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Difficulty:3B IV (v3a2 IV)
Raps:4-7, max ↨75ft
Red Tape:No permit required
5 Dec 2023
"It was a nice warm day for the hike up, but rather cool in the canyon. Combined with 50F water, and I'm glad I brought enough neoprene. The water fl
Spring; Early Summer
Eaton Canyon is one of the crown jewels of the San Gabriels in Los Angeles and the area-favorite of many. It has a lot of water for the area which transforms its many smooth granite slides into a natural water park during most of the year. The rappels are relatively straight forward and not very tall, but the watery conditions and sheer length of the whole canyon can cause many problems for groups who are not well-practiced and well-prepared. In high-flow conditions, Eaton can become a difficult class C canyon.
Eaton Canyon is often in the local news for accidents and deaths occurring primarily when non-canyoneers bypass the final few waterfalls using exposed or non-existent trails, and when groups find themselves unprepared for Eaton’s substantially larger commitment as compared to other nearby canyons.
This canyon is rated B, but in good springs this canyon becomes a class C and in good water years it can become a killer. In general, if the first pool where you start the descent is ALL whitewater, the canyon is at EXTREME levels and should be tacked only by expert canyoneers that know the canyon well.
Eaton's "flow gauge"
After years of collecting data from canyoneers and pictures of the small dam (see pictures below) just upstream of the Mt Wilson Toll Road bridge, here is how you objectively rate Eaton's waterflow: Spend a few minutes before your trip and hike to the bridge, down underneath it, and up stream to view the small dam. When all water is going the trough on the climber's left side (IE facing upstream toward the dam), the flow is "moderate". When the water is spilling into the slight depression in the middle, it's moving to high. When the water is filling that middle depression, then it's "very high". When it's all the way across, it's "extreme". When it's thick all the way across, it's "extreme plus".
What level of flow is OK to run depends greatly on the canyoneers' swift water skills, willingness to use alternate rig points (or even bypass waterfalls using the bypass trails) and the amount of sediment in the slide pools and waterfall pools. In recent years the slide pools have been so full of sediment that the hydraulics have been easy to escape, but any slide pool that's deep (over your head) becomes tricky to escape in "high" or higher flow. These slides behave like a "low head dam" with a strong recirculating current that pulls you back to the slide, especially if you are wearing backpack with any floatation in it.
Dam reference photos
The general approach profile is:
- 1800 ft of elevation gain over 3.3 miles of nearly full sun exposure
- 1.1 miles of flat or down hill through brush sometimes containing ticks
- A steep 250 ft descent to the streambed
Most groups will want to park at the three-way intersection of Midwick Dr, Roosevelt Ave, and Altadena Dr at 34° 11.054'N, 118° 6.086'W. Do not follow the signs to Eaton Canyon; they direct you to the nature center which adds unnecessary hiking to the trip. The dirt parking lot on the east side of Altadena Dr is the most common place to park, but there is also plenty of space on the west side of the street and on Midwick Dr or Roosevelt Ave. The trail leading down to the wash begins through an opening in the fence. Cross the wash using any of the many small paths and find a very large trail running parallel to the wash on the other side. At this point, look back at the other side of the wash and the profile that the trees make against the sky. If you return in the dark, it can be difficult to find the right place to cross the wash, but the trees’ silhouettes will still be visible. Follow the very large trail downstream briefly until another smaller trail branches off to the left into a gully. Take this trail and you should be on a well-established horse trail heading up hill in less than 150 ft – the horse trail is located at 34° 11.151'N, 118° 6.005'W. Follow it until it intersects with the Mount Wilson Toll Road at 34° 11.354'N, 118° 5.913'W.
Follow the toll road to Henninger Flats. At the entrance, a microwave tower is visible 2000 ft away – this is the summit of the approach. As the road enters Henninger Flats, there is a shortcut on the right just before the port-o-potties. In previous years there was a water fountain for visitors, however it looks like water is no longer available to the public. There is a T junction at the microwave tower (34° 11.824'N, 118° 5.182'W) – this is the highest point of the hike. Turn left to follow the trail downhill. At the next fork, continue downhill to the right.
The turn-off to the Telephone Trail (34° 11.884'N, 118° 5.415'W) is sometimes non-descript. It is the second partially-cleared area on the right side of the road, and you should find a much smaller trail heading in nearly the opposite direction downhill within 30 ft of the turn-off. Follow the Telephone Trail through a wooded area, across a stream, through a lot of brush that sometimes contains ticks, and along a steep hill face to a flat area on a ridge – this is Telephone Flat (34° 12' 10.9"N, 118° 5' 28.3"W). The trail continues to contour along the hill side, and after 500 to 800 ft, there will be a steep gully with a fair amount of scree in it. Skip that first gully and come to another scree-filled gully shortly after. This gully will have a tree with a prominent exposed root system on the downhill side of the trail. Just before that second gully is a faint use trail that is the least-steep descent into the canyon, however many people descend the second scree gully directly, and many people appreciate or need at least a hand line for the scree gully. After a 250 ft descent, you will reach the stream bed of Eaton Wash and the start of the canyon (34° 12' 13.96"N, 118° 5' 16.78"W).
There is an alternate approach that saves 170 ft of elevation gain on the approach and 0.4 miles on the exit at the expense of 80 ft of elevation gain on the exit. As of Nov 2017 the gate has been removed by the county/city, so early entry and or late exit are no longer any issue Because of 2020 COVID-19 issues the gate is back and always locked As of June 2021 the gate has been removed again, so entry/exit is now 24/7/365 For 2022 the gate is back with timed entry from 6:00AM to 8:00PM (as best as I can tell); you can exit anytime For summer 2023 someone glue the gate door latch so it's now open 24/7.
OLD --> The catch to this approach is that the gate is closed and locked near sunset (sometimes up to an hour before sunset), which forces either a steep climb and private property trespass to escape the canyon, or an extra 1.7 miles of hiking. Teams very confident in finishing appreciably before sunset can save some effort by starting at this point, but most teams should use the more conservative Midwick-Roosevelt-Altadena start.
The Pinecrest gate is located at 34° 11.503'N, 118° 6.331'W. There is no parking on this street on the weekends, so drive around the corner to park on Bowring Drive. Plenty of street parking is usually available within 700 ft of the gate. Start the approach by walking through the gate, which is very substantial, is topped with barbed wire, and has more than one video camera pointed at it. This gate is locked near sunset at unpredictable times. More than one group has tried to remedy this but none have yet met with success. The road the gate protects is the Mount Wilson toll road. As it bends to the right for the first time, note the smaller gully to the left (not the major gully in front of you). This is the gully you will have to climb in an emergency if the gate is locked when you return after the canyon. Doing so will cause you to trespass on private property. Continue on the toll road as it crosses the bridge and continues uphill. After a while, the horse trail from the Midwick-Roosevelt-Altadena approach will join the toll road (34° 11.354'N, 118° 5.913'W) and the approach instructions continue from the second paragraph.
Altadena Crest Trail
As of April 2020 the Midwick and Pinecrest gates are closed full time and the County of Los Angeles has implemented a reservation only access system to the county controlled Eaton Canyon Natural Area and parking lot opening at 8am and fully closed most national holidays. The Mt. Wilson Toll Road is not closed and unrestricted access is available via the Altadena Crest Trail. The nearest trailhead is on Tanoble Drive (34.195548586046755, -118.11440002577537) just north of E Loma Alta Drive It is recommended to park on Loma Alta street and walk up to the trailhead to reduce negative impacts for those neighbors now experience increased trail traffic and nuisances on their street. This approach adds about 1.25 miles on trail with 200 feet gain and 500 feet loss on the approach from the Tanoble Trailhead to the end of the trail at the bridge spanning Eaton Canyon Wash. The end of the Altadena Crest Trail (ACT) is at the foot of the driveway from the Pinecrest Gate so you have passed this trail if you have ever entered via Pinecrest.
Eaton Canyon contains a large amount of water for a San Gabriel canyon and therefore the equipment and preparation necessary is highly dependent on conditions. Between November and March, continual exposure to cold water makes a wet suit essentially mandatory, and a full 3mm wet suit usually provides an appropriate amount of protection. In September, October, April, and May, the air temperature and a team’s cold tolerance will determine whether a shorty wet suit or a full wet suit is most appropriate. In June, a shorty wet suit can sometimes be appropriate, but some people prefer no protection. During most of July and August, temperatures are hot enough for many people to go without a wet suit, though some prefer a shorty. Unseasonally hot or cold days can occasionally alter these recommendations. There is usually a patch of sun just after the second rappel to warm up in.
Most of the time, Eaton Canyon is a class B canyon requiring some swimming and the possibility of swimming disconnects. But occasionally, higher flows can change it to a much more difficult class C canyon. Even moderate flows result in a large amount of water force on the second to last rappel. If there is any question as to whether Eaton may be flowing more than usual, have a team member hike 30 minutes up canyon from the Pinecrest gate to check the flow rate of the final rappel. Since the last rappel is a popular day hike, you can also attempt to gauge the previous day's flow from social media.
The Station Fire of 2009 substantially changed the character of Eaton Canyon and filled in many previously-jumpable locations. Make sure to have at least one team member check water depth before jumping, even if some team members have experience with the canyon prior to 2011. The second to last waterfall, which people have traditionally used as a slide, is still fairly shallow. As of July 2020 this pool is only waist deep.
While none of the 5-9 waterfall drops themselves are taller than about 35 ft, the rappels can be up to 80 ft because some anchors are set back from the rappels. Most of the rappels have good natural anchors nearby, but may need to be re-rigged with webbing and a quick link, and some anchors are in the watercourse. The final rappel has a 2-bolt anchor and the webbing may be missing because it is a popular location for non-canyoneers to climb up to. Some rappels have single-bolt anchors, but more appropriate natural anchors can be found nearby.
The technical canyon is divided into three major sections: beginning water park, long beautiful creek walk amongst water polished granite boulders, and final technical section. Once down the first slide in the beginning water park, escape is very difficult. But, there are bypass routes around the second to last and last waterfalls if necessary. The second to last waterfall is characterized by a long slide that empties into a long drop to a pool below. The top of the rappel usually overlooks a large amount of graffiti. To bypass this rappel, simply climb 10 ft up RDC about 20 ft back from the drop – this should be easy class 3 climbing. A prominent trail parallels the stream and then switches back to end a few hundred feet downstream of the waterfall. The last waterfall has a well-traveled trail that departs RDC about 200 ft before the waterfall. This bypass trail is one of the leading causes of accidents in Eaton Canyon and should be approached carefully. It involves very exposed class 3 climbing, and some moderate-difficult class 4 moves that may or may not have the assistance of fixed hand lines. Attempting this trail in the dark for the first time is not recommended.
The final rappel ends at a popular hiking destination and it is likely there will be a sizeable audience on summer weekends if you finish before dark. Hike 0.5 miles on a popular trail until you reach a large bridge. Find the large trail LDC downstream of the bridge and follow it 0.7 miles to the point at which you crossed the wash to begin the trip. If it is dark, look for the tree line silhouette you observed before starting the horse trail.
If you started from the Pinecrest gate, climb up to the bridge either RDC upstream of the bridge or LDC downstream of the bridge and hike back to the gate. If it is locked and it is an emergency, find the small gully you observed at the beginning of the trip and climb up it. Otherwise, go back across the bridge and take the large trail that heads downhill from the bridge parallel to the wash for 0.7 miles. Cross the wash to find the beginning of a path (34° 11.122'N, 118° 6.125'W) that climbs the steep bank to Altadena Dr. Walk north on Altadena Dr, then turn right on Crescent Dr, then Pinecrest Dr and you will arrive at the Pinecrest gate 1.7 miles from the other side of the gate.
In a non-emergency, the Sheriff can be called to unlock the Pinecrest gate if it is locked. The phone number is posted on a sign to the left of the big gate. Expect to wait 30 - 45 minutes.
As of 6 June 2020, a timed reservation is required to enter the Los Angeles County Eaton Canyon Natural Area, and entry is only allowed from the visitor center. Both the Pinecrest gate and Midwick-Altadena-Roosevelt entrance are closed with signs and, on Saturday 20 June 2020, had people parked by them enforcing the closure. The timed reservations must be obtained no later than the day before and can be full substantially in advance. Hiking from the visitor center adds 0.8 miles compared to the Midwick-Altadena-Roosevelt entrance. As of June 2021, this reservation system is no more, but entering from the Eaton Canyon Park does have hours.
Most of the canyon is in the Angeles National Forest with few restrictions (in normal times), but it begins and ends within Pasadena’s Eaton Canyon Park which may, in the future, create more rules. The Pinecrest gate is a local political issue and is currently locked before or near sunset, and not unlocked at a reliable time in the morning. See the Altadena Crest Trail approach above for a route description that bypasses LA County's Eaton Canyon Natural Area entirely.
Probably primarily due to the tremendous popularity of the day hike to the last waterfall (“first” or “the” waterfall to non-canyoneers), Eaton Canyon is the site of a very large share of rescues and fatalities in the area. Multiple canyoneering groups have also been search and rescue targets. Because of this, many people in the area want to impose restrictions on the canyon. Please avoid making this situation worse – you can do this by ensuring you are well-prepared (skills and gear), have an overnight bivy plan, and that anyone who might be worried about you not coming back knows this plan and will not call the police first thing in the morning (or the previous night).
There are large amounts of graffiti at the bottom section along with large amounts of trash from the locals who hike up. It helps to bring out 1 to 2 trash bags when visiting to help clean up the canyon.
There was a permit process in place at least from 2015 on but when applying for a permit on Sept. 6, 2017 Dennis Merkel from the Forest Service stated: "The Eaton Canyon Closure Order expired and the Forest Service did not renew it. There is no need for a permit anymore."
Chris Brennen is the father of San Gabriel canyoneering, but some of his description is somewhat out of date. Also, 8 hours is a more aggressive time estimate than most of his other canyons. Even if you feel that Brennen overestimates the time required on other canyons (especially Rubio Canyon and Little Santa Anita Canyon), do not apply the same discount to this estimate.
- Alpine Training Services
- BluuGnome.com : Eaton Canyon (lower)
- Discussion of water conditions
- CanyonChronicles.com : Eaton Canyon
- CanyonCollective.com : Eaton Canyon