Canyon of Many UsesLittle Santa Anita Canyon is a magnificent tear in the fabric of the San Gabriel front range starting above the hillside town of Sierra Madre. The Mt. Wilson Trail hugs one side of the canyon and winds a 7 mile route to Mt. Wilson. The original inhabitants of this area, the Gabrielino Indians, used the trail to access the San Gabriel mountains and even the desert beyond.
Three miles up the Wilson trail is the oasis-like Orchard Camp, a perfect shaded rest spot for the weary hiker. Orchard Camp is also the turn-around spot for the annual 8.6 mile Mt. Wilson Trail Race which race begins in downtown Sierra Madre and continues on the trail.
This canyon has more to offer in that its lower section descending to the Sierra Madre Dam provides an excellent canyoneering opportunity. The American Canyoneering Association (“ACA”) rating for this canyon is 3C III *** and usually there is plenty of water running and anywhere from 8 to 12 rappels, depending on whether you can downclimb some of the drops that go 4th class. The canyon used to be a lot more verdant before a large fire charred a lot of the terrain a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, it’s still a very scenic canyon, nicely wooded because of the year-long water flow and shaded from the summer sun. Definitely worth doing.
Kirk announced on the ACA member forum that he planned to descend the canyon on a late July weekend day and invited others to join. Eight showed up one warm July Sunday morning at 7 a.m. at the Mt. Wilson trailhead.
Southwest Canyoneering Pioneer Chris BrennanI got to First Water ahead of the others and who should I meet but the guru and pioneer of southern California canyoneering, Cal Tech Professor Chris Brennan. Prof. Brennan has written the definitive, and so far only, canyoneering guide to the dozens of canyons in the San Gabriel range. I introduced myself to this very fit individual who must be in his early 70’s. He mentioned that it had been real adventure to do first ascents of these canyons when he and partners had no idea how long the drops were and could never be certain (until it was too late) whether they had brought enough rope along. But they managed to survive.
Today, Chris was taking his 11 year old niece down Little Santa Anita Canyon to add to her experience. Cool. Soon, the rest of my group arrived and set about getting ready. Chris and his niece and one other person took off well before us and we never saw them again.
Rattlesnakes, Blackberries and Poison OakOur group set off and we immediately started wading. There are many parts of the canyon where it’s not possible to skirt the stream so you simply have to hike in the middle of it. No big deal in the summer for your feet to stay soaked.
At the first rappel we noticed the first of the single bolts that have been placed at the drops. TOTALLY UNNECESSARY because there are natural anchors everywhere. We avoided the bolts and either used existing natural anchors, redid one or two when the webbing looked frayed, or built a new one. Due to the “geometry” of several of the rappels points, some of the rappels provided a bit of a challenge, but of course that’s what we were there for.
Almost all the drops featured very slick, wet and mossy rock to challenge solid foot placement. We took advantage of our generous time allotment to practice skills such as rigging releasable blocks and lowering.
Upon nearly reaching the third drop we spotted a coiled rattlesnake off to the side. Despite getting close enough to him to snap some photos, this guy never budged from his coil. About an hour later, we came upon a second rattler. This one showed himself for a bit but then slithered into the bushes.
More worrisome than rattlesnakes was the ubiquitous Poison Oak. It is a staple of San Gabriel mountain canyons and provides a good reason to wear long pants and long sleeves if you want to minimize your chances of getting tagged by the plant’s oils.
Towards the end of the canyon, we were all stoked to come upon about a half an acre of blackberry bushes with lots of ripe fruit. We consumed.
Everyone lost count of the number of rappels we had done, but soon enough the canyon leveled out permanently and we were ready to shed our gear and hike out. Our exit involved climbing over a barbed wire-topped fence belonging to L.A. County. This was probably the riskiest thing we did all day because you couldn’t afford to slip and come down on the razor sharp wire barbs!
It felt good to get in a pretty little canyon like this one and still have much of the day left.