Big Tujunga Canyoneering
Great Falls of the Fox is touted as the best canyoneering in the San Gabriel Mountains. Indeed, when the falls are roaring, this gorge is an incomparable sight. But even with low water flow, like on November 19, 2007, it is one of the best local canyoneering experiences to be had. The American Canyoneering Association rating is 3BR IV.
Looking at gorge of Great Falls of the Fox (middle)
Fox Creek flows south and east from the slopes of Mt. Gleason into Big Tujunga Canyon just above the Big Tujunga Dam reservoir. The narrow granite passage enclosing the 7 waterfalls known as the Great Falls of the Fox is about a mile upstream of the Fox Canyon/Big Tujunga Canyon junction. The gem of the 7 falls is the 100 foot “Great Falls.” There are actually 8 rappels in Great Falls of the Fox. The 8th is down a 60 foot exit falls in Lower Fox Canyon.
Marvelous granite cliffs
Eight of us gathered on a clear Monday morning at a trailhead off Big Tujunga Road, ½ mile southwest of the junction with Angeles Forest Highway. We sorted and inventoried needed gear and were off by 7:30 a.m. We hiked down into Big Tujunga Canyon along the Fall Creek Fire Road hitting the canyon bottom in less than 2 miles. There was lots more fire road before we hit our jump-off point from the fire road, an intermittent use trail snaking down and up through the dry San Gabriel chaparral.
The last ¼ mile of our descent into Fox Canyon was an extremely steep affair. Rockfall was an issue and, in retrospect, everyone should have donned helmets here. I had two granite missiles with enough velocity and size to do respectable damage narrowly miss me. When I reached the creek bottom, I heard a piercing “Oh, shit, oh shit” along with a faint rumbling sound. It sounded like someone had lost his footing and was tumbling down the slope through the yucca and rock. Instead, a TV sized boulder came crashing through the brush toward the creek bottom. It looked like it would hit the creek bottom in my general vicinity and I braced to take evasive action. Fortunately, it came to a thunderous stop about 15 feet in front of me. That was enough moving rock for the day.
Traverse above the creek Wading in chilly water
With our group a little spread out, we started down the canyon to do what we had come to do. The boulder hopping and scrambling over fallen trees and branches seemed endless before we arrived at the top of the Great Falls of the Fox, at about 3,000’ elevation. The vertical walls of granite looked magnificent.
Wetter Than Expected
I start down one of the falls
The first 4 rappels ranged from 20 to 50 feet. There was more water at the bottom of the drops than we had anticipated given the parched conditions in southern California mountains so far this year.
Straddle to next drop Typical landing
We began to set the end of the rappel strand a couple of feet above the water so that we could just drop off the end of the rope at the end of the rappel. On one of these drops, I rappelled off the end of the rope and landed off balance in thigh-deep water, whereupon I promptly fell backward into the water and got a good soaking. On another rappel, we used a single anchor for two drops. We did the first rappel and then straddled a narrow pool 50 feet in length to reach the second drop.
Two falls in view
The Gem: The Great Falls
Before we knew it we were at the big drop, the 100 foot Great Falls. The top is a conglomeration of large boulders and logs. The lip of the fall hangs in such a way that you cannot get a direct view into the pool ten stories below. We supplemented the rock anchor at the lip with a couple of human anchors for the first few rappelers. As with all other rappels today, this one was on a single strand using a block on a figure 8 device .
Looking down the big drop
Starting the rappel presented no special difficulties although the surface is vertical all the way. About 15 feet down I tied off on my Figure 8 to snap a photo or two. Everyone enjoyed this drop in particular and I could just imagine how much more spectacular it would be with increased water volume.
The next fall was one fourth the drop of the big one, but it ended in a relatively substantial pool. There were no workable natural anchors here, but someone had placed a 3 bolt anchor. I noted a lot of rust on the hangers and I was a little suspicious at first because the middle hanger swiveled around its bolt. But the other two placements were solid and the webbing still looked reliable.
The 7th rappel was a little trickier because the anchor rock is about 25-30 feet from the lip of the fall. You have to work your into and across a narrow slot to get to the lip. From the lip, the descent is about 35 feet.
After this rappel, everybody was ready for lunch. We added warm layers and sat down in the shadow of the canyon to eat. Back on our feet, we took the long hike to the exit fall.
Lower Fox Falls & Out
The exit fall is called the Lower Fox Falls. Here, there was a large tree anchor about 15 feet from the edge. Because the pool at the bottom of this 65-70 foot falls was rather large, the two most experienced members, Sonny and Paul, set up a guideline that would allow, near the bottom of the rappel, a traverse above the pool to dry terrain. Paul got the honor of going down first into the water to rig the bottom of the guideline behind the pool. Sonny set up the top of the guideline and we all adjusted the friction on our rappel devices to account for the increased tension/friction provided by being clipped into the guideline with our safety tethers. Everyone had fun swinging over the pool and being pulled onto terra firma without getting wet.
Coming in for landing on guideline
Last man down, Sonny Lawrence
After this last drop, it took only a few minutes to get to the junction with Big Tujunga Canyon. Here, you are just upstream of the lake behind the dam. Down in the canyon bottom, there was still some wading to do before hitting an ascent trail. We topped out on Big Tujunga Road about a mile from the cars and strolled along the road back to the trailhead undoubtedly looking disheveled and grubby to the commuters whizzing by. Grubby maybe; satisfied certainly.