Little Falls

Santa Lucia Wilderness / Arroyo Grande, California, USA

About Little Falls


Hiking Distance: 4 miles round trip; deep stream crossings; some scrambling
Suggested Time: 2.5 hours

Date first visited: 2010-03-20
Date last visited: 2010-03-20

Waterfall Latitude: 35.25161
Waterfall Longitude: -120.48778

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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.

Little_Falls_016_03202010 - Little Falls in the Santa Lucia Wilderness
Little Falls in the Santa Lucia Wilderness

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?

Little_Falls_054_03202010 - Looking up at a fairly large mat of California Poppies blooming on a steep hillside from the remote road en route to Upper Lopez Canyon and the Little Falls
Looking up at a fairly large mat of California Poppies blooming on a steep hillside from the remote road en route to Upper Lopez Canyon and the Little Falls

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.

Our Little Falls Experience – Walking Upper Lopez Canyon

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.

Little_Falls_003_03202010 - Upper Lopez Creek crossed the road several times, and at each of these crossings, the water was deeper enough to prevent us from driving to the trailhead so that meant we had to walk it
Upper Lopez Creek crossed the road several times, and at each of these crossings, the water was deeper enough to prevent us from driving to the trailhead so that meant we had to walk it

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 (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.

We originally intended to visit both Little Falls and Big Falls on this excursion.

However, after realizing that we couldn’t drive the entirety of the Upper Lopez Canyon Road and had to hike it, that ended up making the hike to Big Falls a whopping 3.7 miles in one direction (or 7.4 miles round trip) just to even get to Big Falls trailhead.

Little_Falls_007_03202010 - The Santa Lucia Wilderness access trail that led to Little Falls and beyond
The Santa Lucia Wilderness access trail that led to Little Falls and beyond

Since we didn’t expect to make such a long commitment, that particular option was out of the question so we just stuck with settling for the Little Falls only.

Our Little Falls Experience – Hiking the Santa Lucia Wilderness

Once at the actual Little Falls Trailhead, 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.

Little_Falls_010_03202010 - Entering the Santa Lucia Wilderness boundary on the way to Little Falls
Entering the Santa Lucia Wilderness boundary on the way to Little Falls

However, 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 as we had thought.

However, we got the feeling that the only folks who would even come here would be locals familiar with the area.

Little_Falls_037_03202010 - Julie making the final overgrown scrambling leading to the Little Falls
Julie making the final overgrown scrambling leading to the Little Falls

It was either that or it was intrepid waterfallers like us willing to go through an adventure like this.

Authorities

Little Falls resides in the Santa Lucia Wilderness within Los Padres National Forest inland from Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo in San Luis Obispo 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.

Little_Falls_050_03202010 - Closer look at some of the fields of California Poppies which were in bloom during our 2010 visit to the Little Falls in the Santa Lucia Wilderness
Little_Falls_004_03202010 - One of many crossings of Lopez Creek that we had to get through in order to access the trailhead to Little Falls from the junction of Waters End Road and Upper Lopez Canyon Road
Little_Falls_005_03202010 - Another one of the many deep crossings of Lopez Creek on the way to the trailhead for Little Falls
Little_Falls_006_03202010 - Yet another one of the Lopez Creek crossings as we walked the 1.5 miles to reach the trailhead for Little Falls
Little_Falls_009_03202010 - Once we were finally on the trail to Little Falls, we had to watch out for poison oak stands next to the trail
Little_Falls_011_03202010 - This was the unsigned junction marking the start of the final scramble. Fortunately for us, there was a yellow ribbon tied to a branch here letting us know when to deviate from the trail.  However, I don't think you can count of such clues reliably.
Little_Falls_012_03202010 - Last bit of scrambling to get to the Little Falls
Little_Falls_039_03202010 - Tiny cascade before the main Little Falls
Little_Falls_025_03202010 - Finally arriving at the attractive Little Falls
Little_Falls_028_03202010 - Julie checking out Little Falls
Little_Falls_044_03202010 - Apparently, there were invasive fish populating Lopez Creek so we saw a local here with a machete hacking as many as he could find
Little_Falls_045_03202010 - Going back through one of many deep Lopez Creek crossings. Needless to say, our feet were prunes by this point

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The nearest city to the Little 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).

Little_Falls_047_03202010 - Context of the Waters End Road with California Poppies blooming right next to the road on our way to Upper Lopez Canyon and the Little Falls
Context of the Waters End Road with California Poppies blooming right next to the road on our way to Upper Lopez Canyon and the Little Falls

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, then going up and over a ridge (we saw huge patches of California poppies blooming in this stretch of road).

We eventually descended to the juction of Waters End Road and Upper Lopez Canyon Road.

Little_Falls_001_03202010 - We wound up stopping the car at a large shoulder or pullout by the junction of the Waters End Road and the Upper Lopez Canyon Road
We wound up stopping the car at a large shoulder or pullout by the junction of the Waters End Road and the 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.

Little_Falls_001_jx_03202010 - The hike to both Big Falls and Little Falls should be trivial, but during our visit, Lopez Creek ran high and our low clearance vehicle couldn't make it to either of these trailheads
The hike to both Big Falls and Little Falls should be trivial, but during our visit, Lopez Creek ran high and our low clearance vehicle couldn’t make it to either of these trailheads

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.

Bottom up sweep of the falls

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Tagged with: santa lucia, wilderness, arroyo grande, san luis obispo, california, central coast, waterfall, lopez canyon



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About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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