The San Gabriel Wilderness is bordered by Angeles Crest Highway to the west and north, and by the San Gabriel River on the south and east. The domain of bear and mountain lions, it comprises the most rugged natural terrain near Los Angeles. A dearth of trails and a wealth of brush and rock deters the casual visitor. It is one of the few significant wilderness areas remaining in proximity to a major metropolis. Devil's Canyon is the principal drainage in the Wilderness. Bob and I dayhiked a north-to-south traverse of Devil's Canyon, descending from near Chilao to the West Fork of the San Gabriel River.
Our route is detailed in parts in Jerry Schad's guidebook "Afield and Afoot in Los Angeles County" (A-1 0, Trips 2 & 3), and John Robinson's "Trails of the Angeles" (Trips 56 & 71). Starting briefly on trail, we negotiated twin waterfalls, poison oak, boulders, polished slabs, a rocky wash, a dam, and finally a paved road. This hike had it all. We whacked serious brush. We rappelled cascades. We swam deep pools. We bouldered the streamead. We covered 18 miles and dropped 3500' in ten hours, to the beer awaiting us at West Fork.
Ann Kramer assisted with the necessary long car shuttle (on her birthday, no less), by dropping us at 5:30 am at the signed trailhead on Angeles Crest Highway, 27 miles from La Cañada, for an early start to beat the heat and maximize the daylight. Ann subsequently drove to Azusa and up Highway 39 to hike and later rendezvous with us on the West Fork.
The well-built trail drops into upper Devil's Canyon, and after 1500' loss in 3.5 miles, reaches the old trail camp. Most hikers stop at this pleasant site. The route continues as a path, alternately crossing the streambed and growing fainter where rock-hopping and brush is encountered. Isolated pools revealed small trout. Progress is blocked at 4.9 miles by the first of two successive waterfalls. Each fall drops about 20 feet over polished, mossy granite to large pools, 10 to 15 feet deep and 40 feet across. A rope is required to negotiate the falls; the alternative would be a high, indeterminate traverse on steep and loose slopes.
We were fortunate that the water was low, making the two rappels easy. Since I'd brought a full-length rope, we used a tree high on the right side of the first fall as an anchor, leaving a runner and rap ring. To Bob's great relief, we avoided swimming the first pool by traversing its edge after descending. It was then a short stroll to the second cascade. Our second rap anchor was a solid boulder in the streambed. Here we would have to swim after rapping into the chilly water. Bummer, Bob. The splash across was, uh, refreshing!
The lower Devil's Canyon, below the falls, is far less visited. Game trails are infrequent and faint, so more bouldering and bushwhacking is encountered. The pools too are larger, making for great swimming holes. Again we were favored by the low water, allowing us to sidestep where wading would otherwise have been necessary. We saw quite a bit of bear scat. And startled two deer that had been taking a shaded midday siesta.
Our last obstacle was the "moat," a narrow slot of polished rock through which the defile issues into a broad wash. We clambered along the side of the moat to step by one last pool and its sandy "beach." Following the barren wash 0.8 miles brought us to a backbay of Cogswell Reservoir. Here we scrambled 80' up the east bank to reach a dirt road spur shown on the topo; this is the southern Wilderness boundary. The road winds 1.5 miles to a dam, from which the paved West Fork road leads in 8 miles past Glenn Trail Camp and to Highway 39. The West Fork is popular with fishermen and bike riders. The large reservoir was drained for maintenance when I visited in October 1996; it was now slowly being refilled.
In a surprise to Bob, Ann met us at Glenn Trail Camp with our reward before heading home: a minikeg of Warsteiner Pilsner, cooled in the waters of West Fork (how do you think I get Bob to do these trips?). As cyclists pedaled past with envious glances, we sat for a spell and quaffed our beer accompanied by blue cheese and lavosh.