The 6 hour, 10.5 mile Bridge to Nowhere hike in the San Gabriel Mountains is one those hikes that you have to do at least once in your life. As the name suggests, you hike along the San Gabriel River in the beautiful Sheep Mountain Wilderness for about 5 miles, and then, out of nowhere, there’s a huge, 120-foot high bridge! The hike is fun, especially on a hot summer day, because there are plenty of stream crossings and water holes to cool off in. It’s a classic Southern California hike that every local knows about, and is worth doing at least once.
To start, this Bridge to Nowhere is not one of those tax boondoggles that you read about in the news. The Bridge to Nowhere was supposed to go somewhere. In 1929 work started on the East Fork Road, which was going to connect San Gabriel Valley with Wrightwood to the north. The bridge was a vital link on that road and was built in 1936. But only two years later, in 1938, catastrophic flooding in the San Gabriel River washed the road away, leaving only, well, you guessed it, a Bridge to Nowhere.
Then in the 1950s, when everyone was in the grips of Cold War nuclear holocaust paranoia, the government thought it would be a good idea to build a highway through the San Gabriel mountains to evacuate people from LA to the Mojave Desert. The abandoned Bridge to Nowhere was to be used in this new evacuation route. Work started on the new route, Shoemaker Canyon Road, in 1956, done mainly by prison inmates, hence the local nickname of “Convict Road.” The progress was slow, and only 5 miles of the proposed 25 mile road was finished by the time work was abandoned in 1969, leaving the appropriately named “Highway to Nowhere.” The highway never made it to the bridge, but you can still check it out on the drive (to or back from) the bridge hike.
You might be asking yourself, “how is there a commercial bungee jumping operation in the middle of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness?” Well, the owner of the bungee jumping operation bought the land from private owners who owned the land as a gold mining claim. It turns out that the bridge was built in the claim area. The bungee jumping operation has a bit of controversy around it, and people have been trying to shut it down for years.
Love it or hate it, it’s there. Here’s what you need to know as a hiker:
Parking gets full because it’s not just for hikers, it’s for bungee jumpers too. There’s no way to drive to the Bridge to Nowhere.
You will see people on the trail who are inexperienced and sometimes ill-prepared. Do your best to be kind, empathetic, and helpful. They have as much a right to be here as we do.
If the bungee jumping is operating when you get there, they’ll be blaring music. This part is always the toughest for me to handle, but just shift your focus to the surrealism of it and it’ll be okay.
Be respectful of the bungee jumping business and pass on the part of the bridge marked for hikers. Remember, you are on private property that the owners allow hikers to enjoy.
You can pretty much do this hike any time of the year, but there are a few things to watch out for.
If there have been heavy rains in Southern California and/or it’s winter, the San Gabriel River can be flooded. You have to cross the river a few times, and the water can be up to your waist and portions of the trail covered. This is not a very fun experience, I would do the hike another day.
If there’s any chance of thunderstorms or heavy rain on your hike day, there can be flash floods, and you’ll want to postpone. People have died in flash foods here, and you need to take it seriously.
There’s also no shade on the hike, so if you go on a hot day, it can get pretty brutal. Luckily you can dip into the water and cool off, but it can still be pretty brutal. Leaving at sunrise is a good bet to avoid the heat, crowds, and overflowing parking lot. And if you have dogs, make sure they’re good in heat as well.
Gear for the Hike
I’ve seen people do this hike with flip flops, a 12oz water bottle, and a bluetooth speaker. Don’t do this. Here’s what I would recommend.
Shoes that you are comfortable getting wet. You’ll have to cross streams. Some folks use hiking sandals (for women & men), but regular hiking boots do the trick too.
The Bridge to Nowhere hike trailhead is about 30 minutes north of downtown Azuza, CA. The drive is spectacular and winds its way on the side of San Gabriel Canyon, with the river and reservoirs below. The overlooks are worth stopping at to soak in the views.
The parking lot for the Bridge to Nowhere is a fee area, and you need to buy a pass before you arrive at the trailhead. You can use a National Parks Pass (which I highly recommend if you hike a lot) or an Adventure Pass, and display it in your window. People do get tickets here for not having passes and for parking in “no parking” zones.
If there’s no parking left in the lot, you can park down on the side of the road. Some areas of the road are marked with “no parking” signs, so avoid those, but otherwise it’s open game. I’ve seen cars parked for miles along the road. Do yourself a favor and get there by sunrise at the latest, or go on a weekday.
Many guides note that there’s about 800 feet of elevation change, which is kind of accurate. There’s actually about 800 feet of elevation difference between the start and finish. But there’s more like 1900 feet of total climbing when you factor in all the ups and downs on the trail. Overall it feels generally flat with a few short, steep uphill sections, but add in all the undulations and it can be more fatiguing than you’d think.
What to Expect on the Hike
I’ve said this a few times before, but the hike is crowded, especially on weekends. Do yourself a favor and go on a weekday or at sunrise for a more enjoyable experience.
The hike directions below will show you all the ins and outs of the trail, but in general, stay on the right bank of the river.
There’s a decent amount of yucca and prickly plants. Some people wear long pants (but I don’t because of the stream crossings).
Because there are a lot of inexperienced hikers, there are a lot of people in trouble. Almost every time that I’ve done this hike, I’ve seen some kind of issue. I carry an InReach Explorer with me in case I need to text emergency officials. In general there is no cell phone service this far up the cany0n. Things to be aware of:
There can be rattlesnakes. Watch your footing.
Slipping on wet rocks and falling. This happens a lot when folks try to jump across rocks to stay dry.
I once saw an inexperienced hiker get helicoptered out for heat stroke.
If the trail peters out, or you find yourself on a precarious ledge, you’ve gone the wrong way. Here’s a picture of two hikers who were stranded on a ledge because they weren’t paying attention on the way back.
There are primitive bathrooms in the parking lot and a few minutes down the trail at Heaton Flats.
Don’t trust the cairns that you see on the trail. Sometimes they’re way off.
If you see garbage, please pick it up and pack it out.
If you bring kids, make sure they can easily do 11 miles and 2000 feet of climbing. I’ve seen kids of 7+ years old having a ball, and I’ve seen younger kids who looked like they were on a death march. This is not an easy hike.
Again, just a reminder, try to stick to the right side of the San Gabriel River, your life will be easier. These hike directions will show you the way.
A quick note. These directions are meant as a guide for the hike, and not a definitive source. Conditions change, and the information here can be different based on time of day, weather, season, etc. There can be small side trails that you might see but I missed. I have made every effort to include all the information you need to complete the hike successfully. I recommend using this guide in conjunction with a map, GPX file, common sense, and call to the ranger station or park office. If you do the hike and notice something has changed, please contact me and I will update the guide.