Switzer Falls

Angeles National Forest / La Canada Flintridge, California, USA

About Switzer Falls


Hiking Distance: 5 miles round trip (to all waterfalls); 3.6 miles just to lower falls and back
Suggested Time: 3.5 hours (to all waterfalls)

Date first visited: 2003-02-02
Date last visited: 2019-12-28

Waterfall Latitude: 34.25828
Waterfall Longitude: -118.15474

Switzer Falls was one waterfall that kind of became an exercise in frustration when it came to satisfactory experiences.

You see, we’ve typically seen this waterfall in low flow (or nearly dry).

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The main drop of Switzer Falls

Yet in those times when we did see this waterfall flow fairly well, we never really got to see all of this waterfall.

In fact, Swtizer Falls was really a series of at least three main waterfalls.

The first or uppermost one dropped some 10ft within a twisting and mostly hidden part of the canyon it spilled into.

The main or middle drop fell approximately 50-70ft tall easily making it the most impressive one in the three.

Finally, the lower waterfall consisted of a pair of sloping drops with a total height of some 30-40ft combined.

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The Lower Switzer Falls in high flow when we made a visit in the early Spring of 2009

Even though the falls may have had an impressive cumulative height, for many years, we’ve only experienced the lower waterfall as it was the most accessible.

Observant visitors to this website may have noticed that we used to score this waterfall a mere 1.5 in the scenic rating and 2.5 in the difficulty rating as a result of this partial experience.

However, as recent as 2016, I finally completed the Switzer Falls experience by reaching the elusive main waterfall.

Unfortunately, earning that sighting required a considerable amount of risk to life and limb, which was the main reason why it had been elusive all these years.

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The main drop of Switzer Falls and the canyon context from the dead-end of the box canyon at its base

Nevertheless, in this write-up, I’ll get right into the complete experience insofar as we’ve been able to do it.

Options on the Switzer Falls Hike

As you can see, hiking to Switzer Falls could be pretty easy or difficult, fairly short or somewhat long.

It all depends on how much of the waterfall you want to see as well as how much water flows on the Arroyo Seco (the creek feeding Switzer Falls).

According to my GPS logs, the hike could require as little as 3.6 miles round trip to just the Lower Switzer Falls (assuming we started from the picnic area; see directions below).

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The serene trail alongside Arroyo Seco (Dry Creek in Spanish) and picnic area on the way to Switzer Falls

However, had we started from the upper parking lot for Switzer Falls, then we’d have to add another half-mile in each direction (or a mile round trip) to the hike.

Moreover, in order to experience the tallest drop of Switzer Falls, these hiking distances would increase by about another half-mile in each direction (or another mile round trip).

Finally, in order to experience the somewhat hidden uppermost drop of Switzer Falls, we’d have to go on a little detour of another quarter-mile or so (or about a half-mile round trip).

Thus, in the worst case, the overall hiking distance could be as much as about 6.1 miles round trip, and that wouldn’t count any additional hiking if the parking situation would be bad enough to force you to walk a little longer on the Angeles Crest Highway.

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The stoves at the trail junction where it was possible to branch off and visit the Upper Switzer Falls or continue on a ledge trail leading to the rest of Switzer Falls

To give you an idea about the time commitment, it had taken me about 3.5 hours in total to experience all three waterfalls when I did the hard parts by myself while doing the easier parts with my wife and daughter.

When I went in a larger group, it took us about 5 hours in total to experience the lower two drops of Switzer Falls in fairly high waterflow conditions (though the younger girls and most of the moms stayed at the lower falls).

Experiencing the Switzer Falls Hike: Along the Arroyo Seco

For the purposes of this write-up, we’ll assume that we began from the well-established Switzer Falls Picnic Area and parking lot.

This picnic area was quite large, and it always seemed to be busy with weekenders so I also expected the trail to have a lot of people.

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The bridge at the Switzer Falls Trailhead at the lower parking lot and picnic area, but the sign fronting the bridge misled us into thinking the trail was only one-mile long

Anyways, the trail crossed a bridge over the Arroyo Seco (meaning “dry creek” in Spanish), and it would turn out that this was the only bridged stream crossing throughout the hike.

Beyond the bridge, we passed by another serene creekside picnic area as well as a last-chance pit toilet facility.

Then, the gently-descending trail followed along the east side of Arroyo Seco over a surprising amount of pavement, which made me think the trail used to be a road.

Eventually, the pavement gave way to conventional dirt trail with remnants of stone barricades or retaining walls flanking it.

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One of the crossings of Arroyo Seco, which was a little non-trivial when there’s a lot of water and even harder with improper shoes

Then, depending on the flow of Arroyo Seco, we would cross the creek at least three or four times (possibly even a half-dozen or more).

Over the years, we’ve managed to stay dry on these crossings with a combination of Gore-tex hiking boots and/or the optional trekking poles even in moderate flow.

However, I’ve noticed many people have had a harder time with improper shoes, which tended to slow down the hiking pace.

At around 30 minutes from the trailhead, we encountered a trail junction near some old stove relics that appeared to have belonged to the US Forest Service from a bygone era.

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Another look at an Arroyo Seco stream crossing where it took longer to get across why trying to stay dry

We weren’t sure what the full story was behind why we could see such stoves here, but they served as landmarks to remind us when we had to turn right to cross the creek.

We’ll come back to this spot later in this write-up, but we’ve noticed a lot of people mistakenly missing this creek crossing and continuing straight ahead, which would have taken them to the top of Switzer Falls for a rather disappointing experience.

Experiencing the Switzer Falls Hike: Skirting then descending into Bear Canyon

After the unbridged creek crossing by the stove, we then ascended a couple of short switchbacks as the trail became much narrower with some dropoff exposure.

While on this climbing part of the trail, it immediately narrowed as cliff exposure became more prevalent.

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Crossing Arroyo Seco and going up the short switchbacks to follow the ledge trail on the west side of Bear Canyon

As the trail skirted the very steep canyon walls, we noticed chain-linked fences on the drop-off side.

Clearly, authorities have set up these barricades to minimize the temptation of trying to scramble down these cliffs for a closer view of the elusive main drop of Switzer Falls.

Speaking of that main drop, we used to be able to catch a glimpse of the pool immediately above the main drop as well as the main drop itself.

However, as years passed by, the overgrowth became more severe and such a view of this main drop of Switzer Falls became less apparent.

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Top down view of what I think was the main Switzer Falls during a dry Winter in February 2003. Over the years, this view became more and more obstructed

The trail would continue skirting alongside the cliffs before reaching a trail junction at the high point of the overall hike.

This was just as the scenery opened up to reveal the pretty canyon below (which turned out to be Bear Canyon) as well as the mountains of the San Gabriel range rising above it.

We then kept left at the junction, which descended along exposed cliff ledges into the canyon.

In addition to the dropoff exposure, we also encountered a few patches of overgrowth (especially in the Spring), where it appeared like poison ivy contact could easily happen.

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This was the gorgeous view over Bear Canyon and the San Gabriel Mountains at the crest of the Switzer Falls Trail (part of Gabrielino Trail)

After another 10-15 minutes of this descent, we’d eventually drop into the shady confines of Bear Canyon, where we would hit yet another trail junction adjacent to the Arroyo Seco itself.

At this point, a sign pointed to the left (upstream) for the falls, and this was the way we went for the remainder of the main trail.

Going right at this junction would have led further downstream away from Switzer Falls towards Bear Canyon, which we can’t really say more about what’s down there since we’ve never done that part of the hike.

Nevertheless, as we hiked further upstream alongside Arroyo Seco, the relatively flat trail was pretty straightforward to follow with a couple more creek crossings.

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This was the front of the Lower Switzer Falls. Note the people to the top right who have managed to scramble up and around this obstacle to continue further upstream

Within minutes, we’d ultimately arrive at the two-tiered drop for what I’m dubbing the Lower Switzer Falls.

As far as the official trail was concerned, this waterfall marked the end even though we knew this wasn’t the main part of the waterfall.

The Elusive Switzer Falls Main Tier

In order to continue further upstream to get to the base of the main waterfall, we had to do some dicey scrambling.

The scramble started from the east side of Arroyo Seco where we could climb up from the edge of the plunge pool or go a little further downstream to pick up a more sloping “trail” leading up to a narrow ledge overlooking the Lower Switzer Falls.

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Looking back at the narrow ledge leading towards the top of the Lower Switzer Falls, but the tree that acted as a mental ‘fence’ seemed to be decaying and moving away from said ledge over the years

In the last two times that I’ve done this scramble (over a span of three years), I’ve noticed the ledge and a fallen tree acting as a mental “fence” erode and expose more of the dropoff.

So I don’t know how much longer this informal “path” will last in the future.

Nevertheless, this scramble reminded me very much of the kind of danger involved in going above the first drop of say Kaaterskill Falls due to the dropoff exposure.

Beyond the ledge, we then had to traverse a slope on slippery exposed rocks, which required the use of all of my agility and experience to avoid a nasty and potentially fatal fall.

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What I believe to be the trickiest part of the scrambling past the top of the Lower Switzer Falls

After getting past these dropoff-exposed obstacles, we handled the rest of the stream scramble and “slot-canyon”-like conditions with relative ease despite more fallen tree obstacles and boulder scrambles to avoid getting wet.

We still had to remain vigilant due to the landslide and flash flood danger given the steep-walled surroundings of this rugged part of the canyon.

Nevertheless, after about 10-15 minutes of this scramble, we then encountered a log jam, where we found it easiest to keep to the right of the chaotic jumble of fallen trees to continue.

Once beyond this obstacle, the path dead-ended right at the base of the main tier of Switzer Falls.

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The main drop of Switzer Falls

This nearly cathedral-like dead-end had sheer vertical walls on three sides so any further progress was probably reserved for mountain goats.

Tumbling pebbles and dripping springs from above constantly reminded us of the inherent danger of just being here so we couldn’t linger for too long.

That said, although making it up to this part of Switzer Falls wasn’t as secluded as I would’ve thought (as evidenced by the odd random people making it up here from time to time), we still had some moments of solitude.

On the return hike, the dicey scramble besides the Lower Switzer Falls seemed more difficult because of its somewhat downward slope facing the dropoff exposure, which acted as constant reminders of the dire consequences of a fall.

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Back at the diciest part of the scramble to the main Switzer Falls, but you can see what it’s like to face the dropoff exposure in this photo

Once we safely made it back to the plunge pool of the Lower Switzer Falls, then we could breathe easier as the riskiest part of the adventure was behind us.

The Detour to the top of Switzer Falls

The return hike from the Lower Switzer Falls followed the way we came in with the most strenuous part being the ascent back up to the trail junction with the Gabrielino Trail at the apex of the hike.

Upon descending back to the Arroyo Seco by trail junction at the three old stoves, we then could either keep left to head back to the trailhead, or extend the excursion by going downstream to the right to find the Upper Switzer Falls.

So turning right to follow the Arroyo Seco downstream, I initially had no trouble following the trail past a graffiti-laden sign warning that the path beyond this point lacked maintenance.

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This was the Upper Switzer Falls, which was pretty tiny and probably unsatisfactory for those who mistakenly went this way thinking the hike was better than this

Sure enough, after a short drop back into the Arroyo Seco, I then continued a short distance further downstream where the trail then choked off as it would encounter rocks flanking what appeared to be the 10ft Upper Switzer Falls.

Initially, I carefully scrambled around this small waterfall before descending towards the stream again for a more frontal look at the falls.

However, I also scrambled higher up the rocks slightly further downstream for a top down look at the main Switzer Falls drop.

Of course knowing that the canyon walls down there were sheer vertical drops, I didn’t bother entertaining the notion of going any further on this little detour.

Authorities

Switzer Falls resides in the Angeles National Forest. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

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We typically drive to the Switzer Falls Trailhead from the I-210 freeway then taking the Hwy 2 exit at La Canada-Flintridge.

Turning right at the off-ramp, we then followed the Hwy 2 (Angeles Crest Highway) for about 10 miles to the signed gated turnoff as well as upper parking lot for the Switzer Picnic Area.

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Limited parking at the parking lot for the Switzer Falls Picnic Area

This turnoff and parking area was about a quarter-mile or so after the Clear Creek Station (where we could buy a forest service pass) and Big Tujunga Canyon Road.

Turning right to go down the narrow road past the gate, it descended for about a half-mile to the Switzer Falls Picnic Area itself.

The parking down there was quite limited, and we were fortunate on several occasions to have found parking down there.

However, if this lot was full or the gate blocked the narrow road down to the lower parking lot, then we’d have to park at the upper parking lot or on the shoulders along the Hwy 2.

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The gate at the upper parking lot for the Switzer Picnic Area

This wound up adding another half-mile or so of walking in each direction (not to mention the sun exposure on that access road).

This drive would typically take us on the order of around 30 minutes from Pasadena, which itself is north of downtown Los Angeles.

Finally, if you didn’t purchase an Adventure Pass prior to driving up here, they do sell some at that Clear Creek Station as well as a larger station a little over 6 miles from the I-210/Hwy 2 off-ramp along the Hwy 2.

While the ranger stations only accepted cash or check, we’ve also bought such passes from more convenient spots like the REI in Monrovia as well as some neighboring gas stations.

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If the upper parking lot was full, there was also some less formal parking on the shoulders of the Angeles Crest Highway

And while enforcement of the Forest Service Pass in parked cars on Forest Service lands can be intermittent, I have observed that Switzer Falls was one place where enforcement certainly happens.

Downstream to upstream sweep of the lower falls in decent flow after an early season visit


Sweeping around the plunge pool of the middle falls.


Approaching the Lower Switzer Falls while also noticing some people who figured out how to make the scramble to get past this waterfall and explore further up the canyon


Taking the time to examine the dead-end at the very bottom of the main Switzer Falls from all sorts of different angles while I momentarily had this falls to myself


Brief sweep looking down at the main Switzer Falls before scrambling back for a closer look at the Upper Switzer Falls


Slow and very deliberate sweep from the plunge pool to the blue sky

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Tagged with: la canada, flintridge, altadena, pasadena, san gabriel, angeles national forest, angeles crest, los angeles, southern california, california, waterfall, arroyo seco, gabrielino trail, clear creek station, adventure pass, picnic



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