Eaton Canyon Mines

This tunnel used to be between 600 and 700 feet long. It was destroyed around 1980.
This tunnel used to go all the way through the mountain. I estimate it was was about 600-700 feet long.

County: Los Angeles

Primary Mineral: All of the tunnels found in Eaton Canyon are water tunnels. Although there was placer mining for gold recorded in the wash near the base of the canyon, there was no known hard rock gold mining conducted here. 

Years of Operation: At least one of the tunnels dates back to the late 1890s or early 1900s. The duration of water operations is unknown.

Nearest City or Landmark: Lower Eaton Canyon, above the Mt. Wilson Toll Road bridge

Depth: The main water tunnel was between 600 and 700 feet. I know this because I used to walk through it as a teenager. Both sides of that tunnel were blown up around 1980. There were other water tunnels in the canyon, depths are unknown.

The explosives went off, they blew away the stone wall that once surrounded this small door.
This tunnel was blasted with dynamite around 1980. Part of the rock wall still remains.

Gold Mining In Eaton Canyon

Was there gold mining in Eaton Canyon? The answer is yes. In fact, this was the site of some of the oldest mining ventures in the San Gabriel foothills. However this was all placer mining, and there was no known hard rock mining conducted here. 

"In 1853-1854 gold was found in the foot-hills of the Santa Anita ranch, in the San Gabriel Canyon, and in our own Eaton, Rubio and Arroyo Seco Canyons. In crossing the old flood-plain of the Eaton Canyon outwash above Lamanda Park, many mysterious-looking deep pits in the sand will be noticed. These were made by the gold-hunters of that period and later time. These were all placer diggings. A quartz mill was put in far up the San Gabriel Canyon some years later. And statistics show that during a period of eighteen years over $2,000,000 worth of gold dust was sold from these San Gabriel, Santa Anita and Eaton Canyon diggings."

~ Thompson and West’s History of Los Angeles County, 1879

My buddy Phil at the front side of the tunnel in 1978. It was about 600-700 feet long.
Photo from 1978 of my buddy Phil at the front portal. The inside was about 6 feet tall.

The Precipice Canyon Water Company

In March of 1887 the Precipice Canyon Water Company was incorporated, to mine for water in Eaton Canyon. The company’s title was taken from the old Spanish name for Eaton Canyon, which was Precipio Canyon, or El Precipio. Each of the canyons in this area had their own water company, but Eaton Canyon was one of the bigger producers. According to Dr. Hiram Reid, who wrote extensively about this area in his “History of Pasadena” book, published in 1895, there were a total of 50 water tunnels that supplied water to the Pasadena area, then referred to as Pasadenaland. 

Here's another tunnel that never hit water. It's located next to the second falls.
A shallow tunnel next to the second falls. There are probably others in nearby side gullies.

In those days water was measured in miner’s inches. A miner’s inch was equal to nine gallons of water per minute. According to a report published on Oct. 14, 1891 in the Star, Eaton Canyon produced 40 miner’s inches on average, while Rubio Canyon produced 15, Las Flores Canyon produced 10 and Millard Canyon produced 7. In addition to these canyons there were three other water sources; Painter’s System, Sheep Corral Springs and Ivy, Thibbet & Flutterwheel Springs, which produced a combined amount of 170 miner’s inches.

Everyone who hikes to the first falls has seen this. It used to be a deep water tunnel.
Old timers told once me this used to be a deep water tunnel, with a metal door on the front.

Eaton Canyon's Lost Tunnel Trail 

In order to remember the Tunnel Trail you would need to be at least in your mid to late fifties, as I am. Eaton Canyon was my playground as a kid, and I used to hike this amazing trail regularly. The trail was built sometime around 1902, or possibly even earlier by the Precipice Water Company. It was never intended to be available to the public, but was discovered by a few hikers, and word spread like wildfire. 

As I remember it, the beginning of the trail was well hidden, about sixty feet above the canyon floor. Some people called it the Ladder Trail or the Staircase Trail. Embedded in the rock were a series of upright rails, with a thick steel cable that ran between them, acting as a safety line that allowed hikers to pull themselves up at the steeper areas. It's possible that these rails were originally used to haul rock out of the inside of a tunnel bored through the mountain high above, then salvaged and later used to provide safety to the workers along the way.

There were four well built staircases along the way, which eventually dead-ended into a 20 foot rock wall. Sometimes there would be a rope hanging down, sometimes not, but either way you would need to scale the cliff to reach the small entrance to a water tunnel, which went all the way through the mountain. After crawling through the small hole you would be able to easily stand up, and straddle a few water pipes on the way to the other side. The tunnel was nearly straight, which allowed enough light in so that you could almost make it to the middle before things went pitch black. From there you would have to feel your way around for twenty or thirty feet, until light became visible from the other side.

Some of these old railroad ties were pounded into rock to form a safety line.
Remnant of the old tunnel trail. Originally there was asafety cable that ran through the top hole.

"A few rods below the falls the mountain wall spreads and rises in a vast amphitheater, near the top of which a tunnel is cut through to an upper canyon and second falls, and water piped out from that high point. There is a narrow foot trail leading up to the tunnel and the crest, where those who want to try a little bit of dizzy mountain climbing can make the venture.” 

~ Dr. H.A. Reid’s Pasadena Handbook, 1905

The ties embedded in the tunnel trail's rock cliffs can be traced back to the West Virginia Rail Co.
Some of the rails are stamped with WVARAILCO. They were manufactured here, around 1902.


Sometime around 1980, for whatever reason, the forest service decided to destroy the trail and the tunnel. To the best of my knowledge no one had ever been hurt or killed on it, but apparently they saw it as a liability. One day a work crew blew up both ends of the tunnel, which set off a disastrous chain of events. Hikers were outraged, and promptly dug it out. The forest service came back with a vengeance, blowing up the tunnel again, this time deep, and reportedly walled up the south portal (although this is only hearsay). Hikers did not give up. They began bypassing the tunnel and climbing up a steep ravine, over the top of the mountain and down the other side. Soon after, a guard was posted on the trail, threatening arrest to all who passed. Again, this is hearsay, but I trust the source it came from. Eventually the staircases were destroyed, as was the trail and the guard rails.

Closing this route forced hikers to look for a new way to reach the upper falls, so they devised a far more dangerous way on the opposite side of the canyon, dubbed Razorback Ridge. At first, few were brave enough to try it, but as the internet came into existence, this route grew increasingly popular. A few people fell to their deaths, but these incidents were only occasional. Then came YouTube and other video sites. Hikers would post videos of themselves, sliding off the top of the second falls. These proved to be irresistible to many. Deaths and serious injuries skyrocketed, as did rescues. The photo of Razorback Ridge seen below was taken fairly recently from just above the old tunnel entrance. 

This is Razorback Ridge. Over 20 people have lost their lives using this route to get above the falls.
After the Tunnel Trail was destroyed, hikers created a new route, known as Razorback Ridge.

Eaton Canyon's Red Zone

The photo above is of an area known to hikers as Razorback Ridge. I took this shot from the top of what I refer to as the North Wall. I have personally climbed Razorback 43 times successfully, but it still scares the hell out of me every time. Hikers began using this makeshift route to gain access to the second falls shortly after the Tunnel Trail was destroyed around 1980, sometimes with disastrous results. Some would go up drunk, or weren't clear on which route to take, which led to hundreds of rescues, at least 20 deaths and countless injuries, not only to the hikers on the ridge, but to people down below, who were sometimes hit by rocks knocked down from above. Not so long ago those rescues were financed by taxpayers, but no more. On average, being rescued by helicopter costs between $5,000 - $10,000, which is now billed to the victim, not the city.

Rescues before the internet were rare, but once videos of the second falls began to surface, inexperienced climbers often got stuck on the side of the cliff or behind the first falls. As this problem continued to grow, the forest service was in a quandary about how to handle the situation. They had debated building a safe trail, but reasoned (wrongly) that it was impractical, too expensive, and would be impossible to maintain. By the way, that trail already exists. I know, because I built it, in secret. It took  me 12 months to complete by myself, but now I've allowed it to go back to nature, after I started seeing trash on it from some hikers who had discovered it. Don't ask me where it is, I won't tell you. 

Eaton Canyon's upper falls area was closed in 2016, due to a number of deaths and rescues.
A closure order was enacted in January of 2016, which slowed the number of rescues. 

On January 26, 2016 the area above the falls was officially closed to hikers, multiple signs were posted, and for a few weeks the Sheriff's Dept. patrolled the area. Threats of fines and arrests were posted, but is this enforceable? Not likely. Virtually all of the warning signs have since been removed or painted over, but the well publicized threats seem to have slowed the traffic tremendously. Interestingly, if you read the original closure order, it expired on January 25, 2017. In addition, you can get a special permit to access the area behind the first falls by request. To read the entire closure order, click here. The Channel 2 News video above was taken two days before the closure. It's a badly edited segment of a cell phone video that doesn't show how far this girl would have fallen if her leg hadn't hooked a tree branch. To view the full video on YouTube, click here.

Memorial placard for one of many fatalities on Razorback Ridge. There have been more than 20.
A marker for one of the many fatalities on Razorback Ridge. Countless others have been hurt.

What's Behind The First Falls?

The main magnet for hikers who braved Razorback Ridge was the second falls, approximately the same height as the first, but with a "sometimes" deep pool that allowed for sliding off the top. And if that wasn't enough, an even higher platform was squared off about 20 feet higher for those seeking a bigger thrill. I used to slide off these falls all the time. Back then the pool below was about 15 feet deep, but I eventually stopped when my feet started hitting the bottom. Nowadays the pool is practically non-existent, at least in the summer months. This area and the area above it inevitably became inundated with graffiti, but fortunately a large group of canyoneers received special permission to clean up most of it, just after the closure. You can view a video of the slide off the top of the second falls by scrolling down this page.

Access to the first falls is an easy hike. Beyond that gets a little sketchy.
Originally the first fall was called the LaBelle Cascade, named after Benjamin Eaton's daughter.


Next to the second falls is a shallow tunnel that goes in about fifteen feet. This was most likely an unsuccessful water tunnel that never hit water. The last time I was there the trash that it was once filled with had been removed, and someone had piled some grass insulation on the ground inside. Presumably they slept there overnight. You can see a photo of this tunnel by scrolling up this page (fourth photo from the top). There is probably at least one more water tunnel in this general area. I found old pipes and a natural spring coming from a brushy side gully, but didn't feel like bushwhacking on that day.

This is the top of the first falls. It is now illegal to climb up to this point, or anywhere beyond.
Top of the first falls. The light area was in the distance once the location of the Tunnel Trail.


Beyond the second falls is a seemingly endless series of twists and turns through one of the deepest and most beautiful gorges in the San Gabriels. There are multiple falls and deep pools, sculpted by centuries of water erosion. Spanish settlers called this canyon El Precipio. How many falls are there? Ask ten people and you'll get ten different answers. It all depends on what you define as a fall. Most agree there are around eight major falls, but there are numerous minor ones along the way. John Muir hiked this canyon, but was largely ridiculed for the strange claims of his written account. I don't doubt that Muir hiked part of the canyon. I do doubt that he went the whole way. Eaton Canyon is separated into three well defined areas, the wash (everything below the bridge), Lower Eaton (everything below the last falls), and Upper Eaton (everything above the last falls).

A deep pool below the second falls allows for sliding off the top, or jumping from even higher up.
The second fall has a deep pool that sometimes allows for sliding off the top.


In Muir's book, "The Mountains of California", published in 1894, he gave a strange account of Eaton Canyon, in which he repeatedly claimed that it was the foot-slopes of Mt. Baldy, some 60 miles away. For this he was ridiculed by his peers. 

John Muir visited Eaton Canyon and the front range of the San Gabriels in 1877.


“The fall, the flowers, the bees, the ferny rocks, and leafy shade forming a charming little poem of wilderness, the last of a series extending down the flowery slopes of Mount San Antonio (“Old Baldy”) through the rugged, foam-beaten bosses of Eaton Canyon.” 

~ John Muir, "The Mountains of California", 1894

Some believe Muir just made a typographic error, or mistook Mt. Baldy for San Gabriel Peak, but he made the same mistake over and over again. To read more on Muir's memories of Eaton Canyon click here

Muir's Mention of Water Tunnels

In one of John Muir’s many books and journals, he briefly mentions Eaton Canyon’s water tunnels. On the first day of his hike, he was wearing a new pair of shoes that were blistering his feet, and the heat was oppressive. So, he only made it as far at the mouth of the canyon. I take that to mean the area that is now above the bridge. At that point he came across a man who invited Muir to camp with him in his small hut. The man was out of candles, so they sat in the dark, and the man unfolded his plans for the future.

During the winter season this becomes the third fall. Huge logs have recently washed downstream.
I consider this the third falls. None of the huge logs were here two years ago.

“He was going to settle among these canyon boulders, and make money, and marry a Spanish woman. People mine for irrigating water along the foothills as for gold. He is now driving a prospecting tunnel into a spur of the mountains back of his cabin. "My prospect is good," he said, "and if I strike a strong flow, I shall soon be worth five or ten thousand dollars. That flat out there, " he continued, referring to a small, irregular patch of gravelly detritus that had been sorted out and deposited by Eaton Creek during some flood season, "is large enough for a nice orange grove, and, after watering my own trees, I can sell water down the valley; and then the hillside back of the cabin will do for vines, and I can keep bees, for the white sage and black sage up the mountains is full of honey. You see, I've got a good thing."

~ John Muir, “The Mountains of California”, 1894

This damn captured water and funneled it through the water tunnel to the opposite side of the mountain.
This was a key part of the water system. Water was pumped though the tunnel to the other side.

In his later years, Muir went to live with his sister in Daggett, CA when he became too ill to care for himself. Daggett was a small borax mining town, founded in 1883 and closely associated with Calico, located in the Mojave Desert. Originally the town was to be named Calico Junction, but this would have been confusing, since it was right next to Calico. Daggett became quite a big city in the 1890s, boasting to have three stores, two restaurants, three saloons, three hotels, a lumberyard, and even a Chinese eating place. But after 1911 when richer borax deposits were discovered to the north in Death Valley, all the mining operations moved, which caused Daggett to go into a steady decline. Today it’s considered a ghost town, but there are still around 200 people living there.

Eaton Canyon was carved by centuries of flash floods. Note the ancient log suspended high above the canyon floor.
Imagine the power of the flood that lodged this suspended log between the canyon walls.

Does The Main Water Tunnel Still Exist? 

Around 1980, Eaton Canyon's main water tunnel was destroyed, either by the forest service or an outside agency they contracted. It was blown up on both ends, but was promptly dug out by furious hikers. The second time there were major explosives placed, which thoroughly sealed the tunnel. But it does still exist, and you can see proof of that in the first three photos on this page. The tunnel went all the way through the mountain, and was actually not a water tunnel per se. Rather it was a diversion tunnel that created a shortcut to bring water down from high up in the canyon. The first two photos at the top of this page show the back side and the third photo, taken in 1978, shows what the front of it used to look like.

In order to get above these falls you'll need to climb up the logs and pass through a narrow gap between boulders.
In order to reach the top of this fall you need to squeeze through a hole between the boulders.

Originally there was only a small hole at either end that you would descend into before being able to stand up. But after the tunnel was blown up the rock wall that surrounded a metal door on the back side collapsed. I have tried to get to the front side, but that area is very dangerous and hard to access, so as of yet I have been unsuccessful. Looking into the back side of the tunnel it would appear to only go in for about 20 feet, however if you climb down into the hole, something interesting has happened. Over the last 40 years the earth inside has settled, leaving a two foot high gap below the tunnel's ceiling, and it goes in deep

Terrestrial garter snakes and small rainbow trout can sometimes be found in Eaton's upper ponds.
Sometimes you'll see these terrestrial garter snakes below the waterfalls, as well as small trout.


The tunnel was filled with annoying stream flies when I was inspecting it, but it appears that the narrow belly crawl goes in for at least 50 more feet, and then descends to its original height, which was six feet. It's impossible to confirm that without crawling in there. My belief is that explosive charges were set in about fifty feet on both side, but that the center was left intact. This tunnel was originally between 600 and 700 feet long (from my memory), so it's quite possible that one could still make it all the way through. If I ever get a Go Pro I'll try crawling through it, but for now it's just an interesting observation.

Deep in Eaton Canyon this pond can be found. A large number of frogs reside on the walls.
I call this one swimming hole Froggy Falls, because of the frogs along the walls.

A Brief History of Eaton Canyon 

Eaton Canyon was originally called “El Precipicio" by Spanish settlers, because of its steep gorges, it was later re-named after Judge Benjamin Eaton, who built the first Fair Oaks Ranch House in 1865, not far from Eaton Creek. Judge Eaton was the first person to use irrigation from the creek to grow grapes and was instrumental in the development of the Mount Wilson Toll Road in 1891. He also proposed a tramway to Mount Wilson which was eventually built to Mount Lowe instead.

The upper reaches of Eaton Canyon feature granite narrows, sculpted by centuries of water.
Once known as El Precipio, ome parts of the canyon are as narrow as ten feet across. 


The canyon runs along the the San Gabriel Fault, once a main part of the San Andreas Fault, which also runs along the east and west forks of the San Gabriel River. Most of the 190 acres that make up the Eaton Canyon Natural Area lie on the northern boundaries of the old San Pasqual and Santa Anita Ranches on county-designated Southern Pacific Railroad land. Since the railroad did not use the land, it became open for homesteading. Today the City of Pasadena and parts of Altadena receive about 40% of their water from local sources, 50% from Colorado River water, and 10% from Northern California.

These two photos, taken back in 1978, give you an idea of water flow in the back canyon during that year.
Two falls in the canyon, taken in 1978. That's my buddy Phil on the left and me on the right.