Santa Anita Canyon is one of the most beautiful areas of the San Gabriels, full of varied landscapes and a dependable 50 foot waterfall – Sturtevant Falls – which doesn’t take all that long to get to. The landscape is populated by turn-of-the-century Forest Service canyons, a few campgrounds, and an old outdoor resort. It’s also pretty close to the L.A. basin sprawl, which means the main area in this canyon is also capital c Crowded.
In 2016, the Forest Service and several transportation agencies did run a pilot program that operated free shuttles from the Metro Gold Line stop in Arcadia for a month. From all accounts, the program was a huge success — and ballot measures that could provide funding both passed in late 2016. However, as of summer the following year — arguably the busiest season in Santa Anita Canyon — no revival of the shuttle program has materialized.
We strongly recommend you get to the trailhead as early as humanly possible to avoid the parking nightmare here. Parking along the winding canyon road can be more than enough to ruin your hiking trip — and notoriously spotty signage may result in a hefty parking ticket from L.A. County Sheriffs if you aren’t hyper-vigilant.
From the parking lot at Chantry Flat, head south to the trailhead, which follows a narrow paved road down a sharp decline. It descends 325 feet on hard pavement, without shade. It’s not necessarily the most pleasant way to begin or end a hike, but it’s the fastest way down – so what are ya gonna do?
But for the purposes of this description, stick to the pavement.
The road winds and switchbacks its way down into Santa Anita Canyon, where it eventually turns into a more narrow road, then a dirt road, then a more traditional dirt trail.
On the descent, you’ll hear the sound of falling water. If you like that sound (and you should), be happy – because you’ll be hearing a lot of it for the rest of the hike. After the floods of ’38, a series of concrete flood control dams were built over much of the canyon watershed near Los Angeles. Over time, the dams have become overgrown with greenery and moss, so they’re not nearly as intrusive as you’d imagine a large concrete dam to be in the middle of the forest.
You’ll skirt alongside the roaring (at least, in the wet season) creek and quickly come upon the first of the many rustic Forest Service cabins you’ll see along the route.
The trail continues through a few small “villages” of these cabins before splitting away from the water and heading into the ridge above the creek. At 1.5 miles, keep right at a cabin called “Fiddlers’ Crossing.” This trail will cross the creek three times — which can be a bit tricky if the water’s running high — cut through some ivy-covered landscapes, and take you to the base of Sturtevant Falls at 1.7 miles.
More importantly, the Upper Trail misses some of the best scenery in the entire canyon. So skip it and head on the Lower Trail instead.
This section of the trail is single-track, and will probably be much more secluded than anything you’ve hiked so far. Most people who hike along the creek are just headed to the Falls and back, so you’ll have a bit more private time as the trail ascends a steep ridge that overlooks the section of the creek you just hopped through. Eventually, you’ll get yourself a nice semi-aerial view of the falls, too.
The trail continues along the creekside through dense, cool forest until it reaches the rather expansive Spruce Grove trail camp at about the 4 mile mark. While still technically a trail camp, this is one of the more developed backcountry campgrounds I’ve seen in the San Gabriels. Lots of fire pits, stoves, tables, and even a pair of vault toilets. When I walked through, there was a large group of hikers sitting and eating their lunches at the tables. It didn’t look like any of them had backpacking gear, so I’m guessing they were either a hiking group out for the day or a group coming back from Sturtevant Camp, which is just a few minutes further along the creek. I’m a sucker for camping next to water, so I may have to head back up here with a tent sometime soon.
You’ll pass near the entrance to Sturtevant Camp, the last remaining working camp from L.A.’s “Golden Age of Hiking.” It’s a fully functioning backcountry resort, and has a handbuilt log U.S. Forest Ranger station that’s the oldest surviving one in the country (built 1903) still in its original location. The camp was owned by the Methodist Church for years, although the good folks at Adams Pack Station raised the funds to purchase the area in 2015. In the future, they plan to restore and renovate the cabins and hold events in this incredible historic location. You can use their web site to reserve a cabin ahead of time.
You can also walk into the camp to look around if you’d like. If a staff member is working (something the Pack Station hopes to improve), you can also tour some of the historic buildings at the camp. If they’re not around, you can still take a ride on the Big Swing!
Continue along the Sturtevant Trail as it skirts along the flood control dam and crosses the creek. At the junction with the Upper Zion Trail, hop onto the Upper Zion and say goodbye to the water and cool canyon breezes. This section of the trip crawls up the north side of the Mount Zion ridge, passing through a short section of Jeffrey Pines before getting back to that all-too-familiar low San Gabriel scrub.
If that’s the case, worry not. It’s only one and a quarter miles to Hoagee’s Camp at 6.8 miles, the former site of another group of riverside cabins, destroyed by fire in 1953. It is now another well-maintained trail camp, with a few of the old foundations and chimneys of the cabins still surviving.
The Lower Winter Creek Trail, however, is far more picturesque, and has the added benefit of being next to the water for the entire time. If you take this route, you’ll pass a few more cabins, cross the water about another half-dozen times, and hike for just 2 miles before getting back to the Chantry Flat trailhead.
When you’re done, be sure to stop by Adams’ Pack Station for some good food and conversation. The weekend barbecues are super tasty!
Very good. This is a well-traveled and well-maintained route, with plenty of clear trail signs. With all the "upper and lower" versions of trails, it might get confusing, but if you've got a map and know where you're going, you should be able to find your way.
There are 7 walk-in sites at Spruce Grove Campground and 14 at Hoegee's Trail Camp. All are first-come, first-served. There are also sites inside the privately owned Sturtevant's Camp. For rates and availability, you'll have to contact them by phone.
Take the Santa Anita exit from the 210 toward Acadia. Keep on Santa Anita Canyon Road until it ends at Chantry Flat. If you can find a parking spot here, snag it and display your Adventure Pass. The Pack Station has overflow parking for an additional fee. Get started early if you can - this is one of the most notoriously packed trailheads in Southern California, but it's worth the hassle.
With recent wildfire damage and ongoing waves of COVID-19 infections and restrictions, National Forest, National Park, and other public land closures, restrictions, or social distancing guidelines may be in-effect.
If infection rates are on the rise, please do your best to remain local for your hikes. If you do travel, please be mindful of small gateway communities and avoid as much interaction as you can. Also remember to be extra prepared with supplies so you don't have to stop somewhere outside your local community for gas, food, or anything else.
Please be sure to contact the local land management agency BEFORE you head out, as these conditions are likely to change without enough notice for us to fully stay on top of them. Thanks, and stay safe!
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