In dry Southern California, finding a water source on a hike can be thrilling — but hikes that are "wet" with creeks, streams, rivers or waterfalls are often elusive.
Especially in the midst of summertime, and especially in drought years.
But cooling off on a waterlogged trail in SoCal isn't impossible — if you know where to look. In fact, if you want to, you can get downright soaked!
While all natural water sources depend on some kind of precipitation, there are some reliable water features along SoCal hiking trails that you can visit without having to schedule your hike right after rainfall.
And in our mountains and canyons, even the subtlest trickle of water can be a welcome and stunning surprise.
So, here are six wet hikes that are open now and perfect for tackling in the springtime — and two more to save for later, when they open back up for public access.
1. Bridge to Nowhere, San Gabriel Mountains National Monument/Angeles National Forest
One of the payoffs for the Bridge to Nowhere hike in the San Gabriels' Sheep Mountain Wilderness Area may be a bridge that connects nothing to nothing — literally no roads lead to or from it. This behemoth used to bridge a chasm for roads that were being built in the 1930s through Angeles National Forest to connect the San Gabriel Valley to Wrightwood — until major storms washed everything out completely, except the bridge.
For some, the real draw is the swimming hole right below the bridge, which is deep enough to jump into when the water levels are high enough. In fact, the entire trail can be pretty wet — with several crossings that lead you wading in the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, sometimes in water that can be up to waist-deep. Avoid river crossings right after rainfall, when the current can be strong and could literally sweep you away.
Be kind to your feet and wear very sturdy shoes — but unless you're wearing hip-waders, your boots are going to take in water and give you a squishy, sloshy gait. You can try wearing water shoes (a.k.a. "river shoes), but they can feel a little slippy on the rocky riverbed underfoot. Keep valuables in a watertight bag (a Ziploc will do) — and bring a change of clothes, socks, shoes and a towel to stay dry on the drive home.
From the trailhead, the round-trip hike along the East Fork Trail is about nine miles — but when the official parking area is full, finding a spot down the road can add as much as three miles to the journey. This is a popular trail with hikers and bungee-jumpers alike, so you won't be able to avoid other people altogether. Get there before 8 a.m. to try to beat the crowds. You'll need to display an Adventure Pass in your car to park at or near the East Fork Day Use Parking Trailhead — but if you can't get one ahead of time, you'll receive a parking ticket equivalent to the cost of the daily pass.
2. Solstice Canyon, Malibu, Santa Monica Mountains
In Malibu's Solstice Canyon, you'll find a rare year-round waterfall — though it may only be trickling, depending on the time of year and how deep into a drought season we are. That means that you're not very likely to get wet on this hike unless you really try — so no special precautions are necessary.
The most direct route to the waterfall is the Solstice Canyon Trail along a creek — where you'll pass the ruins of the early 20th-century Keller homestead (burned in 2007) and of the Paul R. Williams-designed "Tropical Terrace" (built 1952, burned in 1982). Thanks to its creation as a public park in 1988, you can now visit Solstice Canyon to see where the Roberts Ranch House kitchen and chimney once were — and walk along its ghostly footprint as you gaze at the surrounding statues and fountains.
Park in the paved lot or on a neighboring street, but read signs very carefully to avoid the wrath of Malibu parking enforcement. Dogs on leash are allowed on the trail but not at the waterfall site.
3. Grotto Trail, Circle X Ranch, Malibu, Santa Monica Mountains
The hike to the Circle X Ranch grotto starts innocently enough, first through the lower parking lot and then down a driveway, which turns into a jeep trail that takes you down this reverse (or "upside down") hike, during which you lose elevation first and then have to climb back up at the end. After a shady grove, with a few easy ups and downs, you'll emerge into the dry prairie of a former Boy Scout camp, with sandstone formations looming in the distance.
The abundance of water in the area attracted not only to the Chumash people but also Spanish rancheros — and the closer you get to the grotto, you can see the landscape getting wetter (and the plant life transitioning from coastal scrub to ferns). Expect some rock-hopping across streams, which are more than manageable in hiking boots. Once you hit a cluster of boulders, climb across the unimproved streambed and down to the upper grotto — shimmying down a tree, maybe with the help of a friend or some minor rappelling gear. The upper grotto cave was formed 8,000 years ago when a boulder fell on top of a waterfall — and, in a wet season, water pools there and cascades down to the lower grotto.
Stay on the trail to avoid the burn areas from the 2018 Woolsey Fire — which also prompted the closure of the group campground. Park in the unpaved lot off Yerba Buena Road — and leave your bike and horse at home. Keep your dog leashed and away from the grottos. Although this round-trip hike only clocks in at 3.5 miles, the boulder scrambling can be a bit strenuous.
4. Escondido Canyon Park and Falls, Malibu
The tallest waterfall in the Santa Monica Mountains can be found at Escondido Canyon Park — with three tiers of limestone and 150 feet in height. The uppermost waterfalls are located on private property, so the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority asks that hikers not attempt to climb up there (especially because of the risk of serious fall injuries). But the lower falls, where the public parkland ends, are worth the four-mile round-trip hike through oak woodland, riparian woodland and coastal sage scrub habitats.
The falls aren't the only thing that makes this Escondido Canyon hike wet — because there's also the seasonal Escondido Creek that the trail crosses multiple times. If there is any water in it, it's usually not very deep — so good hiking boots with sturdy soles should suffice.
Park in the pay lot at Winding Way or for free along the Pacific Coast Highway, checking carefully for "No Parking" signs. The trail is mostly shaded, but it can still get hot and sticky with rising temperatures. Wear swim gear if you dare to stand under the falls.
5. Temescal Canyon Falls, Temescal Gateway Park, Pacific Palisades
There are many different ways to explore Temescal Gateway Park — and not all of them are wet. But if you take the Temescal Canyon Trail from the fee parking area at Temescal Canyon Road off Sunset Boulevard, you'll follow alongside and even cross a trickling creek before arriving at the Temescal waterfall, 1.3 miles into your hike. Sneakers or regular hiking shoes or sandals (with a protected toe) should suffice.
This seasonal waterfall is actually located within the boundaries of Topanga State Park — one of the parks that Temescal serves as a "gateway" to, all within Los Angeles City limits. You can view it from an iconic footbridge along the trail.
Make a counter-clockwise loop out of your hike by turning left and climbing down through Topanga State Park on the Temescal Ridge Trail, which offers a view of gorgeous coastline scenery (which, on a clear day, might even include Catalina Island). This is the "dry" (and sunny) part of the hike — and it can get pretty hot despite the ocean breeze. Bring plenty of water and sun protection. If you want to hike all the way to the falls, you'll need to do it without your dog — because man's best friend isn't welcome on the trail in Topanga (not even on a leash).
6. Eaton Canyon Natural Area, Pasadena
Eaton Canyon is really popular, especially on weekends and holidays — and that can detract from the experience. Fortunately, COVID-19 safety protocols have necessitated an advance online reservation system for free, timed entry, which has streamlined the foot traffic on the Eaton Canyon Trail (a.k.a. the Lower Falls Trail). And for most, the waterfall is the pièce de résistance of visiting Eaton Canyon.
At just under four miles round-trip, it's not a very long out-and-back hike — but traversing its rugged terrain is challenging enough to not be suitable for young children or beginner hikers. It involves some scrambling up cliffs, tiptoeing on boulders across Eaton Canyon Stream, and trudging along the sandy Eaton Wash. And that's just for starters. Follow the well-marked trail's signs to the waterfall.
The big payoff is a pool of water at the foot of the falls that's big enough to swim in — and people do swim in it, sometimes fully clothed, sometimes prepared with a swimsuit. Be careful getting to it, which requires walking across the smooth, eroded, sand-covered rocks that can pose a major slip-and-trip hazard. Make sure you're wearing shoes with a good grip — ones you won't mind getting wet on the stream crossings on the way there and on the return trip back. For your safety, stay only on official trails — and don't try to climb the waterfall.
The following two "wet hikes" are temporarily closed to the public for fire recovery — but they're so good, they're worth noting now and saving for later.
7. Fish Creek, Angeles National Forest
Fish Creek is known as one of the most beautiful trails in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains — but unfortunately, 95% of it was within the burn area of the 2016 San Gabriel Complex Fire. As a result, all access points to the single-track trail are closed indefinitely for fire recovery and trail repair.
The City of Duarte is working with Angeles National Forest to restore public access to the historic trail — which was once lush with wildflowers and dotted with remains from 18th-century cabins. Check back with the city to see when you'll be able to once again access Fish Canyon — which leads to one of the biggest waterfalls in the area, a three-tiered beauty for sure.
8. Sturtevant Falls, Chantry Flat, Angeles National Forest
The Chantry Flat area (including Adam's Pack Station) is currently closed for recovery from the 2020 Bobcat Fire. When it reopens (date TBD) and you decide to try out the hike to Sturtevant Falls in Big Santa Anita Canyon, you'll find that it's an "upside down" one, with a steep descent into the "bowl" down the Gabrielino Trail.
This trail actually runs 28.5 miles — created in 1970 with the renaming of several other trails. But you only need to hike about 1.5 miles of it from the Chantry Flat parking area to get to the year-round waterfall, one of the biggest in the San Gabriels. Look for historic, rustic cabins along the trail — some of which were destroyed in the Bobcat Fire.