Monrovia Canyon Park
This is one of the sweetest of the easily accessible front-country spots in the San Gabriel Mountains. It's beautifully maintained by the city of Monrovia and volunteers. The addition of a darling nature center makes this a great place for families.
If you're hiking with energetic kids over age 5 or 6--or a little baby you plan to carry the entire way--you can opt for hiking the entire 1.7 miles of the waterfall trail. (You can find the trailhead to the left of the entrance booth.) At times this trail is narrow with steep drop- offs, so I wouldn't trust a toddler on it. It also has some hilly stretches, which could make carrying a squirming toddler a workout. (See below for smoother route for little kids.)
Still, this stretch is less crowded and affords better wildlife viewing. One a trip last fall, we got a glimpse of a pair of deer before they dashed off through an oak woodland. Native grey squirrels are abundant here. They're smaller and grayer than the nonnatives we have in the city. The hilly trail also makes for pleasurable views of tree tops on the slopes below.
For a shorter, flatter trip: Drive past the guard station to the next parking lot. There's a trailhead across the street from the lot. This gives you a two-mile round trip.
To ensure you get to the waterfall with your toddler: Drive further up the road to the nature center and picnic area. The trailhead is behind the nature center at the back of the picnic area. From here, it's an easy 3/4 mile to the waterfall. Remember that forest canyons can be quite cold in the winter. Please, if you bring a dog, observe the leash law.
This isn't the most spectacular waterfall in the forest, but the streamside hike is lovely. The trees with eye-like knots are alders. The giant twisting ones are coast live oaks. The sweet-smelling trees are California bays. Those cement structures across the stream are check dams, designed by the US (Army) Corps of Engineers, in the 1960s, to slow the flow.
Our 21-month-old son rode upstream in a Kelty carrier. Then marched back most of the way--with a few handholds here and there.
Don't miss the nature center! Real snakes and other animals represented via taxidermy are worth a look. And a friendly volunteer or ranger may have answers to your questions.
1200 N. Canyon Blvd.
Monrovia, CA 91016
Admission: $5 per car
Park gates are locked at 5 p.m.
From the 210 freeway, exit at Myrtle Avenue. Drive north through downtown Monrovia. (North is easy to find in these foothill communities: it's toward the mountains.) After 2 miles, turn right on Scenic Drive. Soon you'll have to take a short jog to stay on Scenic Drive, then continue east about a mile to the park entrance. There are a couple of signs en route.