Think back, for a moment, to your ninth-grade classroom. To your English classroom, in particular, and to the handout that your teacher just dropped on your desk. If you’re schooling was much like my own, that paper likely had the heading “The Hero’s Journey,” and you never actually read it. And thank god for that. If you (or I) had, I would not have the opportunity now to be so childishly thrilled at the chance to introduce both of us delinquents to a wonderful term: katabasis.
Now I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. This is a hiking guide, not a ninth-grade classroom. But bear with me, because, in fact, I believe this hike is both. Katabasis means, literally, the “going down,” or descent. It’s one of the stages of that Hero’s Journey that we previously shoved into our backpacks—and an important one at that. The word comes to us from the Greeks, for whom it originally meant a trek into Hades—think Orpheus pursuing Eurydice, Odysseus meeting with Tiresias—and, usually, the hero returns with some new wisdom or quest-object. But it had another, more literal meaning, too: a trip down to a shore or coast, made by following the course of a river. So let’s start there.
Unlike most hikes, the starting point for Switzer Falls is nearly seven hundred feet higher in elevation than its terminus. Cruising up the spacious switchbacks of the Angeles Crest Highway, the parking area is clearly marked when I arrive at midmorning, with only a few other cars in the lot. There are three parking options here, this being the first—off to the right, a spur road winds steeply down into the canyon, leading to one overflow lot halfway down, and another, larger lot at the main picnic area. The further down you park, the shorter your return trip (or anabasis, as the Greeks would say). I opt for the top one.
Upper parking lot
The first leg of the journey is down that spur road, hugging the shoulder carefully to avoid the occasional passing car. It’s hot and exposed up here (which plays well into our “hell” thing), and you get the feeling as you wind further and further into the canyon that you’re approaching some mysterious and hidden place. And you aren’t wrong. This is a surprisingly remote spot, given its relative popularity, and the main recreational area is entirely invisible until you’ve almost stumbled into it. This is the preparing point, the stage at which the ritual sacrifices are made, at which Aeneas passes through the first monsters (Heartache, Hunger, Sorrow, Crime, etc.) before he can cross the dark threshold. In Dante’s version, this is the approach through the wilderness, where he too is confronted by beasts. I see some lizards, which I’m sure is just as meaningful. And I shed some significant sweat, in my own sort of offering.
Beginning the descent
After a few minutes, the road bottoms out into the shady, sun-dappled, and noticeably cooler picnic area. From one end of the glen the creek babbles in lazily, and a series of tables and small grills follow it as it meanders. For those looking for a relaxing hangout (and not a pseudo-mythological personal journey), this is your spot.
Main picnic area
Main picnic area
From here the trail slips out the far corner of the grotto, where a wooden footbridge crosses the stream. It’s a common trope in the old myths that a river marks the boundary between the worlds of the spirits and those of the living, and that some ceremonial crossing must be made in order to access that other plane. Aeneas crosses the river Styx with Charon the ferryman. Dante, too, crosses with Charon, though he calls the river Acheron. I cross this one with a water bottle and a cell phone, and, as it appears unnamed, I dub my crossing Charon’s Bridge, and name the water Katabasis Creek. And, indeed, things are different on the other side.
In stark contrast to the bright, dusty world of the initial descent, the trail is now cloaked in a wet, breezy shade. On both sides, the canyon walls slope up steeply in rocky embankments, while white alders and broadleaf maples line the trail. This is, admittedly, much more pleasant than hell. In fact, the mild downslope and dappled light make for quite a serene walk. Fittingly, this is the part where the hero encounters the “shades,” the spirits (often familiar ones) who either threaten or instruct, who (as in the case of Odysseus) can prophesy our triumphant return home, or (as for Dante and Aeneas) provide foreboding examples of where other, darker paths might lead. As for me, I meet a garter snake, and her contemplative pause before slithering into the sagebrush provides all of the critical counsel I need.
And then, after what’s been about two miles since the parking lot, the trail splits. In a small clearing (where, you’ll notice, sit a number of rusted old stoves that remain from the turn-of-the-century Switzer Camp—a noteworthy draw in its time), the creek crosses again over the trail. To the right, a wider route rises up and out of view, where it eventually opens up into the sun of Bear Canyon. If you go that way, you can add a few miles to your trip and end up at the base of the falls’ longest drop. Down to the left, a smaller, bushier trail hugs the edge of the creek. We go left, today. This is the last stretch.
A Switzer stove
For a few hundred meters, the trail hugs the creek. Then, as it hooks to the left, it disappears. Through the trees you can tell there’s a clearing just beyond a small boulder hop, and as I slip out from the shade, there it is: a big hole, like an ice cream scoop out of the earth. Cascading modestly over a jagged granite face, the water drops away into a kidney-shaped pool. Then, as it slithers out its other end, it seems to surprise itself, dropping off a nearly sheer face roughly thirty feet into a canyon below. The stone is bright and worn and smooth, almost like marble, and as I clamber down to the edge of the pool the only sound is constant water. This is the deep point, the ninth circle, the wet center of things. In the Iron John myth, this would be the Wild Man’s pool, which if touched turns the touching thing brilliant gold. It’s exceptional.
The Ice Cream Scoop
Now I know I’ve been melodramatic about this. But it’s true. The water really gives you something. I spend nearly an hour here, touching it, watching the light hit it. There’s a lot you can get from this kind of thing. Myths often nail this stuff. Whether you live in L.A. or Orlando, Boston or Yellowknife, I am willing to bet that you know what I mean. It’s a rare chance that you get to be still like this. At the end of the day, I think that’s what we come for.
Of course, the final irony is that now, with the full weight of your enlightenment set on your shoulders, you’ve gotta walk two miles straight back uphill to your car. I won’t lie to you. This part is not as contemplative. Whereas Dante was shepherded leisurely back to the surface by Virgil, you must, with your two legs, make the trek yourself. The Greeks called this part anabasis, the trip back from shore . This is the part where you bring something new with you. Whatever that is, it’s your call. Heracles brought back Cerberus. Dante brought back a poem. It’s quite hot. I bring mostly sweat.
View from the trip back
San Gabriel Mountains from Highway 2
After roughly three hours, I get back to my car. There’s a lot you can take away from any hike, and I won’t pretend to tell you what you ought to take from this one. But in a place like Los Angeles, in a time like our time, to have such a site a mere half an hour out of downtown is a blessing if blessings mean anything. If you ever have the chance, you should go to Switzer Falls. Take the journey yourself. Be the slightly self-aggrandizing hero. And if you ever see your ninth-grade English teacher again, you can tell her that you’ve learned to spell “Aeneas,” that you know what katabasis is, and that you finally did that missing homework.