Thunder Road

Trail Canyon Falls is an easy to reach 40- to 50-foot curtain pouring like silver over a ledge in Lower Big Tujunga Canyon.
(Brian Vander Brug / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

My pharmacy’s in for a windfall as I stumble behind Chris Shaffer through an assault of downed trees and brambles off-trail in a remote canyon outside Ojai. Since I met this two-legged wildebeest, I’ve been stabbed by yucca, slapped senseless by boomeranging branches, upended on slippery scree and fallen into freezing rivers that have turned my boots into water buckets.

We’re on a slope mined with poison oak and needle-edged shrubs, each more ingenious at sticking you than the last. Shaffer comes to a rare, complete halt and holds out a palm like Diana Ross, but this isn’t in the name of love.

“Stay away from this,” he barks. He bends over a tobacco-like plant covered in microscopic slivers. “That’s nettles. Look at all these stickers — they’re everywhere.” Shaffer’s legs are a red abstract of scab graffiti from nettle slashes here last week.

We give this booby trap a wide berth and crash on in search of our elusive quarry — a frothing, Sierra-style waterfall so buried in this jungle that forest officials denied its existence until Shaffer rooted it out a couple years ago. It didn’t have a name, so Shaffer christened it Potrero John Falls after the creek it feeds in the Los Padres National Forest.

Potrero John is one of more than 80 California falls that Shaffer has named, a feat that would be no big deal — two centuries ago. Shaffer, 26, author of “The Definitive Guide to the Waterfalls of Southern and Central California,” is too obsessed with plunging water to pay attention to calendars. He’s finding there are still-hidden nooks and crannies in our own backyard, wilds that conceal the heady rush of natural cliff diving.

Waterfalls and Southern California would seem to go together as well as Death Valley and dichondra, but there are falls all around — from walk-ups in the Santa Monica Mountains to bash-ups in the Angeles and Los Padres national forests. And, thanks to this winter’s monsoonal outburst, it’s the best year for waterfall viewing in decades. There are more than 100 falls in the Southland. Normally only a quarter of them would have the water to splash through summer, but this year half are expected to foam on, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s Joe Pasinato. That’s not only good for your photo collection but also for the people who have to put up with you.

Anyone who’s ever stood before a crashing airborne river knows there’s something mind-altering enough to be illegal in that boiling backwash. Now some researchers are finding that waterfalls may just be the place to go for an attitude adjustment, elevating mood without a prescription.

Other than a handful of drops, though — Switzer Falls, Eaton Canyon, Escondido in Malibu — few local falls get much of a turnout. “You’ve got millions of people living five, 10 miles away from some of these falls,” Shaffer says. “But I can go on a holiday weekend and not see a single person.”

We won’t spot another soul on our expedition today. As I crawl on all fours under a spider web of branches raining ants, I’ve got a pretty good idea why. Shaffer tries to keep me focused on the thunder ahead. He says a waterfall this size with the amount of volume of Potrero John is unprecedented in Southern California. “It’s a Yosemite waterfall that somebody forgot to tell it’s supposed to be in Yosemite.”

We rock-hop our 10th stream crossing, and climb a stack of log debris swept into an anarchic pile by violent flooding. As I step on one, there’s a crunch, a slide and a jolt to full-tilt log rolling. Forward, backward, way forward. I topple, then land shin-first on another log, setting off a scream the likes of which Edvard Munch could only dream of. Pain has no pride. As a slicing flame shoots up my leg, I realize that Potrero John’s guardians won’t give up the fall’s secrets without a fight.

No easy access

With some exceptions — including the world’s largest falls, such as Victoria and Niagara, which explode off wide escarpments into huge gashes in the Earth — waterfalls zealously guard their privacy, requiring steep terrain for showtime, topography not always the most accessible. And that’s fine by Shaffer.

It’s the hunt that has fueled his waterfall bagging since he started cutting classes at Crespi Carmelite High in Encino to find cascades in the Angeles. There were no 12-step programs for Shaffer’s affliction, so it only got worse. While his buddies at Cal State Northridge were chasing Coronas and coeds, Shaffer was in the mountains, sometimes tracking falls in the dark with a headlamp. In his defense, waterfalls can incite compulsive behavior.

Enter the inner sanctum of a hidden fall, and you’re beholding a primeval temple when the Earth was new and gushing with fertility. It’s only water, but when a stream or river dives off the edge of a cliff, blithely splashing its way to seeming oblivion, it becomes something else altogether — a force of nature that transforms its watchers. In many traditional cultures, waterfalls were thought to be the abodes of spirits.

For the Menominee tribe, falls spoke in inspirational murmurs, while the Chippewa saw them as dens for elf-like creatures who could pass along great powers if you dreamed about them. In Norway, a waterfall hub, violin-playing trolls are said to conduct jam sessions under waterfalls. John Muir heard “choirs” in Yosemite’s cascades.

The myths and metaphors only tell us what we already feel in the presence of these majestic drops — suddenly buoyed, captivated by a composition of sight, sound, scent, spray and size that stirs the spirit as surely as a Coltrane or Jobim song.

At Trail Canyon Falls, an easy to reach 40- to 50-foot curtain pouring like silver over a ledge in Lower Big Tujunga Canyon, there were no fiddling trolls when we got there. But the song roared on, amplified in the classic bowl grotto and counterpointed by the whirring and gurgling in its Jacuzzi of a swimming hole. “It’s got a ton of force to it this year, a lot a power,” yelled Shaffer, over the sound of crashing water, as the temperature dropped in the backwash of mist that chilled my skin.

A 5-foot-wide, perfectly symmetrical curtain of water plummeted onto the gneiss rock base that over time would be hollowed out, leaving prime troll accommodations. The picture couldn’t be more orderly in its wildness, and that’s where the real harmony kicks in.

Waterfalls were a major subject of Chinese landscape painting because the artful line of falling water illustrated the balance of nature and the Taoist ideal that all is in its place, thanks to the organic course of things, the Tao, which is often symbolized by flowing water. Compared to the flawed world of humans, the mistake-free zone of the waterfall doesn’t leave anything wanting.

Maybe that’s why epic cascades leave us spellbound. They shut down the machinery of desire long enough that we can experience the wonder of completeness, which can spill over to include the foam-struck. As philosopher Alan Watts wrote, in water “we can never find an aesthetic mistake; it is invariably graceful in the wave, the flying spray, or the merest trickle.”

As the Menominee knew, falls provide a lift. Heads must literally look up from puny concerns to a larger stage of scale, power and eternal life force. One scientist thinks he knows what’s behind the calming element of falls. UC Irvine environmental health professor Oladele Ogunseitan has demonstrated that oceans, flowing water and flowers can generate positive mood. He believes that waterfalls, like other water sources, trigger a feeling of relief.

“The theory is there are survival strategies that make us have a sense of relief when we approach a waterfall,” he says, because of the species’ evolutionary mandate to find water. “This will have restorative consequences, which is good for your health. The sense of wonder is really a symptom of feeling mental relief.”

He won’t get any argument from the home fountain industry, whose simulated falls seek to calm gibbering stress cases via the desktops and nightstands of America. But some think there’s something else to waterfall euphoria: negative ions. Air molecules in highly humidified environments retain negative ions, and humans seem to like it that way. Ocean waves, caves and, especially, waterfalls are hubs for negative air ions, which researchers have found can elevate mood.

“Daily exposure to high concentrations of negative air ions has an antidepressant effect,” says Michael Terman, director of the clinical chronobiological program at New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York. “It relieves blue mood, improves sleep behavior, much as one would see with an antidepressant drug.”

Shaffer, who’s never heard of negative ions, seems to have come right out of Terman’s double-blind study, which found that the ions brightened mood. “If I wake up in the morning and I’m in a bad mood, a waterfall seems to soothe me,” he said on the Trail Canyon path. “Waterfalls seem to be stress relievers.”

Mapping the route

At a roadside pullout high above Big Tujunga Reservoir, Shaffer showed me what really lights the fire in his belly: topo maps. “See how narrow some of these lines are?” he said, pointing to a crest of dual, jagged contour lines on a laminated blow-up of our hiking target, a place he named Fall Creek Falls. “The narrower the lines are, the steeper it’s going to be. See how narrow it gets here? You know there’s falls here.”

What is it about chasing squiggles on a topo that gets him going? “It’s the whole adventure,” he declared, “heading up into a canyon and finding something maybe somebody else hasn’t found before.”

With his baby face, the wiry Shaffer looks barely more than a kid, though his 19th century hankering for wilderness is distinctly old school. “I don’t own a Nintendo; I don’t own an Xbox,” he says. “Am I on the Internet? Yes, but that’s when I’m working. I’d rather be outside.

“People are missing life. Everyone has an excuse: ‘There’s nothing to do around here. There’s nowhere to go.’ Well, there’s 250 waterfalls you could go to.”

Shaffer’s kind of fervor, normally confined to real estate expos, was enough to turn his passion into a business. He had pitched a slew of publishers on a guide to Southern California fishing, his other mania, to a flurry of rejection letters, when a venture capitalist whose son had been introduced to fishing by Shaffer offered to put up the cash for the neophyte to self-publish.

Since then, the financier has kicked in $250,000 for what has become an outdoor guidebook publishing company, Shafdog Publications. In four years the firm has produced two fishing guidebooks, including the new 768-page “The Definitive Guide to Fishing Northern California” and the waterfall book. All the books are full color, unusual in the field.

The company’s not in the black yet, and Shaffer has to cover his bills by freelancing for outdoor publications. Like his off-trail scrambles, entrepreneuring leaves him sifting for a trail shrouded in the ambiguity of risk. There’s a price to be paid for seeing your entire staff in the mirror in the morning. Art director, author, photographer, designer, marketer, sales chief and production head, Shaffer admits his all-consuming ambition cost him a girlfriend and time with family and friends, lessons he’s trying to learn from.

Shaffer pours over U.S. Geological Survey maps on his computer at his home office in Chatsworth looking for contours that bunch up near streams. Sometimes it will say “falls” in those creases, indicating an unnamed cascade; other times nothing. Either way, the lines are as good as an X on a pirate map, sending him into the wilds with whichever friend is in need of a thorough bush whacking. “I’ve burned most of ‘em out,” he says with a laugh.

Tracking waterfalls, like wildcatting, doesn’t always lead to gushers. Shaffer doesn’t even know where he is sometimes. It’s not unusual for him to be on the trail for hours before realizing he’s in the wrong canyon. But getting lost doesn’t bother him because that’s when he finds what he’s looking for: something new.

The terrain is rugged enough and U.S. Forest Service staffing minuscule enough, that Shaffer has found dozens of unnamed falls that few, if any, officials have heard of. Potrero John doesn’t appear on the Forest Service map. Los Padres official Pasinato got his information on the falls from Shaffer’s book. Pasinato isn’t surprised there are still unmapped, unnamed topographical features up for grabs in the age of satellite mapping. “I imagine there are still some uncharted areas,” he says. “After the rainfall we’ve had, it wouldn’t surprise me if we have some more discoveries popping up.”

From our perch above the reservoir, we scooted toward Fall Creek Falls around a bullet-hole-pocked locked gate, down a fire road, past two snakes and through several fordings of Big Tujunga Creek. After a five-point landing on a wet rock in the middle of the stream — complete with a dunking up to my chest — and some more bushwhacking, I stood craning my neck at the base of an 80-foot water cannon, one of four tiers on this seasonal fall that shoots its plumes every which way like tugboat fire hoses on July 4.

Clumps of H2O hurtled through the air, dancing into pearl strings and flying amoeba globules, jesting with gravity and the rocks below. Then they’d just slide off, splash down or foam a while before rejoining the flow as if nothing happened.

Death defying is part of the vicarious thrill — and sometimes temptation — of waterfalls for the earthbound, a cocktail of fear and envy. Paul Gromosiek, a historian and author of “Seeing Niagara,” answered questions for six summers at the falls. “Very often, people would come to me and say, ‘Is it normal to want to go in?’ ” he recalls. “I would say, ‘Yes, there is an urge to become one with the falls.’ ”

A rocky road

Back on the hunt for Potrero John, I feel like my shin is roasting on a spit. There’s a clear trail along Potrero Creek and through a stunning, wildflower-carpeted valley, but the path vanishes in a tangle of overgrowth and boulders the last three-quarters of a mile. It’s hand-to-branch combat through a phalanx of scrub trees and boulder-strewn slopes, as I try to pick out footing as the canyon narrows. I alternate chain-saw fantasies with thoughts of how bushwhacking was all in a day’s ramble for Muir — and how the adventure is always on the unknown road.

We pull ourselves up a steep slope on all fours, around a wall of branches, then across emerald swimming holes that would be worth the trip alone. I glimpse canyon’s end high up on the mountain. “It’s right around those rocks!” shouts Shaffer. “It’s raging!”

And so is the victory dance of discovery in my neurons, as I catch the full power of Potrero John blowing through its chute like a flash flood. It’s a true Sierra gusher, all right, about 80 foaming feet. I’m in the temple, one few have glimpsed. It’s a private box for a show that’s been rumbling for thousands of years — the Animate Planet, Earth live, local and late breaking.

We gawk at the wall of roiling froth. Sitting on a rock, Shaffer has finally shut down the engines. It could be the elves or the trolls, but basking in the glow of adventure and dive-bombing liquid, I think I hear what the voice of calm in this storm of whitewater has been murmuring to Chinese painters, waterfall entrepreneurs and the rest of us non-clairvoyants trying to figure out the way ahead on our tangled trails.

It’s all a leap of faith.





Get out, look up

When gravity calls, not all falls are the same. Waterfalls have their own distinct trajectories and personalities, and form when a stream, runoff or river hits a vertical drop. You can find the gamut of styles around California — plunges where the water loses contact with the rock, horsetails that spill down along the rock, fans that spread outward as the fall descends, and punchbowls that blast through chutes and into huge pools. Here are some of Shaffer’s favorite drops.


Third Stream Falls,

San Bernardino Mountains

A tiered fall, with a bottom drop of 40 feet in the Cucamonga Wilderness. A 4.8-mile hike. Take Interstate 15 to Sierra Highway-Lytle Creek Road exit. Go left 6.3 miles to Middle Fork Road. Left 2.8 miles to road’s end to the trail head.

Cooper Canyon Falls,

Angeles National Forest

A scenic 25-foot fan in the San Gabriel Mountains near Mt. Waterman. Take the 210 Freeway to Highway 2, then go 34 miles to Buckhorn Campground. Follow signs to the trail head.

Trail Canyon Falls,

Angeles National Forest

A classic curtain, falling bank to bank into a chilly swimming hole two miles from the trail head and just 10 minutes from Sunland. From the 210 Freeway, exit Sunland Boulevard. Go left on Foothill to Oro Vista, left to Big Tujunga Canyon Road, then left on Trail Canyon Road. Take the dirt track to the trail head.

Fall Creek Falls,

Angeles National Forest

Four tiers adding up to 250 feet of splashing. The last quarter mile of the 4-mile route requires stream fording. Take the same route as Trail Canyon Falls but continue on Big Tujunga Canyon Road, one mile past Big Tujunga Reservoir to a locked gate on the left side of the road.


Three Chute Falls,

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is waterfall Valhalla, and this three-way plunge is a Shaffer favorite (and one of several Yosemite falls he’s named). A 4.5-mile hike. From Yosemite park’s entrance, take Highway 41 for 30.6 miles to the parking area at Curry Village. Take the shuttle to stop 17. Walk along Tenaya Creek to Mirror Lake. Follow the creek 1.2 miles to a footbridge. Go 0.2 mile and cross the stream on a log, where you’ll see a small waterfall. Three Chutes is above this fall on the right. Watch for slippery rocks.

— Joe Robinson

Joe Robinson can be reached at