As my feet slipped on the slick, moss covered cliff face and the waterfall splashed on my face, two thoughts popped into my head. One, if I accidentally let go of the rope I would free fall more than 80 feet to disaster. Two… damn this is fun! Southern California canyoneering at its best!

Canyoneering San Gabriel
On my way down

Finding the dry wash of Lytle Creek, and its surprisingly busy trail head, was easy. And like most adventures, we began this one with a gear check and casual briefing about what to expect. Our goal, so I was told, was to hike about 5 miles up the trail until Andrew, the most seasoned canyoneering guru on this trip, found the hidden drop into the Middle Fork of Lytle Creek.  From the way he talked about it, it was obvious that this was not his first time here.

The main stem of Lytle Creek has three main tributaries each running in separate side canyons: North Fork, Middle Fork, and South Fork. The canyon is approximately 15 miles long and the creek surfaces in a grassy meadow eventually returning to subsurface flow towards the bottom of the canyon. In the upper sections of the creek you will find small streams, springs and of course waterfalls.

Canyoneering San Gabriel
Changing seasons of Lytle Creek

After avoiding poison oak, crossing a scree slide, and passing 3 successful hunters (and an unlucky deer) we arrived at the drop-in point. Sliding down a mix of gravel and (WORD HE USED) we a found the peacefully flowing Middle Fork in an area, that from above, seemed totally void of water. Setting our packs down, we all agreed lunch was a priority and for redundancy sake, we performed a final gear check.

The area has a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and cool, moist winters. Daytime temperatures in the summer frequently exceed 100 degrees but are about 10-15 degrees cooler in the upper watershed.

Canyoneering San Gabriel
Post lunch planning

The first waterfall we came to was just an appetizer preparing our adventurous appetites for the courses ahead.  The bolts were easy to find and looking over the edge we could all easily see that the 35-ft. rappel would be down a relatively dry cliff face. From the look of the webbing and the shine of the bolts, it was also obvious that this was a heavily traversed route.  The 7 of us easily navigated the 1st challenge.

Ecosystems along Lytle Creek are impacted by the extensive recreational use and many habitats  are fragmented, lacking the continuity needed to provide critical migration for fish and wildlife. Over the next 20 years, the estimated population of California will have increased from 36 to 50 million. Much of this growth will take place in the Los Angeles basin, all within a 2-hour drive to the Lytle Creek canyon.

Canyoneering San Gabriel
Tying off to nature

The next rappel was a bit more nerve racking.  Our anchor was set on a large tree and to a single bolt.  There were obvious signs recent tree falls and large but unsteady rocks scattered all around us. The bottom of the rappel was not visible and we wondered if there would be a pool of water waiting for us. Excited to find out, one of the more experienced climbers volunteered to descend the 80-ft. drop. No swimming… yet.

The San Gabriel Mountains are the fastest growing mountains in the United States and groundwater level, and flows cascading over the waterfalls, fluctuate dramatically in response to seasonal rainfall.

Continuing down the canyon we hiked for about a 1/4 of a mile further until we reached the main falls. A 3-stage descent, this is the adventure we came for!  The first water fall took my group down 85 ft. into a hanging bowl where we each had to figure out the best way to navigate two large trees and a plunge into water that takes your breath away.  Quick tip – bring extra clothes or do what it takes to keep your shirt dry.

Although much of the upper Lytle Creek watershed is protected as part of the San Bernardino National Forest, the lower portion of the Middle Fork canyon and most of the South Fork remain unprotected. The USFS considers both the Middle and the South Forks to be eligible for National Wild & Scenic River designation status for their scenic, fish and wildlife values.

Canyoneering San Gabriel
Swim time and couldn’t be happier!

The second rappel was about 80 ft. and would take us to a wide area below which the final fall waits. 4 people had already descended and looping my rope into my belay I was set.  As I approached the edge I made sure to check my “safety” again and HOLY CRAP!!! Two steps from the edge I noticed that something was wrong… The team had decided to take a different rope feed approach and I totally missed that conversation. Thank God I tested the line because had I not, I would have fallen to disaster.  I can tell you that the descending that section, with the thought of what could have happened, was a bit unnerving (aka – freaking terrifying) and I had to push it out of my head. There was no going back up the falls.

The Lytle Creek watershed was devastated by the Grand Prix fire 2003 but has sense rebounded.

Canyoneering San Gabriel
The final 3 cascades

At the last rappel, we found a nice set of shiny new bolts, a rounded 100 ft, decent to the bottom, and a pool of water that was shallow enough to keep us from swimming. What a great way to end the technical climb.  From here we bushwhacked our way back to the trail, took some amazing group pictures, watched sunset over the lower section and returned ourselves back to civilization just down the road. Southern California Canyoneering at its Best!

Even though warning have been issued and homes in the past have repetitively been destroyed by flooding and debris flows in this area, rapid development is still taking place in the alluvial fan portion (aka -bottom) of the Watershed.

Canyoneering San Gabriel
Always end an adventure with a victory photo!


Adventure Hydrology
Adventurer, Scientist, Explorer - Chris Wolff is the Worlds first Adventure Hydrologist

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