Posted by: GeekHiker | June 12, 2008

HIKE: East Fork to Iron Fork

(After I edited the bad data on the GPS track, turned out this hike was a mile shorter than I originally thought. Oops. 🙂 )

Our original goal for last weekend’s hike was Fish Fork Falls, an (apparently) lovely waterfall deep in the San Gabriel Mountains.

How deep? Nine miles each way deep. 18 miles round trip deep. By noon we knew there was no way we were going to make it that far in one day deep.

Instead, the hike below follows the East Fork of the San Gabriel River through The Narrows as far as Iron Fork. The falls will have to wait for a future backpack trip.

As you’ll be hiking directly in the river for many sections of this hike, be sure to wear footwear you don’t mind getting wet. I wear an old pair of shoes (with socks to prevent blisters), others wear sandals. Whatever you wear, make sure they have good tread!

The first five miles of the trek follows the route to The Bridge to Nowhere. In a pleasant change (and for the first time ever!) the clouds cleared away and the day was sunny and warm.

Iron Fork 01
Starting up the canyon on a sunny day

In the picture above, you can see the two attempts to build a road up the canyon. On the right, just above the river, is the old roadbed that ran up to the Bridge to Nowhere before floods washed it out in 1938. On the right is the second attempt at a “high-line” route 30 years later that was abandoned due to environmental opposition and expense. As the area is now the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, the likelihood of any further attempts are slim.

Unlike several months ago, the warm weather and significantly lower water level made the river crossings shallow (knee deep at worst) and easy. Even better, as the day gets warm, having to cross through the cold river water is a real pleasure.

Iron Fork 04
Shady stretch of the river near the start of the hike

This time of year, the Yucca is in bloom all along the trail. On top: pretty flowers. On the bottom: sharp spines that are completely unbreakable and will tear your legs apart. I’m not a big fan.

Iron Fork 02
Yucca in bloom; pretty on top, sharp, blood-drawing spikes along the bottom

Iron Fork 03
Yucca flowers

After ascending the canyon wall and crossing the Bridge, the trail continues up and over a ridge, avoiding the fast rushing waters of the river in this section. The original roadbed actually went through a tunnel under this ridge, but falling debris from the canyon wall has buried it completely. The footing can be a bit tricky in this section, so exercise caution.

Bridge to Nowhere Panorama
The Bridge to Nowhere

The trail descends back down to the river and, for the most part, disappears entirely. No matter. Simply follow the river upstream.

Iron Fork 09
Along the “trail” upstream

The canyon walls will continue to pinch in, ascending nearly a mile overhead to the surrounding peaks (this is the deepest canyon in Southern California). Eventually you’ll reach the hard granite of The Narrows, where the slick, water-worn rock can occasionally make the footing tricky. Taking one’s time is essential.

East Fork Narrows Panorama
The Narrows

The Narrows is also a good turn-around point. Long slabs of granite make for excellent sunning spots, with nearby trees providing shady picnic areas.

Above The Narrows, the canyon widens again, with little trickling side creeks coming in here and there. Occasional stretches of trail appear, but mostly you’re just following the river.

Iron Fork 11
Above the Narrows, the canyon opens up again

Iron Fork 10
Striated granite and a deep crossing on the river

And the best part: the occasional deep pool of clear, clean river water: the perfect swimming holes on hot days.

Iron Fork 08
Deep blue swimming hole along the river

As you continue along, the occasional old stone cabin (still used) or lean-to may come into view. Here and there you’ll also pass by holes dug into the riverbank and sluceboxes used by prospectors who still come up to find gold. Be sure to leave everything alone; many of the claims are legally owned, grandfathered in from generations before.

About a mile and a half past the bridge, you’ll arrive at Iron Fork, coming in from the left. It’s a good spot to turn around for your return, and a good spot to stop for lunch. Watch out for the ants, though: they bite something fierce!

East Fork Iron Fork Panorama
The confluence: Iron Fork on the left (under the precarious granite boulder), the main fork of the river on the right

To return, simply retrace your steps, following the river back downstream. As the day gets warmer in the afternoon, you may find yourself hiking more and more in the river to stay cool!

Iron Fork 13
Returning to the Bridge

Iron Fork 12
Evening light along the river

More photos here.

Total Distance: 12.7 Miles

Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,000’/1,000′


Directions: From Interstate 210, exit Highway 39 North (Azusa Ave.) in Azusa. Drive north 11.7 miles to the junction with East Fork Road and turn right, crossing the river. Follow East Fork Road to the end, just past the turn off for Glendora Mountain Road (approx 7.1 miles). A good sized parking lot is available but often filled, so you can park along the road where allowed. National Forest Pass required.


  1. Pretty Pictures! I have gone as far as the Bridge to Nowhere, then I jumped off it 3 times… saw the jumpers in the pictures, can’t believe you didn’t mention it! Have wanted to do the hike again and was curious as to what was past there! Looks gorgeous! Thanks for sharing! And total agreement on the Yucca – I had a couple gashes on my legs after that hike!

  2. heeeeey, wait a minute here – we have seeeeen the ‘bridge to nowhere’ on your blog before… you’re not recycling hikes are you?!?!?!?

    ok ok, i guess repeats are allowed…

  3. If I’m hiking that far, in that heat, there’d better be fish and a fork at the end of the hike. And beer. No ants.

  4. One more thing: Do you ever stop to swim at the swimming holes on your hike? That looks like fun!

  5. Love the yucca pictures. This is my favorite time of year – when they’re all in bloom. I can’t believe this beautiful trail is right in my mountains. And I can’t believe Alysha hasn’t suggested we do it on a weekend!!!

  6. That pic of the flowers was phenomenal. I think this looks like my fave hike of yours in my time reading here. A must-do if and when we head your way!!

  7. Aly – Yeahhh, I have no desire to jump off of said bridge. And yuccas? Pure evil.

    Charlotte – Well, partially a repeat, partially new. Plus: sun this time!

    Dingo – LOL – well, there was a sushi dinner…

    Dingo – I didn’t, but others did.

    Mel Heth – You really must do this one, it’s one of the classics.

    Backpackermomma – Thanks! Yep, it’s one I think you’d enjoy! Not sure if the little one is ready for the distance yet, though…

  8. I used to hike up way up in there regularly back in the early 1980s. So far up Iron Fork you had to travel IN the river to move up over the rapids. Had a male bighorn come from 75 feet away to within 20 feet of me, giving me the eyeball. Late Dec.
    He may have detected maleness.

    Very fond memories of the many day hikes I had up in there but never made it as far as Fish Fork, just Iron Fork, and quite aways up it.

    Just sitting at work, cruising the web, searching on “Iron Fork East San Gabriel River”.

    fond fond memories of that beautiful place.

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