When it comes to risky climbs, few can match the half-mile trek to the second waterfall in Eaton Canyon north of Pasadena, a steep, narrow path over crumbling granite cliffs that has claimed five lives and caused dozens of injuries over the past four years.
Under mounting pressure to prevent the carnage in the San Gabriel Mountains gorge, Angeles National Forest officials are advancing a controversial plan to shut down the canyon above the first waterfall on Aug. 1.
Anyone caught trying to scale the cliffs above the first 75-foot waterfall could face six months of imprisonment and/or a $5,000 fine, Forest Service District Ranger Michael McIntyre said.
The closure is a drastic step forced by a problem that "has only gotten worse," McIntyre said. "Our goal is to save lives."
Signs warning "Danger: Fall Hazard" will soon be posted along a gentle 1.5-mile trail to the first waterfall, a popular urban escape for hikers, dog walkers and families with small children on hot summer weekends.
More adventurous hikers are producing YouTube videos of their ventures up to the second waterfall, and sliding down its granite chute into a swimming hole 20 feet below.
Not everyone agrees that the closure will succeed, however. "It remains to be seen whether the Forest Service can actually enforce this closure," said Tom Afschar, a reserve deputy with the all-volunteer Altadena Mountain Rescue Team, which conducts roughly 100 emergency response efforts annually in the canyon.
"Another approach would have been for them to build an authorized trail to the second falls," Afschar said. "After all, there are trails over far more difficult terrain in national parks across the country."
Kajari Ghazari, 18, of Glendale, said people will find a way to get to the second waterfall despite the closure. Sitting among several dozen hikers gathered Wednesday in and around a pool at the base of the first waterfall, Ghazari acknowledged that five deaths occurred, but noted that "thousands of other people went up there and had a blast."
As he spoke, four shirtless young men were clambering up a notch in a nearby mountain on their way to the second waterfall. Wedged in the rocks below was a crude metal memorial erected in honor of Arturo Hernandez, 24, who fell 100 feet to his death in 2009.
McIntyre acknowledged that the Forest Service is still trying to develop a law enforcement strategy for a closure in the canyon, which is visited by an estimated 450,000 people annually.
As for building a trail, he said, "That's out of the question — the amount of money and manpower that would be needed to build a new trail and keep it from falling off the hillside would be astronomical."
The closure is a collaborative effort led by the Forest Service, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, which operates a nature center less than two miles from the first waterfall.
"Our goal is not to issue citations and fine people — it's to discourage them from risking their lives," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy said Wednesday during a tour of the canyon. "At the end of the day, grieving families and taxpayers are paying for the consequences."
Along the way, hikers frequently stopped Judy in his tracks to ask this question: "How do we get up to the second falls?"
"Don't do it; don't go up there," he said. "It's too dangerous."
Late Wednesday afternoon, two stranded hikers were rescued by helicopter from a hillside overlooking the first waterfall.