Easy trail hiking, then moderate boulder hopping, and finally some strenuous, knee-deep wading will take you deep into the sublime hideaway of the Royal Gorge, a narrow, rock-walled section of the Arroyo Seco canyon that has repelled trail builders for well over a century. There you'll come upon a small waterfall and a deep, dark, swimmable pool -- a "Royal Pool" or "King's Bathtub," if you will.
Begin hiking at a parking area and trailhead at mile 26.4 on Angeles Crest Highway (2 miles north of Interstate 210). Step around the locked gate and descend 1 mile on a paved service road to reach the Gabrielino Trail, just upstream from Gould Mesa Campground. Follow the Gabrielino Trail upstream (north) along the Arroyo Seco stream past Oakwilde Trail Camp (3.6 miles) and to the point where the Gabrielino Trail leaves Arroyo Seco itself and starts going up a tributary called Long Canyon (4.7 miles). Abandon the trail at this point and start boulder hopping up the main stream to the right -- this is Royal Gorge. (Note: Forget about forging ahead to the waterfall and pool if the first couple of creek crossings are difficult. That would indicate the water level is too high for safe passage. High water will likely occur during and after one or more of the winter storms to come this year.)
After plodding upstream around several horseshoe bends, you enter (at about 6.0 miles) a section of the gorge where the sheer walls pinch in tight. Clamber over some boulders and wade through a couple of pools to reach the Royal Pool ahead. The pool is fed by water sliding about 8 feet down a 45-degree incline and then cascading 10 feet almost vertically. The rock-bound pool measures about 50 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 10 feet deep at the middle.
Don't try climbing around the falls to reach the continuation of the gorge above the falls. The rock of the San Gabriel Mountains is aged, and particularly around here it's literally falling apart.
It is possible to approach the upper lip of the falls from the upstream side (about a 90-minute walk and boulder hop from Switzer Picnic Area), but there's no easy or safe way to descend into the pool itself from there.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.