Super-sized plants, streams to splash in, an epic waterfall: This L.A. hike has it all

An animated sun beams yellow rays of sunlight over hills and a canyon.
Thanks to our winter and spring rains, water has become Eaton Canyon’s most attractive feature.
(Los Angeles Times illustration; photo by Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The 190-acre Eaton Canyon, like many of the natural areas around us, feels different this year. On a recent visit, I saw babies wading in a stream and dogs bounding across it. Yelping, giggling and splashing, the people around me were clearly enjoying the fruits of all the rain we had in the winter and early spring.

For Angeleno hikers used to dry terrain, our current streams and pools feel like a water bonanza. The looks on my fellow hikers’ faces seem bewildered, as if to say, “Really, free water in our drought-ridden city? A natural water park?” Flowing down from our frosty mountains, the water is startlingly cold when you slide a foot in, then refreshing as you cool your ankles and calves from your hike. My kid and I like to pretend we’re frogs hopping from lily pad to lily pad (those are sand bars, for the uninitiated).

Kenia Estrella holds a snake in one photo and displays a leaf collection in another.
Kenia Estrella, 27, has been working at Eaton Canyon for nearly 10 years.
(From Kenia Estrella)

Kenia Estrella, 27, recreation service leader at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center, confirms that the water is still flowing across Eaton (not just at the waterfall), and may be doing so all summer. In fact, water has become Eaton Canyon’s most attractive feature. “The water is dominating where our first stream crossing has mostly always been bone dry. We’re on our fifth month [of rain], and the water is almost knee-high.”

The canyon’s flora is flourishing too. “Our plants are super-sized this year,” Estrella tells me. “The holly-leaf cherry by our office — we’ve never seen it flower so much in the nine years I’ve been here.”

There’s one animal to watch out for that Estrella says will be nibbling on that holly-leaf cherry by the time it’s fruiting: the black bears that have awakened from their slumber and are descending the snowy mountains to find food. (The rain we got was snow for them, and the snowpack means fewer plants are blooming where they were, high up in the mountains.)

A person navigates a creek in Eaton Canyon.
Water is flowing, and the canyon’s flora is flourishing.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

But hungry bears are nothing to fear if you take precautions, Estrella says. Keep your distance, never turn your back to them and make slow movements, she advises. Don’t run. Walk slowly away while facing them, making loud noises and yelling at them to get away.

“Bears are very opportunistic, so if you run away from the picnic table, they think, ‘Oh, they ran, and now I have all this free food.’ So stand your ground, but keep your distance. Don’t run up to the bear and scare it. Make loud noises and clap or yell ‘get away,’ so they go the other way.”

Bears notwithstanding, if you’re coming to admire animals, not plants, you’ll have your pick, depending on the time of day. Recently, Estrella has spotted opossums, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, deer and, of course, many birds. “The rain has had a positive effect for the animals, like the birds, which are thriving. I’ve seen so many hummingbirds.”

Seeking rare animals while hiking? Pay attention when you’re near those rushing streams. Estrella says one park patron recently spotted amphibian eggs. She herself is hoping to see tree frogs and western toads hatch in a couple of months. “I’ve seen very few amphibians in the nine years I’ve been here,” Estrella says. “I’m excited to see, with all this rain, how many we’ll spot.”

Two hikers work their way across a stream in Eaton Canyon.
For Angelenos used to dry terrain, the streams and pools at Eaton Canyon feel like a water bonanza.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Whether it’s due to the rain or the pandemic, Estrella says she’s been seeing new parkgoers, including some who’ve never visited a natural area before, in the past few years. Eaton opens its gates at 8 a.m. on weekends, and within the first few hours on a weekend, the park welcomes thousands of visitors. Some might complain about the crowds, but the accessibility is what I’ve always loved about it. There’s a free parking lot, an informative nature center and plenty of events, making it welcoming to all. Plus, it’s open until 7:30 p.m. on most days.

“People come to Eaton Canyon who never knew they could access their local mountains,” Estrella tells me. “That’s the most rewarding part of my job: to pass on education to people of all ages and backgrounds.” First-time nature hikers are particularly amazed, Estrella says, to hear facts about the oak trees and coyotes they’ve been seeing for years but never learned much about. She’ll see three generations come in together to experience the outdoors, or meet adults who say their grandparents would bring them to Eaton as kids.

Kenia Estrella talks to a group of visitors at Eaton Canyon.
“The most rewarding part of my job,” said Estrella, is “to pass on education to people of all ages and backgrounds.”
(From Kenia Estrella)

Estrella, a student at Citrus College’s Wildland Resource and Forestry Program, is the kind of staff member who helps make Eaton so welcoming. A Pasadena native, she first visited in fourth grade with her Pasadena Unified School District class, then participated in the Eaton-based Careers in Conservation program while attending the engineering and environmental science academy at John Muir High School. She was asked to stay on as a youth worker — and she never left. This June, she’ll have been working at Eaton for 10 years.

Eaton has changed over the years. In 1993, the old nature center burned down; the new structure opened in 1998. Other changes are less physical and more programming-oriented, including coordinating visits from John Muir High school and providing interpretive signage for both trails and the nature center in Spanish. On Earth Day, community volunteers worked to beautify Eaton, clearing paths, removing invasive plants like black mustard and castor bean and repainting poles.

On June 24, Eaton Canyon will host its annual Day in Nature event, featuring educational displays, crafts and an open house. It also will host Mother’s Day and Father’s Day hikes. Saturdays bring a 9 a.m. Docent-Led Family Nature Walk, 10 a.m. Animal Ambassadors meeting, 10:30 a.m. Nature Tails Story Hour and 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Nature Discovery Tables on the outdoor patio by the Nature Center.

There are lots of volunteer opportunities at the Nature Center, from working as a docent naturalist to getting involved with the monthly conservation group that removes invasive plants. (One volunteer opportunity is as simple as doing a headcount of visitors in the parking lot.)

Inspired to visit? Learn about the flora and fauna here. Modern Hiker has a great trail guide with visuals for hiking to the waterfall. You can even take public transit to Eaton. Enjoy!

3 things to do

A mountain biker takes a scenic ride up a hill overlooking Orange and Los Angeles counties.
The Los Angeles Invitational offers a chance to try out gravel riding, featuring three route options.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

1. Hit your first gravel ride. ICYMI, gravel racing and riding are hot. Try it out yourself on May 20 by heading to the starting line in San Marino for the Los Angeles Invitational. Three lengths are offered: 25 miles at 2,500 feet of elevation; 40 miles at 4,000 feet; or 55 miles at 7,500 feet. Hosted by the Cub House, a colorful bike and plant shop just south of Pasadena, the ride is about half paved and half dirt. Organizers recommend bringing tubes, a tire boot, tire plugs, a pump, a multitool, a packable jacket, big water bottles and food for a long day out (and, of course, you need your own bike — they recommend “a tire sweet-spot of 38-45c”). Rides will start at 7:30 a.m. from the Cub House. Registration is $55, regardless of the route you choose; go here to register.

An exterior view of the Los Angeles Central Library
The Korean Spirits event takes place in the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Los Angeles Central Library. Come early to get a rice cake sampler.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

2. Celebrate the K before pop. Join the Korean Cultural Center Los Angeles on May 27 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. for the 120th anniversary of Korean immigration to the U.S. with traditional music, dance, food, arts and crafts. The 2023 Korean Spirits event showcases 10 vibrant traditional Korean music and dance forms, and early birds will get to try a small sampler of rice cakes. You’ll learn about minhwa, Korean folk painting, and be able to try your hand at some painting yourself. The free event takes place in the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Los Angeles Central Library. Find more info here.

Strawberry Peak, seen from above.
Join the Mt. Wilson Bicycling Assn. for a hike-in volunteer trail cleanup near the Redbox Picnic Area.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

3. Tidy up the Gabrielino Trail. Mt. Wilson Bicycling Assn.’s goal is to keep trails accessible for biking, hiking, running and horseback riding. Join the group on May 28 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a hike-in volunteer trail cleanup near the Redbox Picnic Area. This stretch of trail is a highly used area where hikers descend from the Strawberry Peak loop. During recent storms, the area received lots of snow, and the damaged brush needs to be removed for it to be passable; workers will be cutting down the chaparral blocking the trail. Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, sturdy shoes and eye protection; bring warm layers; and wear a backpack with water and snacks to sustain working for five to six hours in the sun. Park at the Redbox Picnic Area for sign-in and a safety briefing. Bring a valid Adventure Pass if you have it (if not, MWBA will provide single-day volunteer passes). The group will hike into the work site this month, so no bike is necessary. Register here (it’s free, of course).

The must-read

California poppies climb a hillside at Diamond Valley Lake.
Diamond Valley Lake is a favorite for its wide variety of flowers.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

If you’re a flower aficionado, you may already be out on the trails, documenting your finds. But our wildflower hiking guide by Rachel Kraus, Elaine Murphy, Matt Pawlik, Catherine Pearlman and Casey Schreiner can help you home in on some of the most vibrant, florally focused hikes.

Human-made lake though it is (and as crowded as it can be), Diamond Valley Lake is one of my favorites. Yes, you’ll wait in a line of cars on weekends, but you’ll also get to bask in the explosive beauty of a wide variety of flowers, not just California poppies. Pearlman shares that you’ll also find tidy tips, arroyo lupine, chia, brittlebush, forget-me-nots, California goldfields, blue dicks, baby blue eyes and red maids. Learning some of the flowers you’ll see again and again, like lupines and sticky monkey flowers, helps, as over the years you start to identify more and more — but iPhone users can also snap a photo and identify from there.

Respecting the life of these flowers is simple: Stay on designated trails, don’t pick the flowers and follow photo rules (in spots like Joshua Tree National Park, for instance, drone use is prohibited and carries a hefty fine). The State Parks department has a #DontDoomtheBloom hashtag campaign going, promoting the fact that stepping on a poppy can prevent years of growth, not just one year of life.

Happy adventuring,

Dakota Kim's signature


Cory McPherson and son Benjamin of Long Beach roast a marshmallow in the Hidden Valley Campground, Joshua Tree National Park.
Marshmallows are a classic for a good reason. But if you want to up your picnic game, read on.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Are you as riotously joyful about spring hikes as I am? I spent last weekend playing in Altadena Trail streams with my son, hiking Joshua Tree with my family and searching for boulders to climb. One thing on my mind: how to up my picnic game. I’ve been throwing together easy sandwiches, especially PB&J for my picky kid. But with Hollywood Bowl season coming up, I’d love to tailor some more gourmet items for travel, like apple hand pies and jicama slaw. Our evergreen list offers just such a delicious movable feast, so read up, pack up and eat up for those hikes and spring and summer picnics. And if you want more tips, check out this international list of delicious hiking treats.

For more insider tips on Southern California’s beaches, trails and parks, check out past editions of The Wild. And to view this newsletter in your browser, click here.