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Brea Dam Trail Allows Access to Creek and Fullerton Wilderness

After talking to Mike Ritto at the Fullerton Observer’s 45th Anniversary celebration, I decided to follow a suggestion of his and look into a lesser known hiking trail that runs from Brea Dam Park to the Fullerton Municipal Golf Course. Partly located behind St. Jude Medical Center, this pathway is officially called the Brea Dam Trail, and is popular among bicyclists.
There are three different entry points to the trail. At the southern end, there are plenty of parking spaces available at the dirt lot of Brea Dam Park, which is located off N. Harbor Boulevard. Further north, there’s a parking area near the Leonard Andrews Tennis Center (located to the rear of the hospital), which allows hikers direct access to the top of the Brea Dam. The northernmost entrance to the trail can be found off a long winding road that leads right to the Fullerton Golf Course and runs by a section of the old Union Pacific Railroad tracks. There are only about three spots to park at the top of the road, but if you take it all the way to the end, you might be able to find a spot at the golf course parking lot.
I parked and walked from the huge dirt lot at Brea Dam Park. While most drivers-by might be familiar with the small picnic area at the foot of the dam, there’s a large, fairly steep hill above it that is home to a wide network of trails obviously created by bicyclists for bicyclists. Most bike paths extend beyond the boundary of the park and would be way too steep for anyone wanting to walk up the hillside. However, there was one trail that was slightly easier than the rest. Following a wide dirt path that ran along the base of the hill, I found that it turned onto a paved road that led up to a 1930s-style home known as the Fullerton Hostel. The windows on the house were boarded up and the gate was locked and closed. It appeared to be abandoned, but according to the Fullerton Walks website, “in the winter, the Hostel is closed to keep vandals from doing damage.” Before making my way up the road, I walked right past two signs: one that was faded and warned people that the park and parking lots are closed from sunset to 7 a.m., and another that marked the park boundary.
When the Brea Dam was first built in 1942, the building that is now the hostel was once a place where some of the work crew lived, according to the Fullerton Walks website. The first dam tender and his family later moved in to the residence. “It was eventually abandoned because they didn’t like to be assigned where to live,” said the website. Interestingly, when I was walking by, I spotted an old plaque on a rock placed in front of the gated driveway. The plaque had been erected by the Fullerton Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, and it read, “In memory of Clarence Marshall Stanfield, First Care-Taker of Brea Dam.”
From the road leading up to the hostel, I turned onto a dirt clearing, where the trail split at an area with a lot of cacti. Both the left and right sections of the path led up the hillside. Hiking up a steep slope and making it to the top of the hill, I headed north following a barbed wire fence that pointed me toward the Brea Dam. The half-mile dirt pathway at the top of the hill eventually connected to the concrete gray walkway at the top of the dam.
At that point, I could either walk across the ridge of the dam to the Fullerton Tennis Courts or continue down an unpaved trail that lead into the flood basin. Looking in one direction from the top, I was able to peer out over the trees in the canyon below St. Jude Medical Center to see the hills above Brea. Since it was a clear day, I was able to see the faintly visible San Gabriel mountains in the distance. Looking down the opposite side of the dam, the park at the base looked miniscule. Further down the walkway at the top of the dam, I spotted the entrance to the Brea Dam flood control tower, which was blocked off with a black barbed wire fence and an official sign that said, “No Trespassing.”
Instead of heading across the crest of the dam to the tennis courts, I turned around and followed a trail that went down into the dried up reservoir behind the dam. This pathway led to a flat dirt lot, with trails branching off in various directions. I followed the one that turned north toward the hospital and Bastanchury Boulevard. Stepping underneath an area shaded by Eucalyptuses, I found that the narrow dirt path eventually connected with a section of the Lost Trail. At one point along the way, I treaded carefully across a short wooden board that went over a creek.
The trail followed a steady stream of running water all the way to the two storm drain tunnels that travel underneath Bastanchury and open out onto the golf course. The path was crowded with plant life and at times, I had to duck under branches and walk under narrow overgrown natural archways, which provided a lot of shade. Along the way, there were openings in the thick brush that allowed for closer access to the brook. The continuous murmuring sound of water flowing in Brea Creek was calming and could be heard as I enjoyed my walk through the greenway. It’s especially rare to see fall colors in Southern California, but I spotted a lot of orange and yellow on the deciduous trees that were slowly getting their autumn coats. With the exception of the hospital buildings towering over the trees, and the sound of cars driving down Bastanchury, the sometimes muddy dirt trail alongside the creek seemed like it was out in the middle of nowhere, not something you’d expect to find in the middle of suburban North Orange County. The trail eventually connected with another path that I think circled back to the Lost Trail area I had previously hiked in 2019. The two intersected near the entrance to one of the metal storm drain tunnels.
Brea Creek flows from the dam near Harbor all the way to the tunnels that go underneath Bastanchury Blvd. Interestingly, when there was a large flood in the area in 1983, there was more water than could fit through the tunnels, so it all spilled over onto Bastanchury. Blocks of broken concrete allowed me to get closer to the scenic stream of moving water. According to the Fullerton Walks website, rainwater and runoff would most likely travel through a 36” pipe underneath the tunnels, which is why I was able to walk through them without getting my shoes wet. The curving tunnel walls look like the inside of a rusted old tin can and they’re tall enough to drive a golf cart through. Depending on what side of the trail you’re on, the tunnels either lead to holes 7 through 11 at the golf course or to the canyon in back of St. Jude Medical Center.
The less scenic path on the golf course side had a steady stream of bicyclists riding on it. Wooden fence posts with netting in between them were placed on the side of the trail facing the green lawns of the golf course to protect bicyclists and walkers from being hit by golf balls. Luckily, the trail was wide enough to step to the side if bicyclists came by. On this path, I would recommend looking ahead and listening to make sure a bicycle isn’t approaching because they come by quickly, often from the opposite direction you’re walking. The trail split in some sections and curved upwards to a drought resistant plant area under direct sunlight. I’d recommend staying on the flat path closer to the golf course because bicyclists seem to speed on the narrow hillside trail. Winding its way around the entire length of the golf course, the path ends by a flood control wall that looks like a smaller, scaled-down version of Brea Dam. Overall, the 1.59 mile Brea Dam Trail is a moderately difficult hike that offers residents a way to access a wilderness area in Fullerton.

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3 replies »

  1. Hi, Saskia.
    Don’t be hatin’ on the cyclists. Like you said, many of the trails are built and maintained by cyclists. Maybe come out and ride your bike on the trails. But whether you’re a hiker or a biker, be polite and leave the AirPods at home. Also, don’t forget that it was almost 13 years to the day that James Wernke lost his life behind the dam. During heavy rains, the water rages and it’s best to stay off the trails.

    • That article was by Emerson Little. I forgot to put his name in as author, but have corrected it. Thank you for reading the Fullerton Observer.

  2. Observers might (or might not) be interested to know that in the pre dam days that barranca was home to the houses of the “Mexican” workers of the Bastanchury Ranch. That’s where the so-called Mexican School was located that was allegedly moved to the old Ford School site.