About Bonita Falls
Bonita Falls was one of those waterfalls where you really had to look past its flaws in order to appreciate its true beauty as well as the fun from the experience of getting to it.
On one of our visits, we even managed to get a surprise visit from bighorn sheep right around the waterfall itself!
That said, most of the flaws were human-induced so there is hope for a rehabilitation of this hike if the authorities here care to implement measures striving for it.
Indeed, we got to experience both the good, the bad, and the ugly with the Bonita Falls, which we’ll share with you on this page.
As for some of the waterfall’s characteristics, it was one of the taller waterfalls in Southern California as it’s said to have a cumulative drop of some 400ft.
However, we were only able to see its final 150ft drop from its base (shown in the photo above).
Its hard-to-see upper tiers were only able to be seen from a distance nearby at a private campground turnoff.
Adding to the allure of the Bonita Falls was the adventure we had to go through.
This involved fording Lytle Creek in high flow, a rough boulder scramble in a wash, and then a little bit of some rock scrambling to get right in front of the falls.
In the Summer, we learned that the high flow of Lytle Creek made for a nice spot to play in the water, which kids really enjoyed.
So it wasn’t unusual to see many families setting up lawn chairs and easy-ups while enjoying a good time around Lytle Crek itself.
Indeed, Bonita Falls had all the makings of a waterfall that belonged on our Top 10 Best Southern California Waterfalls List if not for the urban blight and litter.
Urban Blight at Bonita Falls
The only real bummer with this falls was the presence of insane amounts of graffiti and litter all throughout the hike (which you might have guessed this already from looking at the photos on this page).
Although I’ve seen such poor displays of respect for Nature in places like Eaton Canyon Falls and Hermit Falls among others, I think this one by far took home the crown for the most trashed waterfall that we’ve been to so far in the Southland.
It’s really sad that such a beautiful place like this can degenerate into something you’d expect to see in the Hood.
However, I guess it goes to show you how fragile Nature can be, and how easy it is to ruin a good thing when you let it.
I personally hope the San Bernardino Forest Service can do something about it, but I wonder how resource-limited the National Forest Service is.
This is especially the case when it’s close enough to the foothill cities like Rancho Cucamonga.
Such proximity to developments invites urban blight to creep in and constantly put pressure on the resources necessary to enforce rules and clean up the resulting mess.
The Bonita Falls Adventure – Crossing Lytle Creek
The Bonita Falls Adventure started after parking the car in one of the pullouts in the area around the confluence of Middle Fork and South Fork of Lytle Creek (see directions below).
Once we got out of the car and scrambled down towards the banks of Lytle Creek, we then had to look for a place to cross that creek in order to access the wash on the other side.
On my first visit here, the creek had high flow that I thought it was treacherous enough to employ river crossing techniques seen in survival shows (or at least be willing to turn back if the creek was deeper than my thighs).
By river crossing techniques, I meant that I had to look for the widest part of the creek or river, unhook the waist belt of my pack, face upstream, and use a stick or trekking pole for added balance.
For added comfort, I actually crossed Lytle Creek in Keens and then changed back into hiking boots once I got past the creek crossing.
However, on a second visit four years later (in the midst of a multi-year drought throughout California), Lytle Creek was easily crossed by the whole family while staying relatively dry.
Only our daughter required a little bit of assistance to get across while remaining dry.
It even seemed like some folks placed fallen trees or logs (and even a plank) that traversed part of the creek to make the crossing easier.
Needless to say, on that second visit, there was no change of shoes necessary.
The Bonita Falls Adventure – Traversing the Bouldery Wash
Anyways, the ankle protection from hiking boots were definitely needed on this hike because the next phase of the adventure involved walking a wide and bouldery wash.
It was here that the thought of twisting an ankle did cross our minds, even though we were wearing proper footwear.
So while in the wash, we made a beeline for the south (left) wall of the South Fork of Lytle Creek.
We did this because the waterfall “trail” itself lacked any signage indicating its presence, and the south wall was the nearest wall after the creek crossing.
Thus, it served as sort of a trail guide for us since we knew that we had to leave the wash on this side at some point (roughly a half-mile or so from the creek crossing).
Without the wall serving as our trail guide, we potentially could have missed the part of the trail that left the very wide and bouldery wash and went up to the Bonita Falls.
Of course upon hugging the south wall of the wash, we experienced the mixed bag of uneven footing and some moments of relief of the trail being relatively flat.
The canyon wall also offered a good deal of shade during the Winter mornings, but less so in the Spring.
In the Summer, the shade was minimal or non-existent so it made for an even hotter hike.
That said, it turned out that there were more flatter and less rockier informal footpaths closer to the other side of the wash (closer to the campgrounds) then ultimately towards the middle of the wash.
Thus, we figured that on a first visit, hugging the south wall might be the easier thing to do even though the hiking might be slower going.
However, on the return hike, it made sense to hike in the flatter and more sun-exposed trails of use within the center or far end of the wash since we knew where we had to go in general to return to the parked car.
Anyways, once we reached the fairly easy-to-miss footpath about a half-mile from the creek crossing, we then climbed up a more conventional trail, which even passed by a reassuring sign a bit above the wash itself.
We could spot this turnoff because there were more trees and vegetation surrounding this escape from the wash, which hinted at the presence of water in this hidden canyon.
It was too bad the sign didn’t say anything and it was covered in graffiti, but that sign kind of mentally assured us that we were on the right path to Bonita Falls.
The Bonita Falls Adventure – The Final Stretch to the Waterfall’s Base
Next, we continued going uphill from that graffiti-laden sign as the trail went past more spray-painted boulders while weaving between shrubs and trees.
Then, we had to go up some more rocky climbs amidst more graffiti before regaining the trail of use essentially skirting alongside the creek responsible for Bonita Falls.
Probably after another 10 minutes or so, we were finally up the last of the rocky climbs leading us right to the base of the waterfall.
While the last 10 minutes of walking and scrambling got steeper with plenty of deadfall obstacles and slippery rocky sections, they were relatively tame enough that even our four-year-old daughter was able to do it mostly on her own.
At the base of the falls, it was possible to do a little more scrambling to get right up to the pool beneath the main tall drop of the Bonita Falls.
It seemed the intensity of the graffiti was maximized around the waterfall itself, which illustrated just how defiled this otherwise beautiful waterfall was.
That said, on one of our early-season visits, this was also the place where we saw icicles spreading out from the upper reaches of the falls while bighorn sheep were grazing high up on the cliffs nearby.
Given how steep the surrounding cliffs were, we had to be cognizant of the rockfall and icicle danger.
So we stayed as far away from the cliff walls as we could, and we didn’t linger longer than we needed to.
In fact, the bighorn sheep we saw were inadvertently kicking down rocks, which rapidly tumbled to the base of the falls.
Getting hit by one of these rocks would definitely cause injury, and it just illustrated the inherent dangers of a place as beautiful as this.
In addition to the falls (and the sheep), I also made a steep scramble up the south side of the canyon up to where there was a trio of tiny caves as well as the possibility of glimpsing the Bonita Falls’ main drop rising above the foliage.
I found this scramble before the final dead-end containing the waterfall itself.
Regardless, I only managed to scramble up to two of the three caves as the third cave involved scrambling onto a ledge, and it didn’t appear safe to do any further scrambling in pursuit of Bonita Falls’ upper tiers.
The view of Bonita Falls from this elevated vantage point made me realize that its main drop might be more like 150ft instead of the 90ft that I had originally thought.
That said, like the rest of this side canyon, these caves were also loaded with graffiti, and I even noticed toilet paper soiled with poop left right in front of one of the caves.
Clearly, wilderness ethics were not being adhered to here, and it kind of demonstrated the lack of respect and neglect that this place sees as a result.
Anyways, it took me roughly 30 to 45 minutes in each direction to cover the roughly 1.5- to 2-mile return hike and scramble.
When Julie, Tahia, and I did this hike as a family in 2015, we spent roughly 2.5 hours away from the car (a bit longer than the 90 minutes I had spent when I did this hike solo four years prior).
Finally, on our Summer visit in June 2020 when Bonita Falls was as busy as we had ever seen it, we spent 3 hours away from the car, which included the increased hiking due to parking as well as some play time in Lytle Creek and Bonita Falls.
Bonita Falls resides in the San Bernardino National Forest near Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.
We’ll describe how we drove to Bonita Falls from the Los Angeles basin.
We started by driving east on any of the eastbound Freeways (e.g. the 10 Freeway, 60 Freeway, or the 91 Freeway) until it reaches the I-15 going north (kind of like how we would be driving to Vegas).
However, as we drove along the I-15 just north of the 210 freeway near Rancho Cucamonga, we took the Sierra Ave exit then turned left to go deeper into the mountains.
Eventually, Sierra Ave became Lytle Creek Road.
We continued taking Lytle Creek Road for a little over 6 miles from the I-15.
Once we’ve gone past the Lytle Creek Ranger Station (where we can also buy Forest Adventure Passes), we then started looking for a pullout (not signposted) with a bear-proof trash bin.
This was between the Hidden Acres (formerly Green Mountain Ranch) sign and the Bonita Ranch RV & Campground sign.
The adventure described above on this write-up began from this pullout.
Overall, the drive from downtown LA would be about 59 miles (or roughly 90 minutes drive).
Now if you’re curious about getting a distant (but unsatisfactory) view of one of the upper tiers of the Bonita Falls, you might be able to spot it once you turnoff towards the private Bonita Ranch Campground.
This turnoff was just a short distance west of the unsigned pullout described earlier to start the hike.
However, we had to be cognizant that the owners and guests do not appreciate us blocking traffic in order to catch this view.
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