I’m becoming the go-to “Dangers of Waterfalls” commentary specialist. Earlier this week NPR Station KPCC in Pasadena asked me to comment on the pending closure of the sketchy trail to the upper falls in Eaton Canyon.

Previously for newspapers, radio and TV, I’ve been asked to comment about hiker injuries and deaths at Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park, Holy Jim Falls in Orange County, Tangerine Falls near Santa Barbara and…well, you get the idea.

Angeles National Forest officials are advancing a plan to close access to popular Eaton Canyon above the first waterfall. Hikers arrested trying to climb the crumbling cliffs above the first 35-foot waterfall to a second waterfall could face a six-month jail sentence and/or a $5,000 fine, Forest Service District Ranger Michael McIntyre announced.

I totally understand the Forest Service wanting to stop the death toll (5 hikers killed) and injuries (dozens and dozens) of those unprepared, unskilled visitors who choose to hike where they should not be hiking. Unfortunately a policy of just saying “no” is not going to work. In Yosemite, guardrails and signs in 10 languages don’t stop people from stepping into the raging waters.

Eaton Canyon Falls is a splendid little hike; getting to the upper falls, though, can be treacherous.
Eaton Canyon Falls is a splendid little hike; getting to the upper falls, though, can be treacherous.
The trail to the upper falls is an informal one—a “use trail”—made by use. Modern trail specs call for a path that’s built to be erosion resistant, with a less-than-10 percent grade, and with proper switchbacks. The trail to Eaton Canyon’s upper falls was not designed; it just happened.

That being said, hiking the present half-mile long trail is within the ability range of an experienced hiker, someone with a lot of miles on the trail and one who has hiked at least some miles off trail. However, even an experienced off-trail hiker could encounter difficulties with the slippery slopes, especially on the way down. The trail is beyond the skill set of someone inexperienced in nature, wearing flip-flops and carrying a six-pack.

I understand where the Forest Service is coming from and I have the highest respect for First Responders, the sheriff department, Forest Service, and the volunteer Search and Rescue workers, who literally have to pick up the pieces after one of these horrific hiker accidents. But a government agency telling people NOT to go somewhere when YouTube videos say go-go-go, is certain to be a futile effort.

I suggest a two-part approach: Hiker Education. Right there at the trailhead at the fine Eaton Canyon Nature Center. Let hikers know they’re entering the natural world and subject to the laws of physics; Eaton Canyon is not a water park.

Construct a half-mile of trail. It’s well within the capacity of contemporary trail-builders to construct a trail up to the second waterfall. Surely if the Forest Service can build a trail up Mt. Baldy over the Devil’s Backbone and a trail up Mt. Whitney with 100 switchbacks blasted out of granite, it can build a short pathway over Eaton Canyon’s slippery slopes to a waterfall.

A waterfall is a beautiful thing. A hiker fall is not.

Hike On,
John McKinney
The Trailmaster