On October 27, 1993, the floor of lower Eaton Canyon (along with 118 homes in surrounding neighborhoods) was reduced to white ash and black cinders by the fast-moving Altadena Fire. By the following spring, which came on the heels of a wetter-than-average rainy season, visitors to the 184-acre Eaton Canyon Natural Area could only gasp in wonder as they beheld millions of wildflowers, swaying in the breeze, on the canyon floor. It is a California truism that from what seems the worst possible disaster, new life -- and hope -- can emerge triumphantly.
The oaks and chaparral shrubbery on the canyon rim have fully regenerated by now. Fire-following wildflowers have diminished with the passing seasons, though this late-winter and spring season promises to be one of particular lushness and color due solely to the tremendous amount of rainfall that's fallen on the L.A. area over the past several months.
Upstream from the park, where the waters of Eaton Canyon have carved a raw groove in the San Gabriel Mountains, you'll discover Eaton Canyon Falls. Impressive only during the wetter half of the year, the falls possess, as John Muir once put it, "a low sweet voice, singing like a bird." The falls are well worth visiting, especially now so as to witness the power of large (by Southern California standards) volumes of falling water.
Find the entrance to Eaton Canyon Natural Area on Altadena Drive just north of New York Drive in Altadena (near Pasadena). Park near the nature center building, rebuilt and completed by 1998 to replace an earlier structure that burned. Three short, looping trails can be found near the nature center: the Junior Nature Trail, Fire Ecology Trail, and Oak Terrace Trail.
Our way to the falls, though, follows the Eaton Canyon Trail upstream along the canyon's cobbled floodplain or stream. The trail gains a higher stream terrace, passing some beautiful live-oak woods. At 1.1 miles you rise to meet the Mount Wilson Toll Road bridge over Eaton Canyon. Cross to the west end of the bridge, descend on the upstream side, and make your way up the trailless canyon (don't do this if the stream is too lively and dangerous to ford). You'll skip across rocks in the stream several times, or perhaps resort to wading. After one-half mile of canyon-bottom travel, you come to the falls, where the water slides and then free-falls a total of about 35 vertical feet down a narrow chute in the bedrock.
If you prefer, you can shorten the walk to the falls by starting from the lower gate of Mt. Wilson Toll Road on Pinecrest Drive in Altadena. Be sure to observe any signs about parking restrictions in that neighborhood.