Born from snow-fed rivulets, the many tributaries of the East Fork San Gabriel River gather together to form one of the liveliest streams in the San Gabriel Mountains. At “the Narrows” of the East Fork, the water squeezes through the deepest gorge in Southern California, rising 5200 feet high on the east side and 4000 feet high on the west side.
On this grand journey down the upper East Fork, you’ll descend nearly a mile in elevation, and travel from high-country pines and firs to sun-scorched chaparral. With an estimated time-in-motion of around eleven hours, this hike could be done in one monumental day, or it could be backpacked in two days. Heavy runoff after a storm can create hazardous stream crossings, which is a good reason why this trip is best undertaken well after the rain and snow season has ended. This is not a trip for hikers without plenty of successful experience in off-trail wilderness travel. Contact Angeles National Forest, 626-335-1251, for the latest information about access and river conditions.
It’s best to have someone drop you off at the starting point on Angeles Crest Highway at Vincent Gap (ten miles west of Wrightwood), and later pick you up at the East Fork Station. That’s an 85-mile drive around by way of Angeles Crest Highway, Interstate 15, Interstate 10, Highway 39, and East Fork Road (which leads directly to East Fork Station). A National Forest Adventure Pass must be posted on any car parked at either end.
From the parking area at Vincent Gap, walk down the gated road to the southeast. After only about 200 yards, a footpath veers left, into the area known as Sheep Mountain Wilderness. Take that path; the road itself continues toward the Bighorn Mine, an “inholding” of privately owned land inside the wilderness boundary.
Intermittently shaded by bigcone Douglas-firs, white firs, Jeffrey pines, and live oaks, the path descends along the south slope of Vincent Gulch. At 0.7 mile, on a flat ridge spur, look for an indistinct side path intersecting on the right. This leads about 100 yards to an old cabin believed to have been the home of Charles Vincent, who led the life of a hermit, prospector, and big-game hunter from 1870 until his death in 1926.
After a few switchbacks, the main trail crosses Vincent Gulch at 1.6 miles. Thereafter it stays on or above the east bank as far as the confluence of Prairie Fork, a wide drainage coming in from the east at 3.8 miles from the start. You veer right (west) down a gravelly wash, good for setting up a camp. Shortly after, at the Mine Gulch confluence, you bend left (south) into the wide bed of the upper East Fork. For several miles to come, there’s essentially no trail. It may take several hours to traverse this stretch, depending on the energy and motivation of your group.
Proceed downstream, crossing the creek (and battling alder thickets) several times over the next mile. The canyon becomes narrow for a while starting at about 5.0 miles, and you must wade or hop from one slippery rock to another. Fish Fork, on the left at 7.3 miles from the start, is the first large stream below Prairie Fork.
Well below Fish Fork, you enter the Narrows. A rough trail, worn in by hikers, traverses this one-mile-plus section of swift water. You’ll pass swimmable (if chilly) pools cupped in the bedrock, and cross the stream when necessary. Listen and watch for water ouzels (dippers) by the edges of the pools.
At the lower portals of the Narrows (9.7 miles), you come upon the “Bridge to Nowhere.” During the 1930s, road-builders managed to push a highway up along the East Fork stream to just this far. The arched, concrete bridge was to be a key link in a proposed route that would carry traffic between the San Gabriel Valley and the desert near Wrightwood. Floods intervened and thoroughly demolished most of the road in 1938, leaving the bridge stranded.
Below the bridge, on remnants of the old road, you’ll probably encounter other travelers out for the day. At 12.0 miles, Swan Rock, an outcrop of metamorphic rock, comes into view on the right. At 14.0 miles you come upon Heaton Flat Campground. From there a final 0.5-mile stroll takes you to the East Fork Station and the end of your journey.
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.
Down the East Fork
Descend nearly a vertical mile along the East Fork San Gabriel River in Angeles National Forest.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 140 miles
Hiking length: 14.5 miles
Difficulty: Very strenuous