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Hiking the Devil's Punchbowl in Los Angeles County

Susette has a Masters degree in Sustainable Development. She leads her local Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.

The Devil's Punchbowl is one of my favorite hiking areas. I've hiked there several times a year since 1999 and have taken lots of photographs. The geology of the area makes it extra interesting. Did you know that the San Gabriel Mountains, where the Punchbowl is located, are actually the edges of two tectonic plates pushing up against each other? Did you also know that these mountains, from base to top, are some of the highest in the world? It's a great idea to research before going, or to take one of the geology hikes offered by Punchbowl guides.

Although there are trails to follow, many hikers prefer the challenge of climbing the rocks.

Although there are trails to follow, many hikers prefer the challenge of climbing the rocks.

Geologically, the area is called a "syncline"––a fold in the earth. The fold resulted from the edge of two of the earth's tectonic plates pushing against each other as they slipped by over the millennia––the North American Plate heading slowly southwest, the Pacific Plate heading slowly northeast.

The movements of the tectonic plates shoved up what was once horizontal layers of sandstone and sedimentary deposits until they were almost vertical. These are the rocks you see pictured above and in the photo collection below. When you're hiking there, it's amazing to see the colors in the rocks and imagine how those layers used to be flat. The earth has to be really powerful to push against itself like that.

Punchbowl Canyon is 300 feet deep, as measured from the vista point near the Punchbowl entrance. It lies in the middle of two major fault lines––on the west, the Punchbowl Fault running north/southwest; on the east, the San Andreas Fault running north/southwest. Sections of the San Andreas Fault are still active earthquake zones.

Inside the canyon there are several minor fault lines as well––the Pinyon Fault, Fenner Fault, and the Cocktail Fault, among others. You can tell where each of these faults are located by looking at the colors and shapes of the various sedimentary layers throughout the canyon.

Devil's Punchbowl panorama, looking southeast. The Pinyon Earthquake Fault lies to the left. The Punchbowl Fault is on the right - note the different thrust to the cliffs. The San Andreas Fault is through the V between the furthest mountains.

Devil's Punchbowl panorama, looking southeast. The Pinyon Earthquake Fault lies to the left. The Punchbowl Fault is on the right - note the different thrust to the cliffs. The San Andreas Fault is through the V between the furthest mountains.

Punchbowl Creek

At the bottom of the canyon runs Punchbowl Creek, the ultimate destination of most family hikers. This part time creek is the only water left from thousands of years of water erosion, where falling rain dug vertical gouges and ravines out of the mountains as it flowed down their sides.

Punchbowl Creek starts from a waterfall about a mile up that looks like it's coming out of a rocky pipe. When the flow hits the stream bed five or six feet below, it trickles down the creek over rocks and sand for several miles beyond the canyon, then disappears into the desert.

How Water Erosion Works

This video shows the process of water erosion. Imagine the mountains in the photo above being eroded in this way every time it rains or snows.

Tours & Activities

The park is open from 9:00-5:00 every day except Monday, when it's closed. Trails start at the entrance to the park, where you'll find a small nature center and bird sanctuary. Here you can talk to a forest ranger or other attendant and pick up trail maps. The forest ranger knows about animals and plants found in the area, and also about the canyon's geology.

The nature center contains exhibits of live and dead snakes, lizards, birds, and other fauna. The bird sanctuary is a caged area where wounded birds are kept safe until they heal, or kept permanently if they are not able to fly anymore.

You can also pick up a schedule of events, if you're interested in guided tours or activities. I've seen novice rock climbers practicing on some of the vertical rock faces, and school kids and scouts touring the area, with a guide explaining its history. The park provides geology tours, nighttime stargazing tours, and full moon tours.

Driving into the Devil's Punchbowl unguarded parking lot. There is no entrance fee.

Driving into the Devil's Punchbowl unguarded parking lot. There is no entrance fee.

The Nature Center is on the left of the entrance, the bird sanctuary on the right.

The Nature Center is on the left of the entrance, the bird sanctuary on the right.

Display cases inside the Nature Center show small animals, reptiles, birds, and live snakes.

Display cases inside the Nature Center show small animals, reptiles, birds, and live snakes.

The bird sanctuary is just big enough to hold two or three wounded birds - mainly owls.

The bird sanctuary is just big enough to hold two or three wounded birds - mainly owls.

Looking over the Punchbowl from the back deck of the sanctuary.

Looking over the Punchbowl from the back deck of the sanctuary.

Devil's Punchbowl Trails

There are several hiking trails in the Punchbowl, some mapped and some not:

  1. The Pinon trail is a short loop trail that stays on the upper level. It's located to the left of the main trail, and is used to demonstrate some of the plants found there.
  2. Non-strenuous hikers can take the main trail down a short grade, fork off to the right to trail the canyon halfway up, then circle back to the entrance. In the photo collection below, I call this the middle trail.
  3. The steepest trail (main trail) goes all the way down the canyon to the creek bed 300 feet below. There it follows the creek to its head, past vertical rocks where students learn to rock climb, and curves back up with a steep climb to the top trail, which takes you back to the entrance.
  4. The longest trail is 4.5 miles and goes in a different direction. It heads across the top of the canyon a ways before dipping down into it and then up again, ending at a natural rock formation called Devil's Chair, from which you can see the entire Punchbowl.
  5. The one I like to follow is unmapped, which probably means it's not really a trail. It goes up the hill on the other side of the creek bed, and down again to a smaller creek where hardly anybody goes. You can follow the creek around to the left as it winds around a hill, until joining the main creek below the canyon. Or you can climb up rocks to the top of the hills overlooking the main creek bed and make your way back to the entrance from there.

Check out the photographs following the map below. They will show you several views of the main trail, the creek bed, and a couple of minor trails.

Trail Map

Map of three of the trails described above. The middle trail is not marked.

Map of three of the trails described above. The middle trail is not marked.

Hiking Trail Tips & Etiquette

All kinds of people hike at the Devil's Punchbowl––individuals, families, scouting troops, college geology classes, astronomy enthusiasts, and rock climbers. Many hikers bring dogs. I go to photograph. No food is allowed inside, nor is smoking, since the area is filled with chaparral, (which is highly flammable) but there are picnic tables at the entrance.

Here are some tips for hiking along these trails that make the experience better for all hikers:

  • Go on a weekday, if you can. The trails get crowded during the weekends. Also, the best time of year to hike is late winter through early summer. After that the creek dries out.
  • Keep loud talking and yelling to a minimum. Instead, enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, sounds of birds, and the beauty of being outside in a majestic place.
  • Pass single file when encountering other hikers. Greet them and keep your dogs and kids under control.
  • Bring a fanny pack or other bag to keep trash in. Dumping it by the side of the trail or in the creek bed is plain discourteous. My fanny pack has three pockets in which I carry my wallet (with ID), a compass, lip balm, a pen/paper, an energy bar, and trash. It also has a water bottle, which I love to fill with fresh creek water.
  • Bring your camera in a padded case with a strap that will let you hang it from one shoulder and across your chest. I never go hiking without mine. I also bought an extra battery, which I use all the time, and a larger picture card.
  • Take care of sanitary needs before you go down. There are no facilities on the trails. Look near the entrance, behind the Nature Center, for the small buildings housing pit toilets.
Be courteous of other hikers. Some may not be as agile as you are.

Be courteous of other hikers. Some may not be as agile as you are.

Location of the Devils' Punchbowl

Devil's Punchbowl is a designated nature park run by the Los Angeles County Parks & Recreation Department. It is located in the mountains that frame the Antelope Valley, near Littlerock and Pearblossom, on the opposite side of the San Gabriel Mountains from Pasadena and Azusa. It takes about an hour and a half to drive there from downtown Los Angeles.

Eating After Hiking the Punchbowl

I'm always hungry after a day of hiking. If you are too, be sure to stop by Charlie Brown Farms in Littlerock on your way out. They have a great market with local fruits and vegetables, lots of tourist items, and a little sit-down restaurant that offers buffalo burgers and great shakes (among other things). Check the map above for the Punchbowl's location and enjoy your hike!

Normally I don't like glitchy tourist spots, but this one I do. Nearly all the foods are local, I've bought house décor here, and it's a nice ritual to stop for a buffalo burger after a hike.

Normally I don't like glitchy tourist spots, but this one I do. Nearly all the foods are local, I've bought house décor here, and it's a nice ritual to stop for a buffalo burger after a hike.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Michael Luckado from Hawaii on December 07, 2012:

Thanks for all the detail. My wife and I love to hike...will have to check this one out!

Judy Specht from California on December 06, 2012:

Hiking is so amazing.

We are doing the Jingle Bell run in Pacific Grove this weekend, so my hiking will be along the ocean.

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on December 06, 2012:

Thanks all, and thanks for the link tirelesstraveler. Om, my hiking shoes are coming out this weekend. :)

Judy Specht from California on December 06, 2012:

Lovely hub. I am going to link to my hub on Pinnacles. Love the bit on hiking etiquette. Up Interesting, beautiful and useful is my vote for your hub.

Om Paramapoonya on December 02, 2012:

Well-done! Your wonderful review and photos really made my feet itch for my hiking shoes. Rated up and awesome!

Girish puri from NCR , INDIA on November 30, 2012:

What a lovely place to hike, i enjoyed your hub with beautiful pics, awesome hub.

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on November 29, 2012:

lol. Yes, sorry sgiguere. It's northeast of Los Angeles - a little far for you ;) But I'm sure you have really great scenery where you are too, scenery I'm missing by being here. All the photographic possibilities in this world just make me salivate :D

Stephanie Giguere from Worcester, MA on November 29, 2012:

Beautiful photos! Your Hub makes me want to visit the Devil's Punchbowl, but I'm assuming it's out in the CA area? That would be a bit of a drive from the East Coast...

Juneaukid on November 29, 2012:

Very informative and interesting--one of these days I may just take one of those trails.

carol stanley from Arizona on November 28, 2012:

Great information about hiking trails. And I am looking forward to a buffalo burger...never had one. Wonderful photos.

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on November 28, 2012:

Thanks all. The Punchbowl is one of those places where you can take photos any time of the day and/or year and they'll all be different.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 28, 2012:

Great review! I've never even heard of it. Looks like a great hike and the pictures are great!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on November 28, 2012:

Thank you for the tour, tips and wonderful pictures.

Adventure Colorad from Denver,CO on November 28, 2012:

Looks like a great place to hike! I like finding those areas that feel remote even though they aren't too far from the city.

Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on November 28, 2012:

Once when I was hiking here I pretended I was a Native American hiding from another tribe. (I know, I'm an adult, but it's still fun to play when no one knows you're doing it.) I found some really cool caves that aren't readily noticeable, and could easily see how a tribe could survive in the canyon. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Leah Lefler from Western New York on November 28, 2012:

What a gorgeous place to hike! I used to hike along the coast in Ventura County, but never made it inland to hike in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Gustave Kilthau from USA on November 28, 2012:

Hi watergeek - Good writeup here and very enjoyable photos. Thanks.

Gus :-)))