Monday, July 11, 2011

#194: The Tar Pits at Towsley Canyon

My friend Mike hikes all over L.A., so when he told me that Towsley Canyon in Santa Clarita was one of his favorite hikes in the area, I knew I had to check it out.

Towsley Canyon used to be an oil drilling site. Native Americans were the first humans to use the oil in the canyon. In 1865, a settler named Darius Towsley filed the first placer claim in the canyon and other settlers soon took over. Although the wells are now gone, oil still seeps up through the earth, forming rivers and pits along the trail.

Mike and I started the hike at 3:30 pm last Saturday, thinking that we would beat the noonday heat. Unfortunately, the sun was still blazing hot. I think that 5 or 5:30 would have been a much better start time. After walking on a dirt road for a mile, we came to the Narrows--an area where the canyon walls... well.. narrow.

Out of the Narrows, we went up a series of switchbacks for about 1.5 miles, then went over the ridge of the mountain, and descended. Near the end of the hike was a clearing with a large tar pit on the left.

Ever since my visit to the La Brea Tar Pits (#25), I always wondered what tar felt like. Without the restriction of a fence here, I giddily grabbed a stick and prodded the viscous black liquid, which bubbled and gurgled in response. Note all of the other twigs stuck in the pit; apparently I wasn't the first one with that idea.

We also encountered my arch nemesis, biting flies, after the Narrows. Those buggers successfully bit me a couple of times before I stuck my arms in my shirt and hiked the remaining 3.5 miles without arms. Anytime a fly landed on me, I shouted "Get away! I hate you!", making Mike uncomfortable whenever we encountered other hikers, lest they think I was directing those insults at him.

Besides the flies and the heat, however, Towsley Canyon was a gorgeous and enjoyable hike; I can see why it's one of Mike's favorites. Just be sure to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Tips for your visit:
  • The Towsley Loop hike is 5.1 miles, but if you don't want to hike that far, you can do about a 1 mile out-and-back hike to the main tar pit. If you wish to do the shorter hike, be sure to go in the clockwise direction via the first trail head on your left. The pit will be on your right.
  • There's a gravel parking lot when you turn in. Park here--it's free. If you go just a bit farther down the road, you will see a sign indicating a lot for which you must pay a parking fee. It doesn't make any sense to park there since the free lot is so close.
  • Since it's a loop, you can either go in the clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. We did the counter-clockwise loop. Both directions require steep ascents, but the counter-clockwise ascent is shorter and has switchbacks. The clockwise ascent is longer and steeper.
  • When you walk along the dirt road from the parking lot, you will see a sign for Towsley Loop on your left. That trail takes you in the clockwise direction. If you continue down the dirt road, you will soon see another sign for Towsley Loop directly in front of you. This trail takes you in the counter-clockwise direction.

See that sign on the left? That's the trail to go in the clockwise direction.

  • When we were descending, the trail forked a few times, but the forks met up with each other later. Just remember to keep going down.
  • We encountered about 10 groups of people during our hike, which took about 2.5 hours.
Have you been to the Towsley Canyon Tar Pits? What did you think of it? Leave me a comment below!


  1. I just went on that hike today. It's great! I did do the long and steep clockwise ascent, which was a bad idea since it's the middle of July! In any case, I survived, and I really enjoyed seeing the amazing rock formations in the narrows, and all the geologic activity (i.e. tar pits and sulfurous smells).

  2. No biting flies? Lucky! :) I'm happy to hear you enjoyed yourself--That clockwise ascent looked difficult, but I bet it was a good workout!