Great Falls of the Fox: Southern California Canyoneering


Guest Canyoneering Rave by Nicolas Barth
Photos by Nic Barth and Keith Richards-Dinger.

Presented with a three-day weekend at the end of a solid bout of rain in southern California I figured I could spare one day to be out and about. I had never been to Great Falls of the Fox, said to be one of the standout canyons in the San Gabriels for its narrow bedrock canyon and rapid-fire waterfalls, so thought this would be as good a time as any to check it out. It was my first time in the Big Tujunga area- spectacular outcrops of previously unmapped rock avalanches and slumps made me a distracted driver and reinvigorated my geologic interest in the San Gabriels. A quick scout down the road suggested manageable water levels in Fox (less than we thought) and so we set off from the car at about 8:30a.m.

We followed an old fire road down to Big Tujunga, crossed the swollen creek on logs to preserve dry feet, and then climbed the longer fire road up the other side. About two hours in we turned off from the fire road and almost immediately encountered another group of six canyoners. We quickly passed this group (destined for a post-sunset exit from the canyon) and traversed the steep slope and gully into Fox. For a "navigationally tricky bushwhacking traverse" it was intuitive and straightforward. I was pleasantly surprised. The creek had a nice enough flow and we crossed back and forth, traversing a minefield of logjams, and as I am just now finding out, poison oak. After a number of minutes, bedrock started appearing in the stream channel and it was time for a snack and to suit up.

The canyon started with its first rappel a stone throw down. From here on it was a nice section of canyon with eight closely spaced rappels. Several were quite beautiful and most put us right into the meat of the flow. The meat however was lean enough that there were no hydraulics to avoid. A splashy good time, but no sign of real danger.

The hundred-foot Great Falls was certainly noteworthy. A smooth enclosing chute of rock with whitewater plunging into unseen darkness below. The anchor was well placed to allow us to go right through the main part of the flow. I enjoyed it so much I had to jug back up (enduring severe brainfreeze) and rappel it again.

Two more rappels followed, each offering dramatic upcanyon views of the Great Falls beyond. In times past (before the 2009 Station Fire) several of the pools at the base of the falls would have been swimmers, even jumpers, but in its current gravel filled state we found only shallow landings. The recent rains were not the right flow to scour the canyon, only further fill it with gravel.

About forty minutes of Eaton-esque stream walking brought us quite abruptly to the final seventy-foot rappel. This one had a nice broad sheet and clearly would have been impressive at many times more flow. A short distance below we began to see sediment banks related to Big Tujunga Reservior's full pool, and shortly thereafter the Big Tujunga River.

We found the exit track back up to the highway surprisingly well traveled and made quick time (other than my occasional stop for geologizing). A half-mile walk along the highway and I was delighted to find my car where I left it (one of the other group's four cars was apparently not so lucky). A little over seven hours car to car. More than most canyons in the San Gabriels, the canyon had its nice moments. Two mylar balloons were the only sign of human trash on the way through. Thanks to Keith for a nice day out. I'm now even more motivated to scour the San Gabriels for large lurking landslides.