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Great Workout Hikes: Van Tassel Trail

Running the trail with the boy.

Above the foothills of Duarte, California, beginning at the trailhead located at the Fish Canyon staging area, is a fantastic workout hike. The Van Tassel Trail is a perfect trek for hikers training for more challenging hikes, as well as trail runners, cyclists, and folks who just want a strenuous hike for some good cardio. The trail follows the Van Tassel Motorway, a fire and maintenance road that climbs over 1700 feet in the first 2.7 miles of the trail. This is the portion maintained by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. This is also the portion of the trail we completed as a family with the pupper. The remaining 3.4 miles of this 6.1 mile trail is managed by the Angeles National Forest Service.

We accomplished the LA County side of the hike as part of our training for this summer’s peak hikes. We were fortunate to take advantage of some early summer gloom as we hit the trail in the later afternoon. There is not much shade on the trail, so the blazing heat of a summer day could make for a more unpleasant experience. The cloud cover and a slight breeze made the hike, while still a challenging workout especially for Sami and our Golden retriever, Owen, not just doable but also rather enjoyable. The views from the climb were spectacular, overlooking the cities of Duarte and Irwindale, the Santa Fe Dam, and beyond Interstate 210. Sunflowers grew in profusion along the sides of the trail, making for some great ‘Sunflowers and Golden hours’ Instagram posts featuring our photogenic dog.

For those with more time, the trail continues up, and eventually reaches Mt. Bliss. If you continue north past the turn for the Mt. Bliss summit, eventually you’ll reach White Saddle, and can hike Sawpit Canyon west and down, which would take you to Monrovia Canyon Park. I probably wouldn’t recommend this hike for kids or dogs, as it is long, but at just over 12 miles, it is doable as a day hike. It is also popular among mountain bikers.

Best part of the hike up Van Tassel was getting to enjoy some family time with good friends in the relative safety and social distance of the outdoors. Though the kids didn’t mind a dinnertime treat at the Sonic drive-in just down the mountain in Duarte.

Some things to consider:

Parking is fairly easy for this hike. There is a tiny dirt lot just before the equestrian center on Encanto Parkway. Folks also park alongside the road. Just be aware of posted signs, and be sure not to block access points to the San Gabriel River Trail.

As mentioned, there is very little shade on this trail. Sun protection and plenty of water are a must especially on sunny days.

Owen and I walk the trail on a sunnier day. It was very warm, so we didn’t go too far.

This hike is one that’s good for dogs. Being a fire road, the trail is wide, and the current abundance of vegetation was exciting to Owen. That said, be aware of weather conditions and be sure to have paw protection on hotter days, as well as plenty of water and trail snacks for your hiking buddy. They weren’t necessary for this hike the first time we took Owen, but he wears his booties by My Busy Dog for outings that could potentially damage his paws whether by heat or rough terrain. He looked funny the first time we put them on, but he’s long since gotten used to his boots. After all, he now associates them with going on adventures with his humans.

This trail tends not to be as popular as the Pasadena-area hikes, though there were a few other folks on the trail. I would recommend letting a trusted friend or family member know your hiking plan before heading out. I had cell service on most of the hike up, however it did slow up after about the two-mile mark or so. Be prepared for potential emergencies, but also be prepared for a great workout and some awesome views.

Bonus: In memoriam- Fish Canyon Falls:

Van Tassel and Mt. Bliss were heavily damaged by the Fish Fire, which tore through the area in 2016. Fortunately the vegetation has been growing back nicely, and the trails were able to open after a year-long closure. Not so nearby Fish Canyon. The fire, along with subsequent mudslides, left the Fish Canyon Falls Trail so badly damaged that it remains closed, even four years later at time of writing. I have been checking on various hiking websites, as well as the City of Duarte, in hopes of finding successful trail restoration, but alas, one of my favorite falls hikes is closed, possibly forever.

I loved the trail to Fish Canyon Falls. While a popular trail, starting from the Vulcan Materials quarry, I rarely saw too many people on this trail. After clearing the first half-mile or so through quarry land, the falls trail would take you through some really pretty scenery along Fish Creek. After about three miles of hiking, and passing some old historic ruins of bygone recreation in Fish Canyon, also long-damaged by fire and landslides, you come to the falls. Fish Canyon Falls is a unique three-tiered waterfall that offers up a nice swimming hole after a good rainy season. But regardless of how much water was flowing, it was a really pretty spot to enjoy a trail lunch and hop on the rocks.

I am holding onto hope that one day the trail will once again become accessible to hikers. It was one of my favorite hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains, and a good one for the kids. But as of 2018, it appears that the decision is to not repair the trail, and that the hike to Fish Canyon Falls will have to be one that lives on in our memories and SD cards.

Happy trails.

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