in the water for the pure fun, jump off some rocks into the pools, live it up. Your shoes & other stuff will dry during the five miles of open canyon after the bridge.

- We have since repeated this hike more recently -

 
| Bridge to Nowhere |

1 comment:

Enrique Freeque said...

Awesome trip report & great pics! I've hiked myself to the Narrows from Heaton Flat, and from Vincent Gap down the Mine Gulch Trail and then up another trail to the road's end at Cabin Flat Campground, but the remote interior of the East Fork, in between the Narrows and the Mine Gulch confluence, has remained a mystery to me. Thanks again for the great trip report.