Bridge To Nowhere – East Fork of San Gabriel River

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The “Bridge To Nowhere” in the San Gabriel Mountains is a very popular 9 mile roundtrip hike. The trail follows the gold rich banks of the East Fork of San Gabriel River, with steep canyon walls lined with chaparral and yucca. The Bridge To Nowhere is a unique landmark in the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, and you may even be lucky to see bungee jumpers (or be a jumper) on weekends.

Basic Info:

  • 9 miles roundtrip
  • This is a moderate hike with very little elevation gain. Trail condition varies depending on the water level, but the trail is mostly apparent. Just follow the river upstream, you’ll get there.
  • Adventure Pass required for trailhead parking
  • Water shoes are great for river crossings. During the summer it is possible to stay dry, but I highly recommend them.
  • The only bungee jumping in California!
  • Known for gold panning and prospecting

The trip report follows after a bit of history.

Gold Mining History

The East Fork of San Gabriel River has had a long history of prospecting; evidence suggests that natives started as early as the 1700′s. Where To Find Gold In Southern California by James Klein suggests that placer gold is found at Camp Williams and on up for several miles. Try gravel benches. Panning and sluicing is fine, but dredging and obviously hydraulic is prohibited. Since this is national forest, claims are not available, but respect and etiquette for other miners is required.

For more information, I must defer you to the stories of Sedley Peck, the “Mayor” of San Gabriel Canyon. This is part 5 of 7 in a fantastic VHS documentary created by Howard Heitmeyer now available on YouTube:

Flood History

In 1929, Los Angeles County decided to begin construction of a road that would wind its way up the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. With the help of prison labor, the road was blazed and graded through several miles of East Fork. Surveyors decided that the most efficient route was to build a bridge over cliff narrows to cross the river. By 1936, the bridge was completed and soon the prison crews were tunneling through mountain sides across the canyon. Unexpectedly in 1938, a tremendous amount of rainfall spawned a 20 foot wall of water racing down the canyon, obliterating large sections of the newly graded road. Four years prior, the infamous New Years Day Flood had raised concerns about the safety of foothill communities when 40 people were killed and 45 people were never accounted for. The debris and flood basins we see today are a result; they attempt to control the deluge of precipitation that roars down the mountains during big storms. The road was abandoned as a futile attempt against nature’s unstoppable force. In fact, flooding has always been a natural part of this river’s cycle. Although Shoemaker Canyon Road was later attempted on higher ground on the west bank, it was also abandoned. Today, there is a bridge in the middle of nowhere that people like to jump off of. Nature is quickly reclaiming the scattered remnants of the road.

Trip Report

On the first Sunday in October, James, Ross, and I piled into my car and drove up 39. The easiest way to get there: on 210 get off at Azusa Ave, head north until the road becomes San Gabriel Canyon Rd (39). Take a right at the bridge onto East Fork Rd. There is a 3-way junction at a very sharp right turn. Take a left, following the sign to Sheep Mountain Wilderness. Park at Coyote Flat and display your Adventure Pass.

The trail starts off as a dirt road beyond a white gate and begins a slow descent to the river bed. Further down, there is a restroom and a trailhead sign for the Heaton Flat trail. Do not take the trail at this point, but continue to follow the dirt road until it turns into a trail.

At the waters edge, you’ll find lots of people cooling off in the river. The crowds you’ll see at this trail linger within the first couple of miles, looking for a place to cool off and get wet. The section just before and leading up to the trailhead is unofficially known as “Diaper Alley.” This is because careless visitors are leaving literally TONS of refuse and graffiti. Seriously, wtf? Help pick up, folks. Teach your kids. It’s a big problem.

Further up, you’ll start seeing gold prospectors who are using pans, sluice boxes, and submersible gear to uncover the color. Prospectors have arranged rocks to angle their sluices and create custom pools. Some have pitched their tents and seem to have a full time operation going on, and with the price of gold these days, they may be on to something. However, this practice is hardly new to the area, and western miners have been staking claims since gold was “discovered” here in the 1840′s.

The river snakes around ridges and peaks, and appropriately, Rattlesnake Peak is a major prominence. You’ll pass plenty of geological features like Swan Rock and other quartz veins that score otherwise darkly colored rock walls. It really looks like a Swan, see the pictures.

The trail should be very clear, although in some places you may have to scan a bit. Like the long lost road, the trail changes every season. You do not ever need to scramble up a steep rock face or bank, so if you find yourself doing this, there is a better way. Once you get closer to the last bend in the river, you’ll notice that the beaten path turns to the right and ascends a bank out of the bed. You need to get out of the river and up on that bank, and there are a couple of opportunities to do it. Again, the path is fairly well beaten, so keep your eyes peeled.

As you approach, the bridge doesn’t look like more than a concrete slab with hand rails. But once you’ve gotten a better perspective by looking over the edge or from the bottom of the canyon, you’ll see why people flock here. If you’re like me, you’ll want to take a dip in the emerald pools beneath. My advice is to descend on the eastern side of the bridge, or hang a right once you’ve walked across it. There is lots of loose gravel, so be very careful and mindful of people beneath you.

James, Ross, and I spent about an hour bathing amidst small waterfalls and boulders, swimming, yelling, falling, and generally acting primal. Positioning ourselves underneath the cold torrents of a waterfall was thoroughly exhilarating and worthy of loud vocalizations. There was no one there to bother and limitless pools to explore. We tested out our new water filter, the Katadyn Hiker. All three of us thought the water tasted a bit like carrots. Odd, although I think the taste can be attributed to its first use. I’ll post a review soon with more hands-on experience.

After soaking for awhile, we put on our shirts and shoes and scrambled back up the slope to the bridge.

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