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Modern Hiker | Switzer Falls and Bear Canyon | Modern Hiker

Distance (round-trip)

6.8 mi

Time

3.5 hrs

Elevation Gain

689 ft

Season

Spring
Summer
Fall
Winter

Weather

A short hike to 50-foot high Switzer Falls, one of the most popular and easily-accessible waterfalls in the Angeles National Forest. This route also includes a trip further down the canyon to Bear Canyon Campground, an easy way to get away from the crowds at Switzer to find some swimming holes you can keep to yourself.

Switzer Falls is one of the most popular waterfall hikes in Los Angeles County, and maybe in all of Southern California. It’s easily accessible from the picturesque Switzer’s Picnic Area – which means this trail can get pretty crowded on the weekends. If you find yourself circling the lower parking area, there are two overflow lots above it on the canyon road – it just means you’d have to add some elevation to your exit hike.

Parking Lot

The first section of the trail is on paved asphalt and travels past several additional picnic areas. A few more small cookouts were getting started up, and a large stream of people were coming up out of the canyon – many of them with dogs in tow.

The pavement doesn’t last for long and soon you’re hopping across boulders and getting up close and personal with the Arroyo Seco, which is passable in all but the highest floods. If we’ve had a decent rainstorm, though, give the canyon a good 48 hours or so to drain out a bit. The trail hugs the river side for most of the way in on this first mile.

This area was badly burned during the 2009 Station Fire, but although the damage is visible the region is recovering nicely.

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At the 1.1 mile mark, you reach a small junction at a stream crossing. The trail to the left takes you through the ruins of Switzer’s Camp, part of one of the early wilderness resorts in the mountains called Switzer-Land. There’s not a whole lot left, and you wouldn’t even know you were walking through ruins unless you read about it ahead of time. You can walk up to the spot where a small chapel once stood overlooking a waterfall. The Forest Service tore it down for safety’s sake, but you can still see some of the arched foundations scattered along the ridge.

If you take the right hand side, you’ll cross the stream. This is the one section of the trail that climbs out of the canyon’s shade and into the scrub of the higher elevations. If the sun’s beating down you’ll definitely feel it. But you’ll also get great vistas of the mountains surrounding you, which can go completely unnoticed when you’re by the riverside. Here’s another spot where you’ll be able to see the effects from the Station Fire for yourself. The first photo below is from before the fire – and the second is one taken after the trail was re-opened.

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At 1.3 miles, stay left to continue on the Bear Canyon Trail. This one of the most gorgeous parts of the hike, offering jaw-dropping views of both the surrounding peaks and deep into the canyon below. The scrub and chaparral were scorched by the Station Fire but look like they’ll bounce back in a few seasons.

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At the 1.7 mile mark, the trail switchbacks from the ridge down onto the floor of Bear Canyon itself. If you want to just hit up the falls, take a left here and Switzer Falls are just 0.1 mile away, making the round trip just under four miles long from the parking area – but if you’re in the mood to explore Bear Canyon, turn right and continue on the trail along the floor of the canyon.

This canyon used to be lined with oaks and sycamores before the Station Fire. I haven’t hiked deep into the canyon since the fire but it at least looks like many of the trees close to the water survived. The following images are all pre-fire.

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At the 2 mile mark, there’s a deep, multilayered pool that’s a great swimming hole. There was at one point a rope swing hanging over the pool for the more adventurous swimmers, too.

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If this pool’s occupied, there’s another, smaller one about 5 minutes further down the canyon at the 2.1 mile mark. That one’s got the added bonus of having fish swimming around in it. There were actually a couple of anglers casting into the pool when I hiked by this time.

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Shortly after the second pool at the 2.3 mile mark, you’ll reach a junction where Bear Canyon Creek meets up with the Arroyo Seco before continuing south. The trail sticks to the canyon wall and keeps going up Bear Canyon to the east. This is about the place where I found a nice flat rock in the stream and sat in the sun for 90 minutes, reading and enjoying nature’s best white noise.

In sharp contrast to the earlier parts of the trail, only two other hikers passed by me while I was sitting out there. So it’s not the total solitude you can get elsewhere, but it’s still pretty nice. Beats the beach crowds any day, though.

After the relaxation I’d come out for, I picked up and continued on along the Bear Canyon Trail, which climbed up piles of fallen, smoothed boulders as the canyon walls closed in. Other than the occasional scramble up and down to the river, the trail kept a pretty level elevation, so it wasn’t too tough.

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After lots of meandering and boulder hopping, I eventually made it to the surprisingly remote, surprisingly large and well-maintained Bear Canyon Campground at the 3.4 mile mark.

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The campground had lots of cleared space, plenty of metal fire rings, picnic tables, and even some metal stoves. Although the camp felt pretty out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere it’s really only a bit more than three miles in from Switzer’s and just a little farther from the other side of the mountains in Altadena. I’m still going to mark it as a stop if I ever do the multi-day trip through the San Gabriels that I’m secretly, constantly planning in the back of my head.

A short hour later and I was back at the Switzer’s Falls junction. Take a right hand turn at the trail junction to trek to the bottom of the falls. If it’s a weekend or summer day, expect some crowds.

Crowds at Switzer

If you’re careful, you can scramble up a use trail to the right of the falls, which will get you to a deep swimming hole just above the plunge. It’s also a nice natural jacuzzi, though much, much colder. If you keep climbing up a bit farther, you can make it to an even more secluded and larger canyon swimming hole, with more water streaming down the sides. The trail dead-ends there. Any further travel is at your own risk … but please, do not attempt to scale up or down the larger waterfall – rescues, injuries, and deaths are all frequent in that section of the canyon.

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In February, 2017, Southern California got hit with one of the largest winter storms in its history. The storm dumped several inches of rain across the region, bringing arroyos and waterways back to life in a way that many long-time residents had never seen in their lives.

The following photos and videos are from a few days after the rain storm (always a good idea to give the canyons a few days to dry out before exploring!). In all my years of hiking in the San Gabriels, I have never seen the Arroyo or the Falls like I did then:

When you’re done relaxing by the falls, just head back out the way you came in.

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, Author of "Day Hiking Los Angeles," Walking Meditator, Native Plant Enthusiast.





Camping

Dog-Friendly

Historical Interest

Kid-Friendly

Shade

Water Features

Waterfall

Trail Map


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52 Comments


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Charles Cook Jun 2, 2018 23:06

Awesome awesome awesome loved this one so much

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Brian Mar 26, 2018 21:03In reply to: Leon

Just did this hike over the weekend. The trail is in great condition and by that I mean you'll be hip-hopping across the creek the whole time. I loved it. Spent a pretty chilly night at Bear Creek. The trail is well maintained for the surefooted.

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Leon Jan 10, 2018 15:01

hike any current updates on this trail

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Casey Schreiner Sep 15, 2017 11:09In reply to: estefany

This is a very developed trailhead. If your car can drive, you should be able to make it here :)

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estefany Sep 14, 2017 14:09

do you need a ford runner or can you drive a small car ?

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Tanita Aug 24, 2017 09:08In reply to: Jan

Just hiked the Switzer and Bear Canyon Aug. 20...The trails are Beautiful, butterflies, lizards, birds galore and a couple of snakes as well...LiFe is There, The pools are so serene...Bear Canyon has some stingy foliage along the path so I suggest long pants even though the weather is warm...

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Jan Aug 20, 2017 11:08In reply to: Casey Schreiner

Any new updates on the condition of this trail? We are new to the area and considering giving it a try sometime this week :)

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Casey Schreiner Mar 28, 2017 06:03In reply to: Mercedes Narez

Hey Mercedes - not sure where that sign is but it sounds like you might have gone off the trail ... maybe you kept walking past the ruins of Switzer's toward the chapel ruins? Because THAT cascade doesn't have a trail and people get airlifted off that every summer. The actual Switzer Falls is much, much smaller and much, much milder - and is reachable by established, well-traveled trail.

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Mercedes Narez Mar 27, 2017 16:03

I went today to hike to the falls but we got to a point where there was a "Danger" sign, graffitied up and hard to read, but it said to go back to the "view point" or the bottom of th falls via Bear Canyon trail. And that something like 18 people died falling accidentally, so we turned back. Should we have kept on going? We never saw the falls.

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Casey Schreiner Mar 2, 2017 08:03In reply to:

Thanks for the update, Alan - I've had a lot of questions about the state of that stretch of trail and hopefully those folks can hop on board the Trail Crew to help get it re-opened faster!

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