Distance: 7.9 miles round trip on dirt road, use trail, and cross country
Summit Elevation: 2309' (Top of falls)
Elevation Gain: 1280'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.02
Round trip time: 4 hours 30 minutes
Recommended water: 88 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary
This waterfall hike starts on Harding Truck Trail at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. This is the same parking spot as for Flores Peak. To get there, turn on Modjeska Canyon Road from Santiago Canyon Road and follow it around a small jog to the end. If the parking lot is full, there are a few places along the side of Modjeska Canyon Road where you can park. My timing, the middle of summer during a harsh drought, is probably the worst time for a waterfall hike, but it was the best fit for my schedule. I fully expected to notch another dry waterfall and did, but the scenery still made it worthwhile.
Start by going uphill past the gate on Harding Truck Trail, then follow the left junction that descends toward Modjeska Reservoir in less than a half mile. At the bottom, turn right to make your way up Harding Canyon. There is a good use trail that heads into the canyon. It pays to stay on it as long as you can. Before I got far into the canyon, I heard the telltale warning of a rattlesnake under a rock just off the trail. Despite being startled, I appreciated the warning. I tried my best to spot him, but couldn't. After a minute or so trying to locate the snake, I headed back down the trail. I was somewhere close to two miles up the canyon before I crossed water for the first time. The middle part of the canyon has some large boulders and several nice sized pools that had survived. The vegetation grew thick and the use trail started to fade in and out. I often had to duck into a tangle of trees and plants to locate a path. Sections would open up then close again in a tangle of brush. At some point, I required my bug net and kept it on most of the way. Poison oak was around, but wasn't choking the canyon in any one spot. Navigation got increasingly difficult the farther I went, though some parts of the canyon were narrow and left no doubt about the way forward.
There was a large pool about half a mile before Harding Canyon Falls. Before I got to the pool, I started up a side canyon by mistake that got nasty in a hurry. I was about 200' up the side canyon when I hit a wall of fallen trees and it was clear I was going the wrong way. I got back into Harding Canyon and found the use trail again to great relief. The trail would still fade in and out, but I could usually locate it again. There was plenty of boulder scrambling, climbing over dead trees, and skirting pools and smaller falls. When I found the large pool, it was in bad shape, but recognizable. It is easily bypassed on the right. The canyon steadily gained elevation and started to open up again. Scrambling just past the large pool, I saw a 3' long and 6" wide dead log dislodge and fall about 100' in front of me. It could have just been a coincidence, but I had a growing feeling that something, perhaps something big, was in the canyon with me. For the first time on any hike, I got out my pepper spray and readied it in my right hand, trekking pole in my left. I kept it out all the way to the big falls before I relaxed and put it in my pocket. When I got to the big falls, I was not surprised to find it only a trickle. It is in two tiers, a 30' first tier and about a 10' second tier. A class 3 climb on the left side is required to gain the first tier. The rock was solid and holds were good. I climbed up to the top of the second tier and found a smooth, shaded area for lunch. It occurred to me that it might be possible to drop into the canyon from Harding Truck Trail farther up and descend all the way down. Who knows what secrets the canyon holds far beyond the falls.
After my break, I started back, having to work out the path in reverse. A sharp branch drew blood on my forearm, but no more rattlesnakes turned up. About half way back, I ran into a group of four or five awesome orange flame skimmer dragonflies (Libellula saturata). They kept bumping into each other. Whether that was fighting or romance remains a mystery. Getting to Harding Canyon Falls is not easy and I thought about increasing my subjective difficulty rating above moderate. A few bad navigation choices could make it quite difficult and dangerous, but a stiff moderate seems about right. It is worthy, but not nearly as difficult (or beautiful) as getting to Tanriverdi Falls in Hot Spring Canyon.
Other Trip Reports:
Harding Falls Hike (The Hikers Way)