San Rafael Creek

July 21, 2009 § 34 Comments


More explorations of Pasadena’s creeks.  This one is known to many Arroyophiles.  San Rafael creek still flows through backyards and beneath homes that are dramatically perched over the steep canyon walls of Laguna Road on Pasadena’s west side.  A look at the photo below tells us how it got that name.

The creek drains the San Rafael Hills, extending up to the Annandale Country Club, and draining down at the Arroyo Seco.  The creek connects via a steep concrete “slide” structure that should warm the heart of any skate-brat.

The stream was dammed to provide a pond, probably for pasture, and other agricultural uses.  This photo shows sheep in the distance, and a horseman in the middle ground.  As you can also see, the old San Rafael winery was located here as well.  Today the pond, called Mirror Lake back then, is fenced from view with homes protected by guard-gate entry.

San Rafael Winery [Converted]

So, a pastoral tale of sweetness and light (and guard gate suburbanism).  Is there more?  Probably.  In 1906, Charles Holder’s entertaining but very blue-blood hunting exploits include a snippet about a hunt up a steep ravine about a mile from Garvanza:

“The arroyo was from fifty to one hundred feet deep here, its sides precipitous, filled with underbrush and large trees; sycamores and black oaks growing on the banks, cottonwoods, alders, and others in the centre and on the sides, with little meadows here and there above the stream. The wild grape had climbed many of the trees and interlaced them in a radiant drapery of green, forming a natural jungle for the wildcat, raccoon, and fox. The hounds presently caught a scent, and after a short run treed a large lynx, a process that was repeated half a score of times before she was finally captured, proving a most gamy animal.”

My best guesses are that this encounter was up San Rafael creek or one of its tributaries, or up “Eagle Rock” creek – subject of another day’s Creekfreak entry. And as always, if you go in search of this delightful little creek, please respect the privacy of the people who live there.

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§ 34 Responses to San Rafael Creek

  • Petrea says:

    It must have been a beautiful place before my forebears got here and fixed it.

  • Nancy Steele says:

    Wonderful story. I’m guessing that the “lynx” was a bobcat? We still have bobcats in the foothills, which makes me happy. Sometimes I get to see them in or near my yard.

  • Yu-Han says:

    I love this little creek, which is reasonably well preserved (relative to other streams I suppose). However, even this one ducks in and out of three culverts as it heads down the canyon joining Johnston (Mirror) Lake and the Arroyo Seco. On top of one of these culverts is a house! And of course, as you mentioned, there’s a few other houses (very cool mid-century moderns) that simply decided to bridge themselves over the stream.

    There’s another little pond at the end of Rosita Lane, which was once connected to Johnston Lake, but I don’t think that connecting stream sees the daylight anymore, though I can’t confirm (it’d be entirely in people’s backyards).

  • Derek says:

    I grew up along this “stream” as we called it. Some of the pools were deeper when I was a kid. We used to find crayfish at the stream that was at the north end of Johnson’s Lake, and I heard that they are still there (from family friends that live on top of the stream/culvert off Laguna Road.)

    Never saw a bobcat, but saw plenty of coyotes, foxes and red tail hawks.

    There is a wonderful little area right where it spills into the larger Arroyo that has a little waterfall, and a cave on the hill.

    FYI-there’s actually another stream, maybe seasonal, that appears on the other side of Laguna Road if I remember it correctly. It’s in someone’s yard.

    • Mike says:

      That’s pretty weird – I was just getting ready to mention how I would find crayfish in the stream near the end of Johnston’s Lake, when I was a kid, as Derek did. Our house was on La Loma and the stream was almost in our back yard.

      I brought home a huge amount of toads from summer camp and let a bunch of them loose back there; I wonder if any descendants are still there.

      Back then, Johnston’s lake was literally swarming with catfish.

      Yes, a couple years ago I saw a bobcat emerge from under the La Loma bridge, at night.

  • Yu-Han says:

    A waterfall and cave? Is it still there? The kid inside me is definitely getting excited.

    • Derek says:

      Should be there. Right past the spillway (which we used to slide down.)

      • Yu-Han says:

        Hmm, I wonder if its gone now. I’ve walked that area, and there’s tiny waterfall (maybe two or three feet tall, more like a slide than a waterfall) underneath a grove of big palm trees, but that’s it. And there’s a concrete wall up on the hillside… I wonder if the city came in and cemented up the entrance to the cave. How big was the cave?

      • Derek says:

        It wasn’t very deep. It was also very high up. It’s been at least 30 years since I’ve been back there.

      • Yu-Han says:

        And how big was the waterfall? I’m going to go look for it. 🙂

      • Derek says:

        Not big. There was a nice pool there though. It was very nice.

  • Derek says:

    There’s also a pond at the end of Glen Summer road. That pond must connect to Johnson’s lake, but I don’t know how.

  • Mike says:

    Yeah I recall seeing that pond when I was a kid; IIRC you could see it from those old tennis courts along Ave 64, which are no longer there. I dimly recall seeing a swan or ducks there.

    I just now looked through zillow’s satellite images and it’s still there, although it’s down a little from Glen Summer.

  • Mike says:

    There’s no way that it’s connected to Johnston’s Lake, however.

    • Derek says:

      It has to be. Maybe it’s underground, but that the flow from the hills down to the Arroyo, I remember searching for crawdads on the North end of Johnson’s lake, and there was a stream bed heading North there.

      • Yu-Han says:

        I bet its hidden in a culvert / underground drainage pipe now. Basically all the water from the golf course and the hills around La Loma on the other side of Ave 64 eventually drains into Johnston Lake.

  • Mike says:

    Well I pulled out “Within the Vale of Annandale”, an old softcover book about the history of the area, and it mentions “one of the finest springs in the region” at that same location.

    It also has an 1890 photo of “stream and pools” at the same place, so it probably drained into Johnston’s lake back in antiquity. If it still does, it’s got to be underground as you said.

  • Yu-Han says:

    I love that little book! This area looks so different now, compared with those early pictures.

  • Derek says:

    Great book. I used to live on Laguna Road, so that book was fascinating.

  • Jessica Hall says:

    I am really enjoying seeing you guys use this page to compare notes on San Rafael!

  • GusLevy says:

    Greetings. Somehow I found this page after attempting to find out some info on Johnston Lake – what wonders is the internet! I live on Laguna Rd and this creek/stream is what initially attracted me to my home…a day doesn’t go by when I’m home that I don’t stop to admire it.

    There was some consternation recently as the flow of the creek came to a halt for several days: After inquiring with the folks at Johnston Lake it became clear that the culvert/channel had “clogged” so a bit of yeoman cleaning by the lake chairman at their HOA restored the regular flow.

    Anyway, I can verify that there are plenty of crayfish still along the creek -some very big ones! Lots of fresh water clams too. All the animals in the area are great except for the gang of crows and the raccoons who make a mess of the creek scavenging for food. As for flooding the danger is
    deminimus if at all due to overflow channels along Laguna.

    • Mike says:

      Gus, have you seen any toads?

      • GusLevy says:

        I will admit that I have also had the thought cross my mind to release some frogs/toads in the stream for the added ambience but the reality is that the raccoons would probably have a feast on my account. The animals here are truly gluttonous: Even the hummingbirds are going through one full feeder per day!

  • Yu-Han says:

    Oh, is that what happened to the stream the other day? You wouldn’t believe the coincidence… last weekend I headed out for a walk and started ringing doorbells asking if anyone knew what was going on. No one I talked to had a clue. Then, on my way home, I started hearing the creek again, and by the time I actually got home, the first bit of water was just starting to get to where I live.
    Thanks for solving the mystery!

    So… if their culvert was clogged, was the lake level rising and causing the guy who lives right on the edge of the lake some anxiety?

    Its funny that I am finding out so much about my own backyard through this website. Thanks Jessica!

    • Jessica Hall says:

      This is what Creekfreak is for!

    • GusLevy says:

      I did not see the actual work being done but I understand the lake water goes through a underground channel which then streams out from the culvert on the Buff&Hensman house. For flood control, excess flow that doesn’t go through the channel is diverted into the sewage channel that travels along Laguna Rd. Anyway, when the regular flow channel became clogged – apparently tree and plant growth – the lake did not rise as all the flow basically diverted into the sewage channel.

      Not only was the low stream flow detrimental for us with respect to the ambience that it brings but on a practical level we were concerned with mosquito problems due to pockets of stale water along the stream route. I think the animals were having a tough time for those several days as well.

      • Stan McClain says:

        last year, some anomonous neighbor mentioned the clog to us (The Brookmere Association; home owner’s group for Johnston Lake) and we unclogged it. Just let us know when the water isn’t flowing and we’ll unclog it again. In my 20 years here, the pond has never not produced a constant flow, thus keeping surface scum to a minimum.

  • Yu-Han says:

    Very interesting about the overflow… hope they have a big check valve on that connection to the sewer line!

    Maybe you know the answer to this one as well: sometimes I’ve noticed what seem to be a few underwater pumps/fountains in the lake (you can see the water gushing up at the surface sometimes)… any idea what that is? Do they run an enormous filtration system on the lake or something? Now that the stream has actually dried up once before my eyes, I’m much more curious about the source of the water. Not to mention my kid sometimes decides to go play with (thankfully not “in” yet) the water. I try to discourage this because storm water runoff from Laguna Rd (and whatever else it carries) empties into the stream at various points between the lake and the Arroyo.

    • GusLevy says:

      I was told that Johnston Lake is spring fed which may account for the gushing water that you noticed. I have neighbors who have lived here for 50+ yrs who remember playing in the stream as kids so I suspect the water source has been consistent for a long time.

  • Emmons Sebenius says:

    Thank you for your historical facts on the creek. I grew up a total creek kid in pasadena and my father and his father were from altadena. I have questions about the arroyo san raffael area. I am very curious about the ave 64 cave that is supposed to connect to the church.? Any thoughts? Also my home is on ave 64 and there is a artisian well that runsthrough my back yard. I have wanted to expore it however due to the fault lines i dont want to do this alone. Hope to hear from you.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      I had heard of caves but down near the arroyo seco. And that they were destroyed or covered by buildings.

      Sorry, thought I had replied here already.

  • Adam says:

    Wow this page rocks including the comments. I live on Laguna with the creek and since moving here have tried to piece together why there is an abundance of large concrete chunks that make up the soil around my house and in the stream. Like literally massive boulder size chunks of concrete. I had read the dam material from Johnson lake was originally from the construction of ave 64 but here and another page cited the creation of Burleigh “tunneling” which I’m guessing is the part between 64 and Laguna. If anyone knows why there is so much construction debris in the stream I’d love to hear about it. I also read from a scan of the Pasadena Chronicle (?) a page assuring people the lake would return following a draining in 1954 for the construction of a culvert while investigating a theory that the concrete tunnel under Ellington Ln was the source of the debris. I also can’t find any engineering designs anywhere for how the lake was drained prior to this culvert in ’54 or what work was done in the early ’70s when it was cited the flood control district changed things around to prevent pollution to the lake.

  • Libby Simon says:

    I’m a new resident (renter) of the San Rafael neighborhood, and I’ve been so curious about the water all through this area. I’m on Ave 64 (east side) and the homes on either side of us have active wells.

    • Adam LaFountain says:

      I’m in San Rafael heights and an avid researcher of the San Rafael creek having it in my back yard, I have heard about the tunnels and read in depth the history of Johnson (Johnston) lake and the former winery. I’m on social media (@thebigcafeteria) if anyone wants to share data.

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