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.
In fact, this falls was really a series of several drops. The first drop was an upper waterfall that was some 10ft fall. The main drop was the most impressive as it was probably around 50-70ft tall. Finally, the lower waterfall consisted of a pair of sloping drops with a total height of some 25-30ft combined.
Even though the falls may have had an impressive cumulative height, we were able to experience only the lower waterfall. After all, it was the only one that didn’t require risk to life and limb.
Over the years, we’d wind up visiting only that lower waterfall time and again. It wasn’t until a recent visit in 2016 did I finally learn how to reach the main waterfall.
By the way, that elusive falls had teased us by only revealing bits aof 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.
The Switzer Falls Hike
We began from the well-established Switzer Falls Picnic Area and parking lot (see directions below). This picnic area was pretty large, and it always seemed to be busy with weekenders. We could see why it was popular since it was mostly in the shade and it was adjacent to Arroyo Seco. Meaning “Dry Creek” in Spanish, it was the stream that would ultimately be responsible for the waterfall further downstream. The hike began the moment we crossed a bridge traversing the Arroyo Seco, 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 creekside picnic area 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 mostly flat trail pretty much flanked one side of Arroyo Seco, which added to the tranquil atmosphere. We welcomed the shade from the tall trees around us as it kept the hike relatively cool while minimizing UV exposure. Meanwhile, the trail would cross the creek numerous times (I had lost count of them, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were at least a half-dozen of them; most of them pretty easy). 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 Spring 2009, each of these stream crossings were trickier to get across. Conversely, 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 they served as landmarks to remind us when we had to turn right to cross the creek. 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. Anyways, after the unbridged creek crossing, we then ascended a few switchbacks as the trail became much narrower with some dropoff exposure.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, we noticed chain-linked fences on the drop-off side. Clearly, these barricades were set up to minimize the temptation of trying to scramble down these cliffs for a closer view of the elusive 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. However, as years passed by, the overgrowth became more severe and 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 at the high point of the overall hike. This was 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 have led further downstream towards Bear Canyon, where we’ve heard there were swimming holes (though I’m sure this was dependent on the conditions). We can’t really say more about this part of Bear Canyon since we’ve never been down there.
As we hiked further upstream alongside Arroyo Seco, the relatively flat trail was pretty straightforward to follow. Within minutes, we’d ultimately arrive at the two-tiered drop for what I’m dubbing the Lower Switzer Falls. As far as the official trail was concerned, this waterfall marked the end even though we knew this wasn’t the main part of the waterfall.
The Elusive Switzer Falls Main TierHowever, in order to continue further upstream to get to the base of the main waterfall, we had to do some dicey scrambling. 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.
From observing these folks who had already done the scramble, I realized that I had to use all my agility as well as experience to figure out how best to get across this scrambling obstacle. That meant that I had to figure out where 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 given how narrow the cliff ledges were. 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 drama was momentarily over. Indeed, the stream scramble then pretty much became a fairly easy flat and shady hike in what appeared to be a far less-used path. Clearly, 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 then encountered a log jam, where I ultimately had to get around the right side of it to continue. Once I was beyond this obstacle, the path would dead-end right at the base of the 50ft drop of the main tier of Switzer Falls.
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 eventually crashing to the ground. Such observations further reminded me of the inherent danger of just being here.
Nevertheless, I would have this part of the waterfall to myself for a few minutes before another group of young hikers made it up to here. When it got to around 6-8 people at this secluded spot, I then headed back down. Obviously, 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 hike, it seemed like getting back across the dicey scramble besides the Lower Switzer Falls was a little more difficult. This was because the scramble had a somewhat downward slope with some dropoff exposure. Once I made it back onto the narrow ledge, I then continued the downslope scramble as it led me back down to the base of the canyon.
When I rejoined the wife and daughter, we then resumed the return hike as a family. We wound up spending about 30 minutes or so to return 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. Beyond the apex, the rest of the hike was pretty much downhill as we returned back to the old stoves at the very first trail junction.
The Detour to the top of Switzer Falls
Before heading left and going back to the picnic area, I made one last detour by going right just to see where that trail would ultimately take me. At first that detour was pretty obvious to follow as it would go past a graffiti-laden sign warning that the path beyond this point was unmaintained.
Sure enough, after a short drop back into the Arroyo Seco then 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. Initially, I was able to carefully scramble around this small waterfall then back down towards the stream for a more frontal look at the falls. However, 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 my little detour.
According to my GPS logs, 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. It took me around 3.5 hours to take in this entire hike. That said, some of the slow pace involved 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. I’ve also seen claims that the official trail was as little as 2.5 miles round trip. That last figure seemed a bit short considering my GPS logs corroborated the 3.6-mile out-and-back distance. Anyways, the hike on the official trail 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, then we would have reverted back to a scenic rating of 1.5 and a difficulty rating of 2.5. Perhaps the most observant visitors to this website might have noticed the change in score as it had been parked on the lower score over the first 15+ years of experiencing this falls without ever getting to the elusive main tier.
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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