About Little Falls
Little Falls in the Santa Lucia Wilderness is one of those waterfalls we had to go out of our way for.
For starters, we managed to visit this waterfall while lodging in Big Sur so the 2-hour drive just to get to a point where we could start walking to the falls was already a lot of work. Admittedly, starting from Big Sur might have been a bit of a stretch as this was more like a feasible excursion from the San Luis Obispo or Arroyo Grande area. However, the real kicker was that since we were without a high clearance vehicle, we ran risk of disabling our low clearance rental vehicle in one of the numerous stream crossings of Lopez Creek. Thus, we ended up soaking our hiking boots as we waded through the stream crossings themselves. In hindsight, had we come better prepared, we would’ve brought Keens or Chacos for those creek crossings.
So was the payoff worth all this effort?
Well, it turned out that the reward was a very attractive 50ft waterfall while experiencing a piece of Coastal California that just seemed like another world away from some of the more exclusive and developed real estate around here. And to top it all off, it was all the more memorable because of the adventure it took to get there.
Here was how our experience went down.
During the drive to get to Upper Lopez Canyon, we found ourselves face-to-face with giant patches of California poppies (which happened to be the state’s flower) flanking the road. When we got to the first stream crossing on Upper Lopez Canyon Road, we realized that our passenger car wouldn’t make it through the ford.
So that was when we backed up the car and found parking at a pullout away from any private property. Then, we walked the Upper Lopez Canyon Road for the next 1.5 miles crossing through 8 of these stream crossings (with each deep enough to allow water to creep into our hiking boots from the top). It was only after doing this were we finally at the actual trailhead for Little Falls.
Next, we got onto the trail which entered the Santa Lucia Wilderness while flanked by tall stands of poison oak. This part of the hike persisted for the next half-mile until we reached an unsigned informal trail adjacent to a creek. We noticed a yellow ribbon tied to one of the bushes next to the creek at this unsigned informal trail to give us the hint that we had to leave the trail here, but there’s no guarantee that such clues would be available in the future.
Finally, the last bit of scrambling on the unmarked trail of use involved ducking under branches and pushing aside overgrowth in the narrow side canyon. After passing by a tiny cascade, we were finally at the secluded Little Falls and its pretty plunge pool. We saw other people enjoying themselves at the falls so apparently this was not as obscure a spot that we had thought. However, we got the feeling that the only folks who would even come here would be locals familiar with the area or intrepid waterfallers like us willing to go through an adventure like this.
We originally intended to visit both Little Falls and Big Falls on this excursion, but hiking 3.7 miles in one direction just to even get to Big Falls trailhead was out of the question the moment we realized we wouldn’t be able to drive the entirety of the Upper Lopez Canyon Road.
The nearest city to the falls was Arroyo Grande, which was 16 miles south of San Luis Obispo and just east of Pismo Beach. So we exited the 101 Freeway in the town of Arroyo Grande and took the Hwy 227 east for about a mile. From there, we continued going straight onto Huasna Road for another 10 miles (it became Lopez Drive along the way).
As we went around Lopez Lake, we kept an eye out for High Mountain Road on our right. It was just before the entrance to the Lopez Lake Recreation area. At about 0.8 miles we turned left onto Upper Lopez Canyon Road. Then, we followed this road past some 6 concrete fords (mostly shallow) beyond a Boy Scouts Camp, up and over a ridge (we saw huge patches of California poppies blooming in this stretch of road), then we descended to the juction of Waters End Road and Upper Lopez Canyon Road.
Since we had a low clearance vehicle, we had to park our car in one of the spaces near this junction. We did entertain the thought of continuing on Upper Lopez Canyon Road (on our right), but we were quickly met with the first of several deep Lopez Creek Crossings just beyond the “Dip” signs. However, when we realized that we could very well be stranded on this first crossing, we knew we were ill-equipped to continue by car. That said, we witnessed numerous high clearance trucks and SUVs make it further along this road without trouble.
So given that we had to park prematurely, we next had to walk about 1.5 miles through 8 Lopez Creek crossings just to get to the Little Falls trailhead. Had we been successful driving even this far, we did notice that there was some limited parking space right at the Little Falls Trailhead.
For some additional geographical context, Arroyo Grande was 79 miles (90 minutes drive) north of Santa Barbara, 157 miles (3 hours drive) south of Monterey, and 194 miles (4 hours drive) northwest of Los Angeles.
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