Switzer Falls was one waterfall that kind of became an exercise in frustration when it came to satisfactory experiences. You see, we've typically seen this waterfall in low flow (or nearly dry), and even when we did see this waterfall flow fairly well, we never really got to see all of it. Even though this waterfall was really a series of several drops (consisting of an upper waterfall that was some 10ft tall, a main drop that was probably around 50ft tall or 70ft tall if you count the cascades directly above it, and a lower waterfall that consisted of a pair of sloping drops with a total height of some 25-30ft combined), we were only able to experience just that lower waterfall considering it was the only one of them that didn't require risk to life and limb so long as we remained on the main trail. Over the years, we'd wind up visiting only that lower waterfall time and again, and it wasn't until a recent visit in 2016 did I finally learn how you can get to the bottom of the main waterfall. That main waterfall, by the way, would always tease us as it merely revealed bits of itself from the main trail, but such views would also become more and more overgrown and less available as time went on. So I'll get right into the manner in which I completed the Switzer Falls experience on that most recent visit.
We began from the well-established Switzer Falls Picnic Area, which had its own dedicated car park (see directions below) right besides a pretty large picnic area that always seemed to be busy with weekenders. This picnic area was mostly in the shade and it was adjacent to Arroyo Seco (the stream that would ultimately be responsible for the waterfall further downstream; it means "Dry Creek" in Spanish). We would then cross over the bridge traversing that stream, and it would turn out that that bridge would be the only bridged stream crossing throughout the hike. Beyond the bridge, we passed by another serene picnic area besides the stream as well as a last-chance toilet facility. From this point on, we had to hike roughly 1.8 miles or so to reach the bottommost of the Switzer Falls.
The hike was mostly flat as the trail pretty much flanked one side of Arroyo Seco, which added to the tranquil atmosphere. The shade from the tall trees around us were also very welcome as it kept the hike relatively cool while minimizing UV exposure. Meanwhile, the trail would cross the creek numerous times (I had lost count, but it wouldn't surprise me if there were at least a half-dozen of them; most of them pretty easy), and thanks to our Gore-tex boots, we didn't have too much difficulty keeping our socks dry for each of these stream crossings. That said, when we did this trail during a wet year in 2010, each of these stream crossings were trickier to get across, but when the streams were lower in each of our other visits, the stream crossings were quite trivial.
At around 30 minutes from the trailhead, we encountered a trail junction near some old stove relics that appeared to have belonged to the US Forest Service from a bygone era. We weren't sure what the full story was behind why we could see such stoves here, but we turned right at this junction to cross the creek, then ascend a few switchbacks as the trail became much narrower with some dropoff exposure. I'll describe the trail on the left fork of this junction later in this write-up, especially since we've noticed many people have mistakenly taken that trail thinking it was the way to best experience Switzer Falls.
While on this climbing part of the trail, it immediately narrowed as cliff exposure became more prevalent. As the trail skirted the very steep canyon walls, there were chain-linked fences on the drop-off side to minimize the temptation of trying to scramble down these cliffs for a closer view of the main drop of Switzer Falls. Speaking of that main drop, we used to be able to catch a glimpse of the pool immediately above the main drop as well as the main drop itself, but as the overgrowth became more severe as time went on, such a view of this main drop of Switzer Falls became less apparent. The trail would continue skirting alongside the cliffs before reaching a trail junction just as the scenery opened up to reveal the pretty canyon below (which turned out to be Bear Canyon) as well as the mountains rising above it.
At this scenic trail junction, we then kept left, which now descended towards the canyon below while still having some mild cliff exposure. In addition to the dropoff exposure, we also encountered a few patches of overgrowth (especially in the Spring), where it appeared like poison ivy contact was almost inevitable. After another 10-15 minutes of this descent, we'd eventually drop into the shady confines of the canyon, where we would hit yet another trail junction adjacent to Arroyo Seco. At this point, a sign pointed to the left for the falls, and this was the way we went for the remainder of the main trail. Going right at this junction would lead further downstream towards Bear Canyon, where we've heard there were swimming holes (though I'm sure this was dependent on the conditions), but we never went down there so we can't comment more on it.
As we hiked further upstream alongside Arroyo Seco, the relatively flat trail was pretty straightforward as we'd ultimately arrive at the two-tiered drop for what I'm dubbing the Lower Switzer Falls. As far as the official trail went, this waterfall was the end of the line, even though this wasn't the main part. In order to continue further upstream to get to the base of the main waterfall, I had noticed on our most recent visit that there were people who managed to scramble alongside a very steep and narrow use-trail along the canyon wall to the right side of Arroyo Seco. Given the nature of this scramble, I realized that I had to use all my agility as well as experience to figure out how best to place my feet, especially on the sloping slippery rocks right above the Lower Switzer Falls. Indeed, this scramble reminded me very much of the kind of danger involved in going above the first drop of the Kaaterskill Falls, which would routinely result in people falling to their deaths. With such risks, I knew I really had to know what I was doing, and given the risk that I was assuming in order to continue onwards, I left my wife and daughter at the lower waterfall while I solo'ed this scramble.
Once I managed to get past the dicey parts of this scramble just above the uppermost tier of the Lower Switzer Falls, the stream scramble then pretty much became a fairly easy flat and shady hike in what appeared to be a far less-used path (obviously the danger from the dicey scramble to get past the lower waterfall was enough of a deterrent for most visitors). That said, even hiking in this seemingly benign yet tranquil slot-like canyon (as it was flanked by nearly sheer vertical walls) did have a few sections of fallen trees and rocks, which underscored the inherent landslide danger from such steep walls as well as the flash flood danger when thunderstorms would threaten. After about 5-10 minutes of this stream scramble, I'd ultimately get around the right side of a log jam before the trail would dead-end right at the base of the 50ft drop of the main tier of Switzer Falls (where another 20ft or so was due to a cascade right above it).
This nearly cathedral-like dead-end had sheer vertical walls on three sides so any further progress was probably reserved for mountain goats. During my visit, there were instances of pebbles tumbling down the steep canyon walls and eventually crashing to the ground, which further reminded me of the inherent danger of just being here. I would have this part of the waterfall to myself before another group of young hikers made it up to here, and when it got to around 6-8 people, that was when I headed back down. So clearly, making it up to this part of Switzer Falls wasn't as secluded as I would've thought, but it was clearly far quieter than the much busier bottom of the Lower Switzer Falls.
On the return, it seemed like getting back across the dicey scramble besides the Lower Switzer Falls was a little more difficult because the scramble was somewhat downslope before getting onto the narrow ledge leading to the sloping use-trail leading back down to the base of the canyon. Once I rejoined the wife and daughter, we then spent about 30 minutes or so getting back up to the scenic trail junction at the apex of the overall hike. Since this part of the hike was mostly uphill and exposed to the warm sun, this was easily the most strenuous part of the trail. When we got up to the apex, the hiking was pretty much downhill as we returned back to the old stoves at the very first trail junction.
Before heading left and going back to the picnic area, I went right just to see where that trail would ultimately take me. That trail at first was pretty obvious as it would go past a graffiti-laden sign warning that the path beyond this point was unmaintained. And sure enough, after a short drop back into the Arroyo Seco, a short distance further downstream, the trail then choked off as it would encounter rocks flanking what appeared to be the 10ft Upper Switzer Falls. I was able to carefully scramble around this small waterfall then back down towards the stream in order to get a more frontal look at the falls, but I was also able to scramble higher up the rocks for a top down look at the main Switzer Falls drop. Of course knowing that the canyon walls down there were sheer vertical drops, this was the end of the line for the Upper Falls Trail.
Overall, the hike I did to take in the complete experience of getting in front of all of Switzer Falls' drops was probably on the order of over 4.6 miles round trip according to my GPS logs (taking me around 3.5 hours though some of the slow pace included being patient with letting our daughter figure out how best to get across each of the stream crossings). The official trail leading to just the Lower Switzer Falls and back was probably more on the order of 3.6 miles round trip (though we've seen claims that the trail was as little as 2.5 miles round trip, which seemed a bit short considering my GPS logs corroborated the 3.6-mile out-and-back distance), and it would typically take us between 2-3 hours total, including rest breaks and enjoying the lower falls itself.
Note that the scenic rating and difficulty ratings for this waterfall assumed the complete experience of getting to the base of the main Switzer Falls. Had we settled for just the main trail to the Lower Switzer Falls and back (like we'd been doing over the first 15+ years of experiencing this falls), then we would have reverted back to a scenic rating of 1.5 and a difficulty rating of 2.5.
This was the gorgeous canyon scenery at the crest of the Switzer Falls Trail (or Gabrielino Trail)
Switzer Falls was not far from the happening city of Pasadena, which had a pretty active nightlife, an attractive old town, and this very interesting City Hall building
This was the Lower Switzer Falls in high flow as seen during the Spring of 2010, which turned out to be a very wet year, especially by Southern California standards
Full context of the main drop of Switzer Falls with some people who managed to join me and spent some time making yoga poses in front of the falls. Unseen was the upper cascades right above drop
The car park at the Switzer Falls Picnic Area
It was pretty busy at the picnic area, which seemed to be a nice place to spend time with loved ones while being in the great outdoors
Crossing over the footbridge to begin the hike
Most of the beginning of the hike meandered alongside Arroyo Seco while being under the canopy of trees providing some nice shade
Julie tries to keep her feet dry on this stream crossing, which was one of a handful of them when we visited during a wet year
The trail meanders alongside the creek for a bit
Julie surveys another stream crossing to see how best to keep her feet dry
Tahia surveying how best to cross the stream when the water was far lower in 2016 than the wetter conditions from back in 2010
These stoves seemed to hint at some history of use, but more importantly, they served as a marker for when to turn right at the trail junction to continue hiking towards the base of the waterfalls
Julie and Tahia doing another creek crossing shortly after the stoves as the trail was soon about to get narrow and uphill
Now, the trail was narrow enough to start causing some cliff exposure, which made us more cautious about our dauthter's progress
Some sections of the trail had chain-linked fences to prevent the temptation to scramble down the nearly vertical cliffs for a better look at the main drop of the falls
Top down view of the upper falls (what's left of it) during a dry winter in February 2003.
Top down angled view of the main Switzer Falls through a small opening in the foliage. Over the years, this view would become more obstructed.
Some parts of the trail also had a bit of overgrowth, which made us concerned about poison oak exposure
This was Julie and Tahia at the scenic trail junction at the crest of the trail. It was quite beautiful up here, but we also had to remember to keep to the left as we were now going mostly downhill from here
This downhill section leading from the apex to the creek deep in the canyon below was quite scenic the whole way
This downhill stretch of trail did have some cliff exposure, which instilled a healthy sense of fear of heights for our daughter
Turning left at the trail junction at the bottom of the descent to follow Arroyo Seco upstream towards the lowermost of the waterfalls
Julie's now hiking and scrambling upstream towards the base of the lower waterfall in high water in 2010
We noticed this old piece of machinery by the creek. We're not sure if it has historical significance or if someone just left it here.
Julie and Tahia hiking alongside Arroyo Seco as we made our way upstream to the waterfalls
Direct look at the Lower Switzer Falls. Notice the person to the top right making the scramble to come back from the area upstream of this waterfall
Another look at the lower drop of Switzer Falls in high flow in 2010. That log was no longer there when we returned six years later.
Looking back at some people scrambling on a trail-of-use to get past the Lower Switzer Falls. This made me aware that it was possible in addition to making me aware of the trail's whereabouts to continue
After climbing up the initial trail of use and tree roots, I then encountered this narrow ledge towards the top of the lower waterfall
Looking towards some folks at perhaps the diciest part of the scramble, where a slip and fall here could be real nasty
Stream scrambling above the lower falls. The presence of fallen trees and piles of rocks from rockslides made me keenly aware of how dangerous this area can be
I had to scramble to the right of this log jam obstacle before finally reaching the ultimate goal of this hike
Finally at the base of the main drop of Switzer Falls. I had this spot to myself for a good ten minutes before a group of young people joined me
Looking back at the main waterfall from a different perspective
Context of the dead-end before the main waterfall with a group of folks now getting to enjoy their reward after taking the risk to get here
Even in a place as seemingly secluded and forbidden as this, there were still relics from the past left here
At the base of the lower Switzer Falls when it wasn't flowing very well back in Feb 2003.
Last look at the lower waterfalls as we were about to make the hike back up
Starting the most strenuous part of the hike as we were ascending back up to the scenic trail junction at the very top of the cliffs
Even on the uphill climb, it was scenic looking back at the canyon in the direction of Switzer Falls
Julie and Tahia carefully negotiating the narrow parts of the main trail on the ascent
Finally to satisfy my curiosity about the trail to the left of the junction by the old stoves, I decided to check out what was at its end, and along the way, I encountered this graffiti-laced sign
This was where the trail-of-use ended and I stream scrambled downstream, where another couple ahead of me was also headed in the same direction
This was the Upper Switzer Falls, which was pretty tiny and probably unsatisfactory for those who mistakenly went this way thinking the hike was better than this
Looking down over the brink of the main waterfall. Clearly there was no way down directly from this point (at least not if you want to live)
Back at the serene creekside picnic area near the trailhead
You can drive to the car park at the Switzer Picnic Area off Hwy 2 (Angeles Crest Highway) barely a quarter-mile or so after the Clear Creek Station. The Clear Creek Station is about 9.5 miles from the Hwy 2 exit from the I-210 at La Canada-Flintridge (or 6.1 miles beyond the first Angeles Forest Station we encountered, which didn't have restrooms nor Adventure Passes for sale). This drive would typically take us on the order of around 30 minutes from Pasadena, which itself is north of downtown Los Angeles.
There was a turnoff leading steeply downhill along a narrow paved road to the Switzer Falls Picnic Area itself. The parking down there was quite limited, and we were fortunate on several occasions to have found parking down there. However, there was also spillover parking higher up on this road as well as in front of the gate at the turnoff from Hwy 2. This could add an additional half-mile or so of walking in each direction (not to mention the sun exposure on that road as well).
If you didn't purchase an Adventure Pass prior to driving up here, they do sell some at that Clear Creek Station. Unfortunately, they only accepted cash or check at that station, which appeared to be the main one for purchases passes along the Angeles Crest Highway. Usually the REI in Monrovia would also have such passes for sale if paying by credit card would be preferred over cash or check. And finally, given the close proximity of the Switzer Falls Picnic Area to the Clear Creek Station, this was another one of the places on US Forest Service lands where enforcement of the display of the Forest Service Adventure Pass was strictly enforced.
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