Gurgling, babbling, and dancing, two vibrant streams flow south from the rugged canyons of the east San Gabriel Mountains above Rancho Cucamonga. As the streams near the valley, they become one and the water cuts through granite bedrock and tumbles through a series of small cascades and vertical drops known as Etiwanda Falls. The life-giving water nourishes an oasis of alder, maple, bay, sycamore, willow, and a host of shrubs and wildflowers.
I’ve known of Etiwanda Falls for years, but with its diminutive stature and the less-than-glamorous dirt-road route to get there, it had never risen high on my hit list. But the first full day of spring begs to be celebrated by hiking to a waterfall. And since I’ve already visited most of the noteworthy falls of the San Gabriels, I decided I’d give Etiwanda Falls a visit. In going online to find a good trail guide, I found none. It reminded me why I started Dan’s Hiking Pages. There were lots of write-ups, but nothing that gives a clear and reliable description of how to hike to the falls. So after I pieced together various postings, I was ready to hike.
My friend Tom and I leave Azusa shortly after 7 AM on Saturday morning and head east on the I-210 freeway. The marine layer transitions to hazy sun. We exit on Dry Creek Blvd. in Rancho Cucamonga and drive north to the trailhead at the upper end of Etiwanda Avenue. There are dozens of cars parked along the dirt road but we are able to find a spot right up front.
Before us lies 1,200 acres set aside by San Bernardino County as the North Etiwanda Preserve, a habitat preservation consisting primarily of a unique Riversidean Alluvial Fan Sage Scrub plant community. The trail to the falls is a dirt road that heads north through the preserve, briefly crosses some private property, enters the San Bernardino National Forest, and ends at the falls. It climbs 700 feet in 1.6 miles. The route is entirely exposed so a hike would be brutal on a hot sunny day. Today’s forecast is for the mid-70s and so we will be fine, particularly with an early start.
7:50 AM – Begin hike. We wander up the rocky dirt road. The temperature is pleasant. The rugged San Gabriels dominate the horizon before us. After a few minutes we take a short side jaunt to check out the kiosk pavilion. It has several signage displays providing information about plants, animals, and history. The vandalism and trash is unfortunate. Back on the road we continue north. There are lots of people on the trail.
The surrounding sage scrub plant community is alive and vibrant. The richly textured patchwork of shrubs include mountain lilac, white sage, black sage, California sagebrush, chamise, deer weed, scale broom, California buckwheat, hoaryleaf ceanothus, yerba santa, and chaparral yucca. Much of it is in bloom, with the mountain lilac being particularly showy. We enjoy identifying plants and smelling the wonderful aromas of sage. Lizards scamper along the ground and butterflies flutter through the air.
The climb is steady. The rock-ridden road makes walking a little tedious. Behind us, the view of Pomona Valley is far reach but muted by the marine haze. Saddleback pokes above the marine layer in distant Orange County. I’m curious and about loud engine noise coming from the valley to the south. It kind of sounds like aircraft engines. Oh, could it be the speedway? Tom says that NASCAR is in town this weekend, so I bet that’s what it is. We reach a half mile maker at 8:24. It’s made of thick iron and has the characters cut out in relief, so it would be very difficult to vandalize. It states the elevation at 2247’.
8:25 – Four-way junction, 0.514 mile from the start. A stone pillar has a sign pointing left (west) with a hiker icon, and a sign pointing right (east) with a picnic table icon. The official preserve map does not show the road that continues straight northward since it exits the preserve boundary. We turn right (east) and walk about 50 yards to the edge of wash to look down into the canyon below. The water flowing down East Etiwanda Creek would have tumbled over Etiwanda Falls, about a mile upstream. Back at the junction we continue north. In about 50 yards we pass through an open gateway. The climb gets steeper. Our pace is casual as we enjoy good conversation and stop to admire plants and soak in the beautiful scenery.
At 8:53 we pass a junction where a road heads east along the base of Prominence 2917. It’s been registered as a provisional summit on Peakbagger.com, so in my preparation I wondered if there was a route to the top. From Google satellite view, it appears that the thick brush forms an impassable barrier. And as we walk along, I can’t see any reasonable route through the hostel vegetation to the summit. We pass along the east flank of the prominence as the topography becomes hillier. There are a still scads of people coming and going to the waterfalls. The prevalence of graffiti is a strong refutation of the theory of evolution. The leaves of alders and sycamores in the creek far below shimmer in the morning sun. My eyes are drawn to surrounding peaks and wonder if they have names and ways to reach them.
As we reach a tributary coming in from the left (west) we are greeted with plants we’ve not experienced yet today: poison oak, mule fat, canyon dudleya, bigberry manzanita.
9:23 – Water transport feature. The preserve has various remnants from when early settlers used inventive was to tap and transport precious water for their ranches and farms. Today the transport is primarily by steel pipes. This grate-covered concrete box with water rushing through it is part of today’s water transport system. We are near the falls and we can hear the gleeful voices of visitors enjoying the setting. A use path heads into the brush and provides a means to access the canyon below the falls, but later we find that it is treacherous. We take the road as it veers left and curves back around. The view back toward the hazy valley is framed by the canyon. Our pace is still slow as we look at plants. The road terminates at the shady creek above the falls.
9:45 – Etiwanda Falls. What a delightful setting! A canopy of trees provides a welcoming oasis. There are lots of people sitting on the rocks eating, playing in the water, exploring, and generally enjoying the sylvan sanctuary. The falls from this vantage point are simply puny and consist of water cascading down a chute-like series of rocks dropping only about 15 feet. Beyond that pool the water pours over a lip and drops about 10 feet into another pool. The water then disappears over another lip into a deep gorge out of view. To see that falls will require some concerted effort and is not for the casual walker or faint of heart.
After hanging here awhile, we heard there is another falls up the creek. Two streams join here and we follow the path up the stream on the left (west). We carefully avoid the abundant poison oak. Eupatory and blackberry display their white flowers. The babbling brook is soothing to the ears. In less than 10 minutes we reach another waterfall: another cascade flowing down rocks into a pool, dropping about 20. This is really nice and we are the only ones here. We climb the rocks on the right to get above falls. The canyon walls are steep with textured rocks and varied vegetation. Color wildflowers accent the scene. We climb up stream a couple more minutes and find another waterfall. This one drops virtually about 7 feet into a pool. We hike a little further but decide it’s time to head back.
11:00 – Start back. We retrace our steps, carefully climbing over rocks and dodging poison oak. We encounter another group climbing up. We are really enjoying ourselves but the trash, graffiti, and carved-up trees are saddening. We arrive back at the main falls at 11:27. Still lots of people here. We take more pictures now that the falls are in the sun.
Back on the road about 65 yards from the creek, we decide to climb down the steep slope using a narrow path through the brush. We climb down and down being drawn by the hope of a good view of the big falls. We end up next to a huge oak tree high on the sheer wall above the creek and have a splendid view of the falls. The presence of a large graffiti tag at the bottom of the falls indicates that that location is reachable, probably from downstream. Our perch is somewhat precarious. Tom inadvertently dislodges some rocks that tumble down the shire rock face and crash to the canyon floor. This is not a good place to be. We carefully climb out and are relieved to reach a safe place. We take a use path back to the water transport feature.
After catching our breath and chatting with a young couple, we start back at 12:15. There are still people coming up the road and it’s beginning to get warm. We stroll down the rocky road and enjoy wildflowers and expansive views. We pass the four-way junction at 12:58. The valley before us is still muted by haze.
1:30 – Finish hike. It’s about 78 degrees, but it seems much hotter.
Epilog – What a nice outing to celebrate the first full day of spring! A vibrant plant community, beautiful wildflowers, sweeping views, rugged mountains, fresh air, sunshine, a woodsy sanctuary, and some charming waterfalls. It’s unfortunate that San Bernardino County and the Forest Service are negligent in dealing with the graffiti and vandalism. They need to remove the graffiti weekly and work with law enforcement to catch these criminals. There is a lot of the North Etiwanda Preserve I have yet to explore, including 10 interpretive stations. I certainly see why this place is so appealing to the locals.