PHOTOS © RAY ALCANTAR / GABRIEL LACKTMAN
Less than 24 hours after accomplishing a couple first ascents at Crystal Lake, and rupturing my eardrum on route, I was canyoneering. Sunday morning, July 12th, 2015 at 7am I met my buddy Ray to give Little Santa Anita Canyon my first go around. The canyon sits in the southern San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles National Forest, within Los Angeles County in southern California. It runs south from Mount Wilson down to the town of Sierra Madre.
Little Santa Anita is a short beginner canyon with many short rappels. In the past, LSA contained many water challenges but sediment from landslides has filled in many of these challenges and it is rarely more than an easy class B canyon except following strong rains. Nowadays it's essentially a dry trip.
You start along a typical trail that is pretty popular for Mt. Wilson. Nowhere near as popular as Chantry Flats trailhead, but a good number of casual hikers and trail runners were already present by 7:30am. We got a nice head start to the day.
You only have to hike about 1.3 miles to the entrance of the canyon, but it's a fairly steep gain. It was a warm morning, it probably gains over 1000' to the first destination, which is called "First Water."
Above you can see Ray with the orange backpack on, it wasn't until about 30 minutes into the hike when we broke the first sweat and he realized he forgot his harness. Better than forgetting the rope! We discussed sharing one and just leap frogging the rappels to save time. It was only the two of us and the trip is noted as only being half a day.
After just enough switchbacks to notice the challenge we approached the junction for First Water. From here you head to the right of the trail and drop off from the arid ridge and scenic views to an atmosphere far more shaded and green. I'll never love canyoning as much as rock climbing, but the best part is entering these areas that are rarely seen by the general public. You would need some technical gear and basic rappelling knowledge to make it down and out of here.
The weather was WAAAAY cooler inside the canyon. We followed the creek down not long before our first rappel. Below you can see Ray taking a peek at the ground below before his descent.
And off I go too!
This was only my second time and the idea of it being a "dry canyon" was sort of appealing because it could make it a little less messy with having to dry bag all of your belongings, slog around with wet shoes, and carry a wet rope, plus it can be colder.
HOWEVER, in my mind I pictured a dry canyon like Zion or something with magnificent walls of painted red sandstone, but Little Santa Anita Canyon should actually be wet. This was sort of a sad realization of the current drought in California. Below you can see me finishing a rappel to a puddle so tiny it's just sort of gross stagnant water. The water that was around was so black or had such heavy green algae we really put in the effort to step around it.
Here you can see Ray standing above a dry pool. You can almost tell where the water level is suppose to be. There was just sand and dust sitting on the bottom, no water here. Many of the slides into the pools ended up as just friction down climbs. You can see the yellow webbing to the right side of the photo. Many or most of the rappel stations are bolted. It's said this canyon is so popular amongst guiding companies they bolted the rap stations to save time.
Canyoneering is a funky combination of hiking or "creeking" when it's hiking thru water, mixed with rappelling, down climbing, and often sliding down rocks or jumping into pools of water, and some swimming too. It's interesting because you have these different activities to break up the monotony. Here is the map of the canyon, take note of the last level on the bottom of the map, that is an OPTIONAL descent path. The map really urges you NOT to take those last 3 rappels, this will come up later in the trip report.
I love those maps, they're so fun and visual. I wish all hiking and climbing maps were so detailed. Ray and I on the other hand, were not too detail oriented this day. We minded the map as we were descending but it was going so quickly we sort of lost count on how many rappels we did and how many were left. We cared because we wanted to finish after 10 and exit the canyon.
The rappels ranged from 12' to 30', nothing spectacular. I was throwing a rope and setting up a rap when I looked over and Ray had already easily down climbed it. HA! This saved even more time and contributed to our lack of attention to the sequence on our map. Here's a photo of me opting out of a rappel to use a downed tree instead.
Nonetheless the day was beautiful and Ray and I had fun cracking some jokes and agreeing that although the trip was satisfactory compared to Eaton Canyon, it was better than being inside. The temperature inside the canyon was fantastic and it's always fun to go somewhere new and cross another adventure off the list.
For how heavily traveled this place is known to be, we never saw another party canyoneering. We also were surprised how much bushwhacking we had to do. We didn't have a rope bucket or even a static line, but that didn't hold us back. We took turns coiling the rope and laughed at our mutual weakness of rope management. That's a real thing ya know!!!
Getting to what we thought was the end of the trip we started to really peel our eyes for a rock cairn that was said to be prominent and marking a use trail to exit the canyon. The other option was another 3 rappels and jump a fence that could result in a trespassing ticket. Looking to avoid that and put into fear from the unknown and the stern advice of our handy map, we found the cairn and packed up the rope for the day.
Up until this moment the day had been very mild in spirit. The instructions said the use trail would be "chossy" meaning loose dirt. However we headed up it, with the concept this was the safest way out, and realized it was the worst and most dangerous action of the day. The ground was not chossy, which is used more in terms of loose ROCK, but it was just a VERY steep incline of straight dirt. There was no hand holds or footings, you basically had to bear crawl up it, digging your fingernails into the dirt. Ray and I looked at each other several times heading up this, just thinking and repeating and verbalizing "THIS CANNOT BE THE RIGHT WAY OUT"
As soon as we got just tad up the hill, it was no turning back. It was sketchy enough and exposed that slipping down would royally suck and bring you back to the bottom of the canyon floor, and there was so way to even safely descend with purpose. We were committed to this exit. There were the occasional plant roots to grab onto, many of them dead. Many occasions the ground was sliding out from underneath us and it meant to hurry up and go higher, no standing around thinking. The brush was thick! At one point, you are given the option to attempt crawling with no assistance or use the instinctive POISON OAK bush as an anchor, It was treacherous and terrible. It seemed to never end. We just kept gaining elevation and the brush thickened and the poison oak did too. It looked dry enough and dead enough to not be too affecting, but still. It was 150' gain on thoroughly eroded soil.
Ray finally popped out and cheered some positive encouragement to me that I was close. I broke out shortly after and was thrilled to see some level ground.
From this point you follow a ridge up another 80' higher to connect you to the main Mt. Wilson trail. You can see people on the trail from this vantage point. We were thirsty and scraped up from the brush.
We were treated to some really excellent views along the ridge back. You can see Sierra Madre below. A big sense of relief came over us both. We made it.
We hoped back on the main trail, had a break for water and took the quick downhill stroll back to the cars.
I joked with Ray on the way back. I told him the day was pretty boring before that hairy ascent out of the canyon. I said how much I needed that, it really spiced up the trip and filled me with that sense of adventure that you came for. The trip took the two of us exactly 4 hours from car to car. We got back to the cars at 11:30am. That gave me time to go home, eat, change and head to the after hours Urgent Care in Mission Hills to have my ruptured ear examined. I was prescribed some antibiotics and given a tetanus shot. I had some itchy legs and spots on my wrist, but no signs of poison oak developing. One hell of a weekend. After I left the urgent care I also stopped by my printer's house to pick up a really limited batch of new Forever Outside t-shirts. I took the shirts home and hand-dyed each one. I can't wait to out them in the store! Work hard / play hard!!!