Thursday, July 14

East Fork Group Thru Hike - San Gabriel Mts


It's really simple. The East Fork of the San Gabriel River is gorgeous. From its birth in the high reaching pines, to it's chaparral covered terminus with the West Fork, Mother Nature has sculpted a truly unique place. Guarded by 8,000 foot peaks & miles of wilderness. Over time, as humans do, we were dawn to such a place. Originally this watershed was used for Native American hunting & early trade routes, though eventually relenting to extensive gold mining & western civilization. Now there is a mix of both days gone past & new generations using this gorgeous canyon as an escape from the Los Angeles megalopolis.

Many years ago, three other friends & completed this trip through the East Fork, from Vincent Gap (6,585ft), down Mine Gulch, past Fish Fork, past Iron Fork, through the Narrows, over the Bridge To Nowhere & out to Heaton Flat (2,000ft). Over the years everyone talked of it's beauty & how several other friends hadn't enjoyed some of the more remote sections. That is how we came to assemble enough people to fit into an airport shuttle & head off into the night on Friday one eve in Spring. 

To complete the East Fork thru hike it requires a car shuttle with about two hours different people the two places. Not fun in the dawn hours of the morning, so we left two cars at Heaton Flat and hired a true shuttle to take all of us up to Vincent Gap. Piling out of the van a bit before midnight on Friday at higher elevation was a brisk wake up call. In the clouds & the rushing wind, we shouldered our packs, took an awesome group photo & all started out for our first camp of the night... Arizona fugitive, Tom Vincent's cabin.

Hammocks were strung, a tent or two were set up & a round of libations was enjoyed at the cabin, only about a fifteen minute walk from the parking lot, hidden nicely on Baden-Powell's eastern slopes. After killing two (three?) fellow gold miners in Arizona, alias Tom Vincent, made his home high in the San Gabriels for thirty years. He discovered what became the most lucrative gold mine, locally known as the Big Horn Mine. Our mission was more tame, get some sleep & meet three other people that would be joining our party Saturday morning, before we head into the East Fork proper.

Once we rallied everyone, we now totaled fourteen people strong! This was the biggest group I had ever backpacked with on such a demanding trip. It was sure to be memorable. We headed further down into Vincent Gulch, finding the mid century Cessna plane crash site closer to the bottom of the canyon. An interesting resting point. We ran into a large group of hikers cleaning the trail from bottom to top & were outstanding patrons for our local mountains. 

Getting some trail behind us now we crossed over the massive rock field that is at the bottom of Mine Gulch, the main feeder of gold into the East Fork (a favorite part of mine).

As the canyon twists and turns there is no trail now. Each person is free to choose their own path over the wide river bed. At times is is crucial to cross the river to travel much easier on the other side. Other moments the canyon floor is the size of a football field. Many of us are fond of gazing up to Iron Mountain's peak. A particularly difficult hike that most avid locals love to check off their list

Once we had reached the base of Iron Mountain the canyon tightens up a bit & there is a choice, to bushwack on the sides or go straight in the river & walk the easy wet path with now trees blocking. Everyone took their own approach. After some more time spent weaving in & out of the tightly beautiful Alder trees we came upon Fish Fork feeding into the East Fork. This is how you know you have come to one of the most wonderful & remote backcountry camps in all the San Gabriels, 8 or so miles from Vincent Gap. 

The usual camp chores began to happen, but on steroids. Sharing this small historical camp with fourteen people meant a party no matter what. As the sun faded behind the canyon walls each hiker took their bed time perch at various moments of the night. Light laughter was carried away with the embers snapping in the hundred year old fire pit.

The next day we all took to hiking in the water purely because it was much easier to avoid the dense trees on both sides. Each bend in the canyon revealed smooth, time sculpted walls of rock. I wondered how many Native Americans & gold miners have walked this same path. One of our friends knew how to find Iron Fork camp, so we opted for a side trip up the canyon mouth to relish a bit more San Gabriel history.

Continuing on we finally reach the Narrows of the East Fork. Though not a tight slot, the enormous canyon walls tower far overhead, while rolling rock & sand beckon us to explore. Pausing several times to take photos & truly just gawk. Each turn of the canyon reveals more tranquil beautiful  majesty.

With one sharp right turn the Bridge to Nowhere is insight. A backcountry monstrosity that has been abandoned long ago by a futile effort to build an escape route out of Los Angeles per a natural disaster. After a nice rest in the shade, we took a vote to take a different route home. Hopefully we would get to visit the Horseshoe Mine & search out a hidden unmarked water.

After some navigation & more off trail travel our amigo lead us right to the open tunnel for the Horseshoe Mine, leading deep into the Earth. Always an exciting time wandering through the dark with our headlamps, dreading to ever work in such a cramped space.

Down canyon a bit further we dropped our packs where a very small outlet feeder stream merged with the East Fork. Diving into the dense brush we found a very faint spur trail that led us to extremely odd cabin ruins built into the mountain side, then further to the base of one of the most awe-inspiring waterfalls I've been to in our local mountains.


Needless to say we all spent a ton of time shooting photos & crawling up the outer flanks of the falls to see what else could be discovered. Back down at the creek merger, our packs lay waiting. The last four miles wasn't going to hike itself... so we set off.

Through the immensely wide lower portions of the East Fork we dodge all over the place working on finding the best route. Eventually we crossed the proper Bridge To Nowhere trail (hugely popular!) & were on our way to the cars. 

Not with one last stop at another gold mine though. Near the forest service amenities, close to Heaton Flat, there is a very hidden path that leads about two hundred feet up to crumbling stone ruins & a very deep curving gold mine named after the owner, Billy Heaton.

After sufficiently deciding we'd seen all the local mountain history we could handle we hiked the last quarter mile to the cars wearing huge smiles & slapping high fives in the Heaton Flat parking lot... ready to explore a beer & extra large pizza.

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