Distance: 8.8 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 2097' (high point on Van Tassel Ridge)
Elevation Gain: 3292'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.63
Round trip time: 5 hours 20 minutes
Recommended water: 128 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Encanto Parkway dirt parking lot
Note: As of 6/18/2014, The City of Azusa and Vulcan Materials Co. opened a new fenced trail that leads through the quarry to the canyon trail. The new trail is open full time so going over Van Tassel Ridge is no longer necessary.
Fish Canyon Falls is a popular destination close to Azusa/Duarte. There are two routes to the falls. One is a short, 4 mile round trip with about 700' of elevation gain, ideal for families but only available on a handful of Saturdays each year, as determined by the Vulcan Materials Company. The other route, the Van Tassel Ridge, is described in the Trails of the Angeles: 100 Hikes in the San Gabriels book by John Robinson, hike #49, as 8.5 miles with 3200' of gain, "tortuous" and "definitely not recommended." Of course, that is route I chose for several reasons. I preferred the challenge, and I also preferred going when I could avoid the crowds. To get to the trailhead, from the I-210 Foothill Freeway, traveling west: exit at Irwindale Avenue in Irwindale. Turn right and go 0.2 miles. Turn left on Foothill Blvd. and go 0.7 miles to Encanto Parkway. Turn right and the dirt parking lot is on the left in about 0.5 miles.
The Vulcan Materials Company runs the quarry that blocks access to the canyon. According to their web site, they are nation’s largest producer of construction aggregates—primarily crushed stone, sand, gravel—and a major producer of ready-mixed concrete. I find it interesting that pieces of the San Gabriels are spread around the country in concrete and building materials.
The trail leaves from the parking lot, follows a fence behind a horse stable, then switchbacks up the ridge. The first mile gain is about 950' with no shade. The next half mile is a jungle plateau that ends at a fence, followed by a half mile of 500' gain up a fire road to the top of Van Tassel Ridge. A trekking pole(s) are useful. Near the top is a hole in the fence where you leave Vulcan property. There is a small benchmark just outside the fence that reads "LA 00 ENG R", but it is not the high point on the ridge.
Next, you descend steeply 1150' into Fish Canyon where the trail merges with the easy main trail to the falls. This section of the trail looks little used. While the first section had litter (too much for me to pack out), the section descending into Fish Canyon was litter free. In many places, the grass, brush, and poison oak intrude into the trail. You are not bushwhacking through chaparral, but you do have to push through the obstructions. I wore long pants and was glad I did. Once you get to the main trail, it is easy going all the way to the falls with a fair bit of shade from the trees in the canyon. There are two stream crossings, but one was completely dry. There are also historical plaques along the way, most of them unfortunately vandalized.
When I reached the falls, I was sad to see it nearly dry. I came for the big three tiered waterfall, and all I got was a trickle. The main pool was not flowing into the lower pool, but both still had plenty of water. I sat on a rock over the lower pool and ate a few snacks and took a few photos, then headed back.
When I started back up the ridge on the way back, I found it unusually difficult. While steep, 1150' in about 1.25 miles, nowhere did I need to use my hands to climb and there was plenty of shade. There was nothing unusual about it, yet it seemed to wear me out. Maybe I stayed up too late, or had one too many glasses of wine the night before, or maybe I just had an off day, but I took several unplanned breaks heading up. When I started coming down again, I saw that my car was still alone in the parking lot. However, when I emerged from the brush into the parking lot, there was a green car parked right next to mine and one guy kind of loitering by the trailhead sign. We surprised each other. He asked me a few questions about the hike, then got in his car and left before I could even get my pack in my car. He was either casing the hike or casing my car. I decided it more likely he was casing my car, but no harm no foul.