Cooper Canyon Falls was a waterfall nestled deep in the San Gabriel Mountains (within the Angeles National Forest) in settings that seemed more like Sierras scenery than our local mountains for reasons we'll get into shortly. The waterfall itself was said to be 40-50ft high, and both times we came in March, its flow was well enough to allow the falls to be attractive. By the way, a Spring visit to the falls would totally depend on whether the snowpack was low enough to enable such a visit.
Speaking of which, this was one of the first waterfalls that Julie and I had visited during our early years of waterfalling. However, for one reason or another (fires, logistics, priorities, etc.), we weren't able to re-visit it again until nearly 10 years after that maiden visit. There really wasn't much we could recall from that first visit so much of what's described on this page came from our experiences in more recent visits.
The excursion began with a downhill walk on a narrow, paved road from the Angeles Crest Highway (Hwy 2) to the Buckhorn Campground (see directions below), which was closed for the season both times we came here in March. The campground looked well maintained so I'd imagine it would be a pretty popular place when it would open for the Summer Season. In any case, the initial walk from the road to the campground took us around 10 to 15 minutes.
Once we were at the campground, we started to notice signs indicating the way to the Burkhart Trail. That would be the trail we would take in order to access the waterfall. As we strolled through the campground, we noticed some tall Sequoia-like trees (redwoods?) and it made us wonder whether we were in the Sierras. We weren't sure if these trees really were redwoods or not, but if true, it probably shouldn't be all that surprising considering this trail was between 6000-7000ft above sea level. That was about the same altitude as the groves where we had seen such giant trees in Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park.
Speaking of the altitude, the air was noticeably thinner on this trail. Even though the distance was a modest four miles round trip from the Buckhorn Campground, the thinner air made the overall hike a little more challenging than normal for a local waterfall hike. Technically, we had to hike closer to 5 miles or so round trip to cover the distance from the road to the campground. Moreover, the hike was upside-down, meaning we had to descend to the waterfall, but recover all that lost elevation on the way back to the trailhead.
After going past the Buckhorn Campground and onto the Buckhart Trail, the pavement ended and we were on a narrow dirt trail that skirted a small canyon following a small creek that would eventually join the Cooper Canyon drainage. Julie noticed there was a small waterfall on this creek, which our Topo map labeled as "Falls", but we didn't bother scrambling down to creek level for a closer look.
Eventually the trail got to a point where it started to bend to our left into a shadier area where there were still snow patches due to the abundance of shade. This was also the area where the views of the mountains in the distance were expansive as the tall trees finally relented momentarily. Anyways, the trail would descend even more steeply away from the expansive views and deeper towards the Cooper Canyon drainage. The trail eventually made one switchback and started to parallel the creek responsible for the canyon.
At the bottom of the descent, we had to cross a creek, where we were able to stay dry with some nifty boulder hopping. Then, the trail briefly climbed before descending towards a trail junction with the Cooper Canyon Trail and its campground. Staying right at this junction, we proceeded for another 2 or 3 minutes as we were then above Cooper Canyon Falls.
We proceeded a short distance further as we were then faced with a steep gully fronted by a section of reinforced trail. We scrambled down below the trail and into this gully, which eventually reached an even steeper section that had a rope to hold onto to facilitate the rather tricky last section of the descent. Given that the terrain here was a little wet and slippery, the rope was helpful (albeit quite slimy and dirty where it was wet). The trick here was to descend with our backs turned to the dropoff so it would be like rapelling down the short cliff.
Note that each time Julie and I have done this hike, at least one rope was present, but I could easily envision this wouldn't always be the case. Without the rope, the descent would still be doable, but it would involve a bit more risk of falling. That said, we were really cognizant of the risk that an aged rope could also pose for if the rope snapped here, a fall and tumble could lead to pretty serious injuries.
Anyways, once we made it to the bottom, we were directly in front of Cooper Canyon Falls. Each time Julie and I have been at this waterfall, it was around midday or early afternoon. Unfortunately, that was also when we were looking somewhat against the sun. So unless the skies were overcast or enough clouds were around to block the sun, photographing the falls was a bit non-ideal.
When we were done visiting the waterfall, we still had at least two miles of uphill hiking at altitude. This was where it could be a bit taxing (especially if altitude sickness would start to set in) so my advice would be to take your time and bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. All in all, Julie and I spent nearly 3 hours away from the car, which included the time taken for taking photographs and movies.
To get to the trailhead, we had to drive on the Angeles Crest Highway (Hwy 2) from La Canada. From the Hwy 2 exit on the 210 freeway, we had to drive about 35 miles on the twisty Angeles Crest Highway. Given the twisty nature of the road (and that it's shared by motorbikers and mountain bikers alike), there was a lot of turning and swerving, which easily could cause car sickness for passengers (especially those seated in the rear).
Moreover, since you are eventually going to climb up to 6000-7000ft on the drive, it's a good idea to check the road conditions by consulting the Caltrans website (enter "2" in the query for Highway number).
After nearly an hour on the Hwy 2 (or more depending on how fast you can move on the highway or are not caught too much behind slower traffic refusing to use the pullouts), look for the Buckhorn Flat Campground. The turnoff for the campground is about 500ft past the signs for the Buckhorn Day Use Area. If the campground is closed (as it was for us each time we've done this hike), there's parking at both the Backhorn Day Use area as well as a couple of pullouts further to the east of the Buckhorn Campground turnoff. Otherwise, we saw there was space for parking within the Buckhorn Campground near sites 26-28. All parked vehicles are supposed to display a valid Forest Service Pass.
Finally, don't make the mistake that we initially made in thinking the trail starts from the Buckhorn Day Use Area. It does not. The only approach without off-trail scrambling is via the access road to the Buckhorn Campground, which ultimately leads to the Burkhart Trail.