Bear Creek Trail in the San Gabriel Mountains
Highway 39 to Smith Saddle, Bear Creek, West Fork of San Gabriel River

This Bear Creek Trail begins 1/4 mile south of Coldbrook Campground, 6 miles north of the junction of the North and West Forks of the San Gabriel River on SR39. It consists of two very different sections. The first section is 6 miles of nearly shade-free traverse west through Smith Saddle to Bear Creek. The second section is 5 miles south along Bear Creek, requiring numerous stream crossings, on a trail that is prone to disappearance, depending on how long it has been since trail maintenance has occurred.

Reports of Trail Conditions

03Sept01: Dan Simpson reports:

On Labor Day weekend (Sept 2-3), my 11-year-old daughter and I did a one-night backpack trip up Bear Creak from the West Fork trailhead doing a portion of Hike #74, in reverse. We had an enjoyable outing and my daughter was asking that we do it again.

Trail Conditions: The portion of trail we hiked -- from the West Fork road to about a half mile or so short of the Bear Creek West Fork -- was in excellent condition. The trail crossed the creek numerous times but the water level was low enough to not cause any problems (I suspect that in the early spring hiking this trail would be considered an aquatic sport). In a few spots it was a little tricky finding where the trail continued after crossing the creek, but rock "ducks" placed by other hikers helped. Lots of poison oak but it was off the trail sufficiently to make hiking in shorts no problem -- but we had to be alert. There were stinging nettles in a number of spots where the trail crossed the creek.

A portion of the creek below the lower camp had been used as a paint-ball battlefield. Bright orange paint was splatter all over rocks and trees, and expended CO2 cartridges and other trash littered the ground. Hopefully winter rains can wash the area clean.

Robinson's description of the trail camps did not match our experience. He says "Today there are three wilderness campsites along the lower creek spaced about a mile apart..." They are the Upper Bear Creek (located where the trail from Smith Saddle reaches the Bear Creek), the West Fork Bear wilderness campsite in little more than a mile (where the Bear Creek West Fork intersects with the main creek), and the Bear Creek wilderness trail camp. We found what we assumed was this first trail camp about a mile or a little farther up the trail, sitting on a long, level bench. It was an excellent campsite with lots of room for several parties, and close to the water. Then in about 3/4 of a mile we found another campsite which we assumed was the middle one. The campsite sits between two creek crossing about 3 or 4 tenths of a mile apart. The campsite's landmark feature is the ruins of an old stone cabin (which wasn't mentioned in Robinson). We camped there. The next morning we day-hiked up the creek for what seemed to be at least two miles, but short of the West Fork trail camp. Perhaps the stone-cabin site is not one of the three trail camps, in which case the distance between the West Fork and the Lower Bear would about two miles apart, not one.

Unfortunately the lower camp was trashed by a father and four young children from El Monte. It's always disheartening when forest users leave trash, but particularly distressing when it's a father exampling to his impressionable children that it's okay to trash our wilderness.

The huge white clouds bellowing over the back range made a nice backdrop for some photos of Twin Peaks to the north. The threatening summer thunder storms proved harmless to us. The weather was hot and sunny making us wish we had a water purifier with us.

Bugs: No problem. A few gnats and mosquitoes, but not bad. Two or three bees buzzed around our meal preparation. The crickets were quite loud at night.

Bears: There were fresh bear tracks in the moist sand by the creek just north of the stone-cabin site.

Traffic and parking: I know the Labor weekend attracts lots of visitors to the San Gabriels, but I neglected to take into account the huge number of cars that would be parked at the West Fork. When we arrived at about 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, I was alarmed at the hundreds of cars which occupied available every inch parking lot, road sides, and turns-outs within a half mile of the West Fork. Thankfully the good Lord had a nice parking space in the lot waiting for us. The parking situation was just as bad on Monday at the same time. Of course along with the hundreds of cars were thousands of holiday revelers picnicking and playing in the river. It appeared that 100% of these folks were Latino. Why is that? If anyone has any explanation for this sociological phenomenon, I'd love to hear it. And I trust that the tons (literally) of trash left by these river users is an issue of being human rather than Latino. (By the way, the father and four kids who trashed the lower Bear Creek campsite were Anglo).

At the beginning of the hike, walking up the West Fork road, we mused over the huge crowds we were hiking past. But soon after turning onto Bear Creek trail, we left the crowds behind. Besides the family of five at the lower camp, we saw only one other person the entire time. There was a real sense of seclusion and wilderness.

14Apr01: Aura Luna-Escudero reports:

On April 14, four of us hiked Bear Creek Trail. It was enjoyable; we did it in two days. We walked 7 miles the first day and the second day out 4 miles to SR39.

Trail Conditions: The first 4 miles are in great condition. After that, the following 1 1/2 miles are very overgrown with bush, although we did not see any poison ivy.

Bugs: We had no trouble with mosquitoes or millipedes, but we did with ants! One of us missed a step, fell, and landed on a whole bunch of ants. He had to run into the creek to get them off. The sting is painful.

Fishing: Very small trout, and hard to catch.

Bears: We saw none, but noticed bear droppings, 2 sets about 1/2 mile apart, by the creek side.

Overall our trip was very enjoyable and quiet - hardly any hikers go through the whole 11 miles.

11Jul99: Roy Randall reports:

Some sections of the switchbacks at the bottom of the trail descending from Smith Saddle to Bear Creek require some care to cross. Some slides and general erosion have taken out a few sections leaving only a narrow foot-bed on unstable scree and sand. It's not so much that one is in danger of falling as that IF one did fall it would be bad.

Roy found only a few difficult places in the section of boulder hopping and stream crossing between the upper and middle camp.

The trail below the middle camp, about where the northern end of the trail is shown on the Waterman Mtn. topo, has been recently worked and is in excellent condition. The trail was easy to follow even at stream crossings.

Unfortunately, Roy found the two lower camp sites full of trash.

19Apr97: Dan Morrison reports:

Trail Conditions: Hwy 39 to Smith Saddle: Excellent conditions, the trail is immaculate! Smith Saddle to Upper Bear Creek: Poor conditions, trail is very overgrown and hiking is difficult. LOTS of poison ivy, wear long sleeves, shorts are not recommended.

Bugs: Mosquitos were not too bad, even along the creek. Spiders abound however, as do those nasty millipedes.

Snakes: Not too bad, we saw only one rattler near the trail head who gave us plenty of warning of his presence beforehand.

Fishing: The upper bear does not seem to be stocked as it has been in past years. Lower bear was stocked on 2/11 as per Forest Service. Upper bear has small wild trout, fishing the upper is not recommended unless you like anchovies. Also, the upper bear camp area is VERY overgrown and looks like it has received little if any use in the past few years.

Parking: A parking permit is required for Sat. or Sunday stays. These CANNOT be purchased at the ranger station at the mouth of the canyon. They can be purchased at the Mobile gas station located at Hwy 39 & 210 for $3.00 per day.

Hwy 39 to Smith Saddle and back as a day hike is recommended, the trail has been very well maintained and the ascent is gradual. Hiking to upper bear creek would only be recommended for those seeking a real challenge. The creek has plenty of water though, and if solitude is your primary reason for hiking, this would be a good choice as we encountered no other hikers, and the upper bear creek area looks as though it has received very little use.

11Jul95: Tom Chester reports:

None of the 5 of us on this hike could find any trace of a trail leading from Upper Bear Creek to the West Fork. We traveled downstream, hampered by forests of poison oak, with several of our party slipping during river crossings. I lost my trusty pedometer and my sunglasses, which is an extremely rare occurrence. It was not a pleasant trip along the creek!

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Copyright © 1997-2001 by Tom Chester.
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Updated 6 September 2001.