The San Gabriel Wilderness harbors deer, bighorn sheep, black bears, and mountain lions -- facts that hint at the quality of the wilderness experience you can get there. Only one trail stabs deeply into the corrugated heart of this area: the Devils Canyon Trail. It leads you to a clear, cascading stream fringed by a green ribbon of vegetation hidden in the crease of a 2000-foot-deep canyon. There you can splash around in shallow pools, fish for trout, or trek farther down the canyon to visit the upper lip of a waterfall.
From Interstate 210 in La Canada-Flintridge (near Glendale), drive up Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2) for 27 miles to the Devils Canyon trailhead. The well-marked trailhead is three miles past the Charlton Flats Picnic Area. If you reach the turnoff for the Chilao Visitor Center, you have gone about 200 yards too far. Be sure to post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car.
The zigzagging descent on the Devils Canyon Trail takes you across slopes clothed alternately in chaparral and mixed conifer forest. By 1.5 miles you reach a branch of what will soon become a trickling stream -- one of the several tributaries that contribute to Devils Canyon's ample springtime flow. The deeply shaded trail leads to the main canyon after a total of 2.6 miles. (Be sure to mark this spot or take note of surrounding landmarks so you can recognize this place when it's time to head back up the trail.) Downstream a bit farther is the site of a former trail camp on a flat terrace west of the Devils Canyon stream. In accordance with the philosophy of returning designated wilderness areas to as natural a condition as possible, this former trail camp has had its stoves and tables removed by the Forest Service.
Heading downstream, you can have some real fun, but only if you're sure-footed. You follow a fairly distinct path in places; otherwise you boulder-hop and wade in the stream itself. Mini-cascades feed pools three- to four-feet deep harboring elusive brook trout. Water-loving alders and sycamores cluster along the stream, while patriarchal live oaks and bigcone Douglas-firs stand on higher and drier benches and slopes. Watch for poison oak as the canyon walls narrow; and keep an eye out for a silvery, two-tier waterfall at the mouth of a side canyon coming in from the east, nearly two miles down from the campsite.
Beyond the two-tier fall, 0.4 mile of rock scrambling and wading takes you to a constriction in the canyon where water slides down a sheer incline some 20 vertical feet. You've come five miles from the trailhead and you've lost 2100 feet of elevation -- as far as you can go without technical climbing gear. Hopefully you'll have plenty of energy left, because the hike back out is entirely uphill.