Shoemaker Canyon Hike and Adventure

by Linda Ainsworth

Saturday, June 19, 1999

I arrived at the East Fork Road above the reservoir at my favorite pull out at 3:30 a.m. and enjoyed one hour of very satisfying star gazing, although I only saw a couple of shooting stars and one satellite. It was very quiet, even though I feared it being grad night for a lot of teenagers, that the canyon would be filled with loud celebrations, huge bon fires and very intoxicated individuals. There was a family in a mini van parked about 100 feet away from me who were spending the night also under the stars.

Day broke at 4:30 a.m. and I decided to move on to my planned trailhead for that day which was one not very well known or traveled, or maybe forgotten, called Shoemaker Canyon. It runs parallel with the East Fork Road, River, and Trail, but about 600 feet higher and to the west where in the 1940's a highway was constructed. One that would never wash out with the infamous floods of San Gabriel Canyon. There is a locked gate 1/4 mile in and after that a dirt road continues on about two miles and abruptly ends as the government decided not to finish building the road due to budget cuts, dangerous rockslides, and environmental issues. I call it, "The Road to Nowhere." The canyon wall is forever etched with the roadcuts made by the labor of Chino State Prison inmates.

Starting up Shoemaker Canyon Road, I drove slowly. About halfway in, it still being a little dark out, I noticed some movement on the right shoulder. I thought it was an owl, but much to my surprise, a very large doe swept her gaze, caught my headlights, sprung around and leaped and bounded in front of my car. I broke quickly, but knew I could stop in time and was awestruck as I watched this incredible animal run away in slow motion, powerful in her every move, into Williams Canyon scared for her life. My first thought was all the stories I've heard from people who accidentally hit a deer on the road and how mangled the front of their car became and how traumatic the incident was. I was glad that someone watched over her and me. I will never forget that experience. She was beautiful and as big as a horse. After she was gone and I gathered myself, I whispered out the window, "It's okay, Mama Doe."

I arrived at the locked gate. It was still not quite light enough to begin my hike and get my backpack together. I also want to share the unique experience of watching the granite and gneiss patterns of the canyon walls and mountains that guard it slowly come alive as the dark of night changes to daylight. It is almost spiritual. You should try it sometime. There is also something special about hiking or just taking a walk here in the very early hours when you will see things you will never see any other time of day; the wildlife, the stillness, the excellent photography lighting, no bugs!, and my secret passion of solitude in nature.

I start my unfinished journey from the weekend before determined to finish this time. As I got out of the car, although it was in the cool of the morning, I could feel how hot the weather was the day before. I pass the unique features that make it hard to concentrate on walking because my love of geology made me stop every few feet as the rock walls changed classes and colors, obviously telling stories of great and significant changes in the canyon over thousands of years. It was like the rocks were on display. The Spanish Broom was in bloom in profusion on both sides of the road and the air was filled with its intoxicating and sweet aroma. This time I heard the humming of bees. On the left, high above the road was the largest rock slide I have ever seen. It looked like the top of the cliff wall was dynamited and left a huge open scar with little shelters left for animals to sleep in. The felled rock was piled high from the ground all the way up to the base of its scar. This rock was light colored in nature, maybe diorite or travertine. I was a little disappointed that there were not very many lookouts where I could see the trail below that knows my footprints very well and possibly my favorite swimming hole. However, I could see the entire first half of the Heaton Flat Trail (Hikes 86 & 87 of the 7th Edition of John Robinson's classic Trails of the Angeles). All the times I walked passed it, I obviously underestimated its difficulty. From my viewpoint, it was a skinny, straight uphill trudge and approximately a 6,000 foot elevation gain (Hike 87) that I have new respect for. I thought I might be able to see the Allison Mine on Iron Mountain, but could not. I also noticed that although it felt like I had walked a good distance, when compared to the trail below, I had only gone a few hundred feet. Everywhere I turned I saw evidence of extensive mining on the left walls. I later read that the man whose name commemorates the road, did, in fact, mine in this area. There were also tall, well-etched waterfall basins in every canyon. The walls looked cut out, or maybe hydraulically loosened, but the ground below was lower than the trail surface and delicately landscaped with wildflowers. On the side were concrete, man-made channels where runoff was captured. One canyon even looked like there was a ledge cut along the wall at one time so as someone could walk along it. There was also a flat area that contained several stacked white plastic boxes (bee boxes?). I didn't get closer to find out.

The trail took a bend to the left and the whole canyon was filled with green chamise. Unburned, untrodded (by man) and in perfect condition. This obviously is where a lot of the deer come from as they love to nest in chamise on high slopes. There was a section of dirt road that was still muddy from recent rainfall, and I couldn't believe all of the different animal tracks made.

I could identify most: deer, bighorn sheep, dogs, opossums, horses, mountain lions, maybe a ringtailed cat, and what I thought might have been bear tracks. I took a picture of this to study later. At this point, I really felt like I was the only human in this part of the canyon. Another bend to the right revealed beautiful black and white metamorphic rock. There were several unique samples on the ground. As I bent down to pick one up, I noticed the ground was covered with fire ants (one of my phobias). I quickly dropped the rock and walked (or stomped) a little faster feeling good that I had worn shoes with full coverage. I continued with the only uphill trudge on the trip and as it turned to the left, I saw a tunnel ahead.

Mountain tunnels always fascinate me. How they are built right into the bedrock and at the most precise point of entry. This tunnel seemed so out of place, and it was. I thought again of the prison inmates and their hard labor. I could almost hear the hammering and the talk amongst them. I stood at the entrance and was surprised that I didn't need a flashlight to see my way through. The daylight provided enough. It was a very long tunnel, I would say at least 400 yards or so. I could see all the way through to the other side and where the trail continued. Swifts darted in and out of the top of the inside of the tunnel. It was clearly stamped on the front "1961." As I entered the tunnel, I was surprised that there was no evidence of any animals making homes inside, and then I realized why. Although sheltered, it was wide open on both sides and not protected from predators. It was also on a slight incline and I could tell that at times of heavy rainfall, the tunnel was literally transformed into a flume. Huge limbs from trees were laying on the sides and ledges as if they were washed down from the hillsides and laid there to rest. Definitely not a safe place during heavy rain.

At the end of the tunnel, lies Shoemaker Canyon. This was the most pleasant part of the hike. Spruce trees dotted the hillsides and I came upon a waterfall. It was tucked into a little knoll and though small, it was quite pretty, The water drained through a narrow swath about 10' high on each side and kind-of looked like an earthquake fault, but it was probably because the water was that high at one time or another.

Rounding a bend, I heard water flowing and tried to follow where I thought it might be. It was hidden behind a lot of overgrown plant matter. On the right, was a flat, open grassy area where maybe more bee boxes were placed, but gone now. I thought to myself, "What a perfect place to pitch a tent." The sky was open, the view outstanding, and so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. However, no shade. I took a picture of this area to show my friend, Bill, and maybe we could backpack in and spend the night.

The second tunnel was built in 1964 and is only 200 yards long. There was a poorly maintained trail off to the right that you could walk on if you didn't want to walk through the tunnel (I wondered why the 1st tunnel didn't have this feature?). At this point, the trail bends through another canyon where there was a small stream running down to the river below. This is the most difficult part of the whole hike as there is a small (but very steep) gully that needs to be crossed over on only tree roots. There was stinging nettle around, so it was a little challenging. The trail then curves south and looks over the East Fork Trail and San Gabriel River drainage about 600' below. I felt like an eagle perched high on a cliff looking down at hikers below. I have traversed that part of the trail many times myself. It is about 1 3/4 miles in and in the same area where I have seen bighorn sheep twice.

The trail then curves north and literally disappears. I could not go any further without having mountaineering training.

This road is hardly visited by hikers as it is hardly listed in any hiking book, and because of this, you are almost guaranteed solitude. However, I suggest a few things before you start:

Best Season: December - April. Try going in the very early morning. It gets very hot in the summer, there's no water around, and no shade.

Wear lug-soled shoes or boots or shoes with good traction.

- OR -

Mountain bike it. It's almost perfect for mountain biking, except in some spots where there have been rockslides.

The entire hike is approximately 4 miles round trip.

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Copyright © 1999-2000 by Linda Ainsworth
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to me at this source:
Comments and feedback: Linda Ainsworth
Last update: 19 May 2000.