- Location: North of Castaic. From I-5, take the Templin Highway exit (183) and head northeast for 4.1 miles. Park on the side of the road before the metal gate at the intersection with the private Los Angeles City Water and Power Road.
- Agency: Angeles National Forest/Santa Clarita and Mojave Rivers Ranger District
- Distance: 10.4 miles
- Elevation gain: 800 feet
- Suggested time: 5 hours
- Difficulty rating: PG-13 (Distance, trail condition, terrain)
- Best season: October – June
- Dogs: Allowed but discouraged due to the difficult terrain (hiking to and from Cienega Campground on a cool day is a good dog-friendly alternative)
- Cell phone reception: None
- Restrooms: None
- Water: Seasonal streams run through Fish Canyon. It is not likely that there will be enough water to be worth filtering for drinking, but there may be enough to be of use for campers and backpackers.
- Camping/backpacking: Campfires are not allowed but camp stoves are. The trail camp that marks the turnaround point for this hike is a good spot to spend the night. Another makeshift campsite described below near the Pianobox Prospect is an option. Though Cienega Campground is decommissioned and has no working facilities, it may still be a possibility for spending the night.
- Recommended gear: sun hat insect repellent
- More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Yelp page here; video report here
- Rating: 8
The narrows of Fish Canyon are a sight that is sure to impress even veteran Los Angeles hikers, especially in the fall, when the leaves of sycamores and cottonwood trees show their colors. The long route may test the patience of some, but the payoff is worth it. If you allow enough time (daylight fades quickly in the tight confines of the canyon) and pick a nice, cool day, this hike is one of L.A.’s best.
Reaching the Narrows requires a 4-mile trek along a paved road, dirt road and single-track. Three of those miles are to get to the former trail head at the abandoned Cienega Campground. When the campground was operational, it was only a 4-plus mile round trip to the Narrows, but since the campground’s closure in 2002 the closest access point is on Templin Highway, three miles to the west. The destination of this hike is a trail camp at the far end of the Narrows, just over five miles each way. Ambitious hikers can continue up Fish Canyon toward the higher country of the Sierra Pelona range.
From Templin Highway, pass the white metal gate and head downhill on the old paved road. You cross the headwaters of Castaic Lake on a footbridge and reach a junction at 0.8 mile (marked on Google Maps as “Start of Trail.” Turn left and follow the dirt road into Fish Canyon (stay left at another Y-junction). Though this part of the hike isn’t as exciting as what’s to come, it soon becomes more enjoyable as you head deeper into the canyon. Other than occasional airplanes overhead and power lines there are virtually no signs of civilization. You may be sharing the road with dirt bikers (despite posted signs saying they are not allowed.) In some areas, oaks and sycamores provide shade; the canyon walls are high enough that they also help shield you from the sun.
Just under three miles from the start, you reach the former Cienega Campground. Not much is left of it, but the scenic spot – a meadow at the confluence of two of Fish Canyon’s forks – is ideal to sit and take a breather. Finding the right route out of the campground is a little confusing. Follow the dirt road east to a split at a metal fence. Bear left and head north into Fish Canyon.
The first mile is fairly easy going, other than having to scramble over the odd fallen tree. The trail crosses the stream bed a few times and reaches a makeshift trail camp under a giant oak. Shortly past the oak is the remains of an old mining shaft called Pianobox Prospect – allegedly named for a piano that was brought here by miners. Marked as Checkpoint 2 on Google Maps, this spot is the de-facto entrance to the Narrows.
For the next mile plus, you’ll forge your way along the canyon, either following the stream bed or sticking to a semblance of a trail along the sides of the creek. Your exact route may depend on the water level and your threshold for bushwhacking. It’s hard to get too lost here as you are simply following the canyon northeast. The walls, which tower well over one hundred feet, are usually no more than twenty or so feet apart. In some spots, leaf litter (especially during fall) may cover the stream, concealing water underneath, so exercise caution. Also note that in some spots where the stream appears to be shallow, there are a few deceptively deep pools.
Despite this, the going is fairly easy, especially for anyone who is used to navigating canyons. After perhaps half an hour of negotiating the narrows, you’ll notice the walls of the canyon start to taper off. At 5.2 miles from the start (a little over a mile past the giant oak tree and about 2.2 miles from Cienega) you’ll see a makeshift camp on your left, the suggested turnaround point for this hike. The peaceful spot, shaded by oaks and alders, is located at the confluence of Burro Canyon (heading north) and Fish Canyon, which heads east.
After resting, retrace your steps. One interesting feature of this hike is that since the canyon walls are so narrow, the little bit that the sun will have moved since you came through on your way out will make a difference in how the landscape appears. Don’t be surprised if you notice a few things on the way out that you may have missed the first time around.
Text and photography copyright 2017 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.