Fish Canyon Falls could very well be our favorite local waterfall as it placed at the top of our Top 10 Southern California Waterfalls List. Strangely enough however, it wasn't until the Spring of 2010 when we first visited this waterfall.
Basically, we found out about the falls by word-of-mouth during a backpacking trip in the Sierras in 2009. I'm sure that might sound surprising to some considering this waterfall had quite a bit of a checkered past thanks to a quarry and mining operation that has limited (and even prohibited in the past) access to the falls. So lots has been written about this controversy over the years, but somehow we were oblivious to it all. Or maybe it was because this falls wasn't in any of our local waterfall books (like Ann Marie Brown's or Chris Shaffer's) at the time.
After making a visit here in late March 2010 and mid-May 2013, we realized that the ideal time to see the waterfall would be during the late Winter and early- to mid-Spring months. We say this because there were three bits of anecdotal evidence to support this claim. First, there was a fellow that we met at the falls who said he was here in July 2009 and it was dry. Second, our late March 2010 visit seemed to feature the waterfall at its thickest (though 2010 was a wet year). Finally, our mid-May 2013 visit featured the waterfall with much lower flow than in 2010, but it was still impressive nonetheless. Add it all up and it was pretty apparent that the window of opportunity to see the falls at its best was pretty limited, especially since it wouldn't be reasonable to access the falls unless the quarry company would give their blessing to access the Fish Canyon Falls through their quarrying operation.
Fish Canyon Falls consists of a series of four waterfalls with the first three tiers dropping on top of each other as well as a loner fourth tier shortly downstream of the top three. Although we've seen in the literature claims that the falls is 80ft tall, we think if you combine all four tiers, that 80ft estimate might be a bit too pessimistic. A waterfall this tall and this picturesque is quite a rare thing in the Southern California area, and that's probably what made this waterfall stand out more so than other local ones we've seen.
Our adventure began behind the uninviting fences with "No Trespassing" signs marking the territory of Vulcan Materials, the company running the quarry operation at the foot of Fish Canyon. We learned from some of the employees that they quarry granite as raw materials for making pavement (our roads have gotta come from somewhere, right?). In other words, the more we drive, the more quarrying that's needed to create more roads or repave old ones. Now that's something to think about as the sprawling Greater Los Angeles area is predominantly a metropolis that's extremely reliant on cars given our rather pathetic public transportation system.
We managed to catch one of the earliest shuttles traversing through the quarry operation, which knocked off about 1 mile out of the 3-mile one-way hiking distance (or 2 miles out of the 6-mile return distance). The van shuttle ultimately dropped us off at the mouth of the canyon where there were fences clearly marking the boundary between the quarry and the forest. This shuttle ran frequently back-and-forth between 7am and 11am, and it was a good thing we had gotten an early start because at the end of our excursion, we'd eventually see a very long queue waiting for the shuttle to take people to the trailhead (at least that was the case on our initial visit in late March 2010)!
Once we got behind the fence and crossed a yellow bridge over Fish Creek, we found ourselves in a completely different world as we went from mountains stripped bare of vegetation to more functional forest scenery. At this point, we were finally in Fish Canyon and we were following a trail that for the most part hugged the west bank of the meandering Fish Creek.
The trail gently climbed as we noticed some nice blooming wildflowers, a few plots of cacti, and the ever-ubiquitous poison oak. Even though our early start resulted in long shadows, it didn't take long before the trail was pretty exposed to the sun. We could imagine how much hotter and overwhelming it could be if we happened to be hiking this trail well into a typical hot, sunny day in So. Cal.
We also noticed (or at least counted) four interpretive signs discussing various things about the history of Fish Canyon (from fires and floods overwhelming the earliest attempts at cabin-building here to the flora and resident wildlife in the canyon). By one of these signs, we noticed a fork that turned out to be converging with each other a short distance later. I think the brief detour had to do with some of the other old cabin sites noted by that sign.
For almost the entire hike, we encountered a fair bit of dropoff exposure along the mostly narrow trail. The trail alternated between being at or near creek level and then rising high above the creek level. On our initial visit to the falls, I didn't recall us stressing too much about the narrowness and exposure to dropoffs of the trail. However, when we brought our daughter in a baby carrier on the second go-around, we definitely had to be a lot more careful about maintaining our balance and staying on the trail. Adding to the concerns about the trail's width, the popularity of the trail meant that there were times when we either waited for people going in the opposite direction of us to squeeze by, or we would be trying to squeeze by people who waited for us.
After a stream crossing (the only one on the hike), we noticed a light-flowing waterfall leaving stains on the rock wall back on the opposite side of the stream. About another 15-20 minutes beyond this, we were finally able to see the Fish Canyon Falls. At first, we were able to see all four tiers of the impressive waterfall. But at the end of the trail, we were at the plunge pool at the base of the third tier so only the top three tiers were visible.
On our May 2013 visit, we noticed quite a few people using the fourth (bottommost) waterfall for jumping from a rocky outcrop into a deep plunge pool at its base. Given that the water was fed by a combination of snowmelt and springs higher up the canyon, it wasn't surprising that the water was quite cold despite the desert-like heat. In fact, both times we did this hike, the highs crept up above 90F. So perhaps that was why swimming and waterfall-jumping were so tempting to so many people.
Unfortunately with this hike being so close to the urban blight of LA, we did notice a bit of graffiti around the falls as well as the viewing area on our first visit in 2010. At the time, there wasn't an overwhelming amount of spraypainted rocks, and on our 2013 visit, those graffiti spots weren't there.
After getting our fill of the falls, we headed back the way we came. On our 2010 visit, we noticed several groups of hikers going the other way throughout the return hike. When we got back to the trailhead, there were already hordes of people either just dropped off by the shuttle or waiting for the next van to take them back to the car park. Then, when we arrived at the car park, that was when we saw the long lines waiting for the van shuttle to take them up to the trailhead in the 90F heat. Even in our 2013 visit when we didn't see as many people, the hike was still popular and the heat was even more stifling than before. So the moral of the story? It's like my Mom says, "The early bird gets the worm."
Directions: To get to the Vulcan Materials shuttle and car park, you'll need to drive towards the junction of the I-210 and I-605 Freeways in the city of Duarte (near Irwindale).
If you're headed east on the I-210, you'll want to exit the Mount Olive exit then turn right onto Huntington Drive.
If you're headed west on the I-210, you'll want to exit Irwindale Ave., head north, then turn left at Huntington Drive.
Finally, if you're headed north on the I-605, you'll want to take the 2nd lane to the left towards the Huntington Drive exit just before the freeway junctions with the I-210 West. Then, exit at Huntington Drive.
Once on Huntington Drive, you'll be driving towards Encanto Parkway (between Mount Olive Dr. and Irwindale Ave.). Head north on Encanto Parkway to its end (going past the Encanto Park Museum as well as an Equestrian Center and dirt road that you don't take) where you'll be passing through the forbidding fence marking the Vulcan Materials boundary and entering a very large car park area. The van shuttle and register area is besides the car park.
Vulcan Materials only allows access to Fish Canyon Falls on specific days. Here's a link to the schedule of days they open up the facility to visitors and have shuttles running between the car park and trailhead.