Trail of Tears
US Forest Service officials set to close dangerous waterfall area in upper Eaton Canyon
By André Coleman 06/25/2014
A highly dangerous manmade trail located in one of the most scenic portions of upper Eaton Canyon in eastern Pasadena will soon be closed permanently, the Pasadena Weekly has learned.
Meanwhile, a group of canyoneers who use the area for hiking and rappelling told the Weekly they would take steps to make sure their access to the canyon was not cut off.
Since 2010, five people have fallen to their deaths and dozens more have been injured climbing to a waterfall via a steep incline known as the “Razorback Trail,” comprised of mostly loose granite that easily crumbles underfoot. The unmarked trail is a steep offshoot of the much safer and flatter trail in Eaton Canyon that leads to another scenic waterfall at a lower elevation.
Besides the five deaths, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Search and Rescue Team over the past few years has pulled dozens of other hikers out of the canyon after they suffered injuries while hiking or became scared on their way back down the mountain.
“Social media has fueled a lot of the accidents,” said US Forest Service spokesperson Sherry Rollman. “Kids see the pictures and videos of people in the pond and they want to go up there. They think it’s not a tough hike, but it is a serious incline to the second falls.”
Nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the area, originally called El Precipicio by the Spanish settlers because of its steep gorges, was later named after Judge Benjamin Eaton, who built a ranch house in 1865 not far from Eaton Creek.
Today the area is a popular spot among local preservationists and hikers, and now seems to be just as famous for search and rescue missions sparked by stranded or injured hikers.
In August 2011, there was a call for more public education after emergency rescue teams noted an increase in rescues at Eaton Canyon. Two of the incidents were fatalities. In those incidents, John Jutiyasantayanon, 23, of Montclair fell to his death on Aug. 6, 2011 after an accident near the higher waterfall. A week earlier, Erwin Molina, 21, fell near the first waterfall and died of his injuries at Huntington Hospital.
On August 8, 2012 Christian Funes, 19, of Los Angeles fell 125 feet and was killed.
That same year, emergency personnel rescued 14 people from that area.
Last March, things reached a boiling point after Esther Suen, a senior at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, died after falling nearly 200 feet while hiking up to the waterfall with three classmates. One of Suen’s friends also fell, but survived.
After Suen’s death, the Forest Service ran a public information campaign aimed at keeping people away from the dangerous trail. “Don’t believe the false information about a safe hike to the second waterfall at Eaton Canyon,” Pasadena Fire Department Capt. Danny Serna said in the video, which was designed to discourage people from using the Razorback Trail. “Too many have died trying to climb the crumbling mountainside to reach a second waterfall. Others have been seriously injured. You may have heard of trails leading into mountains or waterfalls. The truth is, there is no safe trail to the second waterfall. You put yourself in danger and the rescuers responsible for rescuing you. Trying to climb a crumbling mountainside is not worth risking your life and you risk serious injury to yourself and others.”
However, the campaign had little impact. In February, a search and rescue team was called to save four hikers after one of them fell trying to reach the waterfall.
Two months later, search and rescue teams were called out to save five hikers who made it to the waterfall and then realized they could not make it back down the mountain.
The Forest Service met with representatives from several local public safety agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department and the Pasadena Police Department, and confirmed that closing the trail was the best solution.
Rollman said the Forest Service is waiting for official signage to be completed before a formal announcement is made.
Signs informing hikers of the closure are set to be placed at several locations, including the parking lot, the Eaton Canyon Nature Center and at the junction leading to Henniger Flats in neighboring Altadena. Trespassing into the upper canyon would be a misdemeanor punishable by a $5,000 fine.
The lack of information has angered members of a group of canyoneers who regularly hike to the falls and use ropes to rappel back down the mountain.
According to William Lawrence, who sits on the board of the Coalition of American Canyoneers, his group has not been able to receive a straight answer from the Forest Service.
“We want access to the canyon,” Lawrence told the Weekly. “If they close it, we will start a fundraiser to hire an attorney to fight the National Forest. We have been using the canyon for 25 years.”
In a follow-up conversation, Lawrence told the Weekly his group was open to meeting with officials to discuss the proposed closure of the area and a possible permit system that would allow canyoneers and qualified hikers into the area. Several other canyons already require permits for canyoneering, including Yosemite.
Rollman said the Forest Service would be happy to meet with the group to discuss its intentions.
The pending closure of Upper Eaton Canyon comes on the heels of a bill authored by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena) that will permanently protect the San Gabriel Mountains, rivers and parks for millions of Southern California residents and visitors.
The San Gabriel National Recreation Area Act would preserve 615,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest and a portion of the San Bernardino National Forest, some foothill areas, the west Puente Hills, and lower stretches of the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers that dip down into local communities. The Angeles National Forest provides 70 percent of Los Angeles County’s open space and one-third of its drinking water.
Some local residents also expressed disappointment in the decision to close down Eaton Canyon’s upper waterfall area.
“My friends and I descended the canyon many times,” said Pasadena resident Kyle Thompson. “We are all upset about the closure.”