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Sapphire Falls: The Controversial Cascade Of The Cucamonga

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By David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A. / Special to LAist

Many of Southern California’s waterfalls have great stories behind them. The alleged paranormal activity and all-too-real poison oak of Black Star Canyon, the brutal ascent and descent to Fish Canyon Falls, the heart-shaped bowl that gives Heart Rock Falls its name and the transformation of James T. “Cussin’ Jim” Smith into Holy Jim are part of SoCal hiking lore.

Another waterfall with a colorful (figuratively and literally) story is Sapphire Falls, in the foothills above Rancho Cucamonga. Sapphire Falls is a sequence of three separate waterfalls in Cucamonga Canyon, fed from snowmelt on the peaks high above. While Sapphire Falls is not mentioned in “Afoot and Afield”, “Trails of the Angeles” or any other famous guide to SoCal hiking, it is a popular local attraction due to its convenience, and the swimming holes in the creek which are necessary to wade through provide cool relief on hot summer days. Unfortunately, the popularity has come at a price: there is so much graffiti and trash in the canyon that the city of Rancho Cucamonga has barred access to the lower end.

There is a legal route to the waterfall, but it might be seen as a worst-of-both-worlds solution. The hike arrives at the top lip of the waterfall’s top tier. Getting a good look at any of the three tiers is, at the very least, risky; at the worst, dangerous. While many experienced hikers have jumped off the 35-foot top tier and lived to tell the tale (and have posted their feats on Youtube), they are then forced to continue descending into the canyon, navigate the other two waterfalls, and make a 450-foot climb out via a steep wall and a rope. And there’s quite a bit of graffiti and trash along the way even in the upper reaches of the canyon.

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That being said, the legal hike to Sapphire Falls can be a worthwhile experience, or at least a very good workout. The route starts at the corner of Almond and Sapphire Streets in Rancho Cucamonga and begins with a thankless, exposed ascent along a private residential street (Skyline). You pass through a gate at 0.3 miles and continue on the Cucamonga Truck Trail. As you climb higher, fortunately, you are rewarded for your efforts with great views down into the canyon and across it to the Frankish/Stoddard ridge. Above, the Ontario/Cucamonga ridge looms.

At 0.9 miles, and 600 feet of elevation gain, you arrive at another gate. Soon after, the road becomes dirt, and at 1.4 miles (900 feet above the starting point), you head left on a trail that drops into the canyon. A moderate descent of 0.7 miles, with some nice views of the nearby mountains, brings you to the creek and the canyon bottom. You make your way down the stream (but watch out for slick rocks and poison oak).

Semblances of trails can be found on both sides of the creek, but odds are you will have to do at least some wading. After 0.3 miles of scrambling down the creek, you arrive at a graffiti-covered grotto, where you can navigate the rocks and get a look farther down into the canyon, above the waterfall. If you are feeling brave, you can make use of a rope hanging over a pool that brings you to the edge of the waterfall’s top tier. As described here, the route is a five-mile round trip with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Recommended gear includes a sunhat, sunblock and hiking poles. If you hike during the winter or spring, be prepared to deal with high water levels in the creek, and if you opt for the summer, make sure you get off to an early start.

So what lies down the road for Sapphire Falls and Cucamonga Canyon? Perhaps other natural areas in So Cal might offer ideas for a long-term solution. The nearby North Etiwanda Preserve, home of popular Etiwanda Falls, is managed by the County of San Bernardino and has far fewer complaints about vandalism and trash. Tahquitz Canyon in Palm Springs was over-run with hippies and squatters back in the 1960s and 70s, but has since been taken over by the Agua Calliente band of Cahuilla Indians, who cleaned it up and now manage the site. Many parcels of open space in Orange County are under the control of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, which offers free scheduled programs, hikes and wilderness access days. There are also several references in various hiking blogs of grassroots efforts by local citizens to formally organize with a mission of cleaning up and managing the area.

Whatever happens to Sapphire Falls, one can only hope that its supporters can help spread the word about this natural and recreational resource, and its great potential. There’s no doubt that Sapphire Falls requires an investment of time, energy and money, but its convenience and natural beauty will provide a significant return for generations to come.

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For a very thorough description of the legal route to Sapphire Falls, visit Yelp.

For another trip report, with descriptions of both the “old” and “new” routes, visit OP Adventure Team's website.

For anther trip report that pulls no punches about describing the extent of the vandalism in the canyon, visit Manure Du Jour.

For the City of Rancho Cucamonga’s rules and descriptions of the hike, visit the city's website.

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