Here in California, there are places that are firmly lodged in the collective psyche as pristine paragons of natural wonder. Think Yosemite Valley. Joshua Tree. The giant sequoias.
And then there are places whose majesties remain largely unknown to the masses — until they end up on TikTok. Stoddard Canyon Falls near Mt. Baldy is one such place.
In recent months, nature girlies and backpacking bros alike have fawned over Stoddard on social media thanks to its crystalline swimming pools and cascading waterfall that doubles as a slide. Naturally, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Thinking I might beat the crowds, I drove out to Mt. Baldy on a hot Friday morning. Alas, the main lot was already full by the time I got there at 9:30. I parked across the street and put my Adventure Pass on the dash (you’ll need one, too).
As the YouTube tutorials had instructed me, I took the paved path that forks to the right off the main lot. Scrubby mountains dotted with fir and pine loomed before me.
The first sign of the Instagram-storied falls was the sound of the rushing waters of San Antonio Creek and ecstatic screams rising from the canyon. I’d read that you can get down there a few different ways, one of which involved descending into the canyon from the top of the waterfall, and another that required dropping down into the creek on a “very vertical” rope. No, thank you.
As I searched for the third and easiest route, I ran into a panting Australian cattle dog and her owner, Mike McLoughlin, who lives 20 minutes away in Eastville. McLoughlin has been visiting this spot every other weekend for years. I asked him how he feels about Stoddard getting so much attention this summer, seemingly overnight.
“I was shocked by how many people were already parked here on a Friday,” he said. “It used to be the secret of our area. You always want to keep that hidden gem in your back pocket, but social media has exploited it.”
I sympathized with McLoughlin, but I also have complicated feelings about places like Stoddard blowing up. On one hand, this kind of amplification makes these spots more accessible to those who would have otherwise never known about them, including people with fewer natural resources in their own backyards. But increased access can be a double-edged sword if visitors don’t respect the land. During my visit to Stoddard Falls, I saw many crushed plastic water bottles and cans of Modelo and Truly littered on the canyon floor.
“The outdoors and the benefits we gain is for everyone, not just those who are lucky enough to have been integrated into the community already,” writes Heidi Anderson, executive director of the Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation, in a blog post about outdoor gatekeeping. “Introducing the community to the outdoors must be done in a thoughtful way that protects the land. Finding a balance between welcoming new outdoorspeople without destroying the very thing that brings us out.”
After a half-mile of easy walking the paved path gave way to a narrow dirt trail. I found the second set of short, gray concrete posts that lined the left side of the trail that were supposed to mark the way down. Sure enough, “small water fall” and a downward arrow were scrawled with marker onto the final post.
Given that this hike has become so popular, I was surprised that the “easiest” way down was so steep and dicey. At one point I had to use the heel of my hands to scoot down the loose rock and dirt. When I got to the bottom, I followed a short trail that hugged the creek, and was close behind Allan Santaisabel and Jilianne Ong, 23-year-olds who’d driven from Chino after seeing the falls on TikTok.
Ong dipped her hand into one of cold, clear pools along the trail. “The water is really nice, but we’re trying to see the waterfall waterfall. Where is it?” she asked.
I didn’t know for sure. But it was becoming clear that the only way to get to our final destination was to fully get in the creek.
Voices grew louder as I ungracefully moved upstream, jumping from slippery rock to slippery rock. I was wearing waterproof hiking shoes, but I recommend wearing Chacos, Tevas or another sandal with good traction. My socks ended up sopping wet.
I reached the main pools, which are a turquoise that’s seldom seen in Southern California. A dozen people were already swimming and wading in them. Several were either holding a phone or posing for one.
I still couldn’t see the waterfall, but I saw people heading to it, which required shimmying up the final stretch while holding on to a rope horizontally fastened to the side of a craggy rock face.
I mimicked them, hoping and praying that this would be the last of this morning’s treachery. Clinging to the rope, I ascended rocks and waded waist-deep into the frigid water, a relief during this 90-degree day. I watched souls braver than I slide down the gushing waterfall and gleefully crash into pool. Each time I considered slaloming down the fall myself, I remembered a Google review I’d read earlier that week : “Slid down the waterfall, scraped up my elbow and bit my tongue. Worth it!”
The rest I’ll leave up to your imagination, because it’s the kind of place you have to check out yourself to really know how special it is. Just make sure to take your trash with you when you leave.