The latest death of a hiker in Eaton Canyon has again raised the issue of how dangerous it is in parts of this popular Angeles National Forest destination, situated above Pasadena and Altadena. (See map at the end of this story.)
In particular, hikers ignore warning signs and go off the official trail to climb the canyon's crumbling walls in search of the picturesque second waterfall, enticed by YouTube videos and social media accounts. Official warnings don't seem to dissuade hikers. But they can find themselves stranded. Or worse.
A week ago, 17-year-old Esther Suen of Alhambra fell to her death while hiking there. She was the fifth person to die in Eaton Canyon in the past two years.
Natalie Lindeman, 17, was one of those who learned the hard way about the canyon's perils. While on a first date last summer, she and her companion headed to the canyon's first waterfall. An older hiker coming down the trail told them of a second waterfall, and pointed the way up the cliffs.
Lindeman thought: "We’re athletic, we’re good hikers, we’re wearing Converse, but we can handle it, you know?"
It’s a steep scramble up the shale. Lindeman says in one spot, past hikers have tied a rope into a tree. It’s the only way to drop into the second waterfall’s quieter, deeper pool. Lindeman says going off trail appealed to her and other teenagers for a simple reason: "We don’t want to be with everyone else."
The way back down was tortuous. Her face pressed against the rock, her hands up by her face, Lindeman reached out with one foot – and missed. She remembers her date’s eyes, and his scream.
"When I woke up on the canyon floor I had to figure out if it was as dream or not," she says. "Because it was really, really beautiful, and we were the only ones up there."
Lindeman was lucky. She only broke her back, but she survived.
Mike McIntyre is the U.S. Forest Service ranger for this part of the national forest. He says he’s never hiked to the second water fall, "but I’ve seen the goat paths that people choose to use, and it’s amazing that people think this path is safe to use."
In warm weather, authorities have to rescue someone from the second waterfall almost every weekend. The Forest Service has placed several warning signs, but McIntyre says it’s up to hikers to be prepared and stay safe.
"If we signed every point in because we’re a wildland area, all you would see is signs," he says.
McIntyre says more people have been drawn to the second waterfall by videos on YouTube and social media. So last year, L.A. County and the Forest Service put a public service announcement on YouTube.
"You may have heard of trails leading to mountaintop waterfalls," says the PSA. "The truth is, there is no safe trail to the second waterfall. You put yourself in danger and the rescuers in danger who are responsible for rescuing you." (Story continues below video window.)
One of those rescuers is Rod Kubly with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Air 5 team. He says it’s not just Eaton Canyon that has gone viral.
"I’ve seen different hotspots," he says. Several years will go by without a rescue call, "and all of a sudden we get seven or eight rescue calls in a short period of time."
Kubly grew up in the foothills below the national forest. He says that gave him a respect for the backcountry and its risks. He believes education about hazards can change people’s choices.
Natalie Lindeman isn’t sure she agrees. She loves hiking. She loves the boy she went on that first date with. She knows she ran a risk. She says that’s part of life.
"You can’t decide if you’re going to run into that hiker," she says. "And you can’t decide if you’re going to slip and you can’t decide if you’re going to fall in love. And you have to just go to beautiful places and do things that are fun and be as alive as you can for however long you have."
Six weeks after her fall, Lindeman went back to Eaton Canyon with her boyfriend and her father – this time inside a hard plastic brace. A group of guys approached them and asked the way to the second waterfall.
"My dad got so upset with them – 'You can’t go up there, look at her, this is what happened, she fell 100 feet, it's so dangerous, and you’re not going to make it, you’ll get hurt.' And they were still like, 'Do you know how to get up there?'" she said.
Lindemann, her dad and her boyfriend refused to tell the other hikers the way to the second waterfall. But she says they went off the trail and up towards it anyway.
Do you hike Eaton Canyon? Do you think officials have done enough to keep it safe? Or do you think more can be done? Let us know in the comment section.
Follow the red path from the trailhead at the parking lot of the Eaton Canyon Natural Center, through the Angeles National Forest to the waterfall. The colored map areas indicate city and park jurisdictions, from the Eaton Canyon Natural Area park, Angeles National Forest, city of Pasadena and the unincorporated Los Angeles county area of Altadena. The trail path is a general outline, not an exact route.