After teen's death, hikers say popular trail should have better warnings

The entrance to the popular Eaton Canyon Park in Altadena. A 17-year-old high school student died in a fall on May 22.

This warning sign is on the back side of the kiosk at the entrance to Eaton Canyon Park. The sign faces away from the parking lot and the sidewalk used by most hikers.


Hikers on Sunday at the Eaton Canyon trail in Altadena expressed sadness at the death of a 17-year-old girl on the trail two days earlier. Some hikers called on officials to install additional signs that warn of dangers on the popular trail.

The L.A. County Coroner said the dead teen is Esther Yieng Suen of Alhambra, who was a student at Mark Keppel High School. She reportedly fell 200 feet to her death. An 18-year-old male also was injured and remained hospitalized.

Late Sunday morning, dozens of people arrived at the trail head. They included families with kids in strollers, senior citizens carrying coolers, and a large contingent of youth and church groups.

There are picnic areas less than a hundred yards from the parking lot. Most hikers were headed to an area that takes about an hour to climb. The trail continues on more than ten miles into the San Gabriel Mountains, which is part of a national forest.

There are plenty of signs at the beginning of the trailhead warning of poison oak and rattlesnakes, and others prohibiting smoking, bicycle riding, and use of guns.

There's one sign warning that climbing to the popular waterfall can be dangerous. The sign is on a kiosk, facing away from the parking lot and the sidewalk used by most hikers.

Jon Stillman —  who’s hiked Eaton Canyon for two decades —  said there should be signs farther up the trail. “I’ve never seen any," he said. "It’s too far back in the canyon.”

Dennis Taylor hiked the trail last week, going far enough to look down on a cloud bank over the San Gabriel Valley. He said he’s seen people do dangerous things on the trail. “They go on the other side, they try jumping in or climbing up on the rock face where the waterfall is,” he said.

He said no one should have to die climbing Eaton Canyon, agreeing with Taylor that officials should post more warning signs. “They do it on [Yosemite's] Half Dome or anywhere else where any person can sue. They should cover their butt and cover the state,” he said.

Many hikers come in shorts, sneakers, or workout tights. Most bring carry a small water bottle. Michael Lumunasad’s hiking boots, pants, hat, and backpack water container made him look like he just stepped out of an outdoor clothing catalog. He was one of the people who said warning signs aren’t enough.

“Ultimately, I think it’s common sense among the hiker, among the visitor, He said. "If it looks dangerous, it’s probably very dangerous, so don’t do it."

The natural beauty of Eaton Canyon in the foothills above Pasadena has attracted novice hikers and experienced climbers for more than a century. Its popularity is starting to take a toll.

“This is an overcrowded hike, especially later in the day,” Lumunasad said. “You just have a lot of kids who don’t have supervision. They’re just climbing, doing whatever they want. We saw some kids throw glass bottles around.”

In April of last year, L.A. County officials became worried about the number of helicopter rescues and deaths in Eaton Canyon. There had been 60 rescues and two deaths in the previous year.

Grief counselors will be at Mark Keppel High School Monday morning to help students cope with Suen's sudden death. Friends are organizing a memorial at Eaton Canyon Monday afternoon.

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