South Fork Trail (Angeles National Forest)

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View from near the top of the South Fork Trail

View from near the top of the South Fork Trail

Wildflowers near the South Fork Campground

Wildflowers near the South Fork Campground

South Fork Trail (Angeles National Forest)

  • Location:  Angeles National Forest back country on Highway 2.  From the 210 freeway in La Canada Flintridge, take the Angeles Crest Highway (highway 2) northeast for 40 miles to Islip Saddle, just beyond the two short tunnels.  Park in the lot on the left (north) side of the highway.  A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) is required. Click here to purchase.
  • Agency:  Angeles National Forest, Santa Clara and Mojave Rivers Ranger District
  • Distance: 10.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2,200 feet
  • Suggested time: 5 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, distance, steepness)
  • Best season: Year round, but hot during the summer and possible snow during the winter (check conditions before going)
  • USGS topo maps: Crystal Lake, Valyermo
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat; sun block
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Los Angeles County
  • More information: Meetup description here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Upper trail head, Islip Saddle (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Upper trail head, Islip Saddle (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The South Fork Trail is the shortest and arguably the most scenic route between the Angeles Crest Highway and the high desert on the north slope of the San Gabriels, linking Islip Saddle with the South Fork Campground near Valyermo and Pearblossom.  The hike can be done in either direction, or with a rather lengthy drive between the ends, as a point-to-point uphill or downhill.  There are a few advantages of doing it as a “reverse” (down then up) hike as described here.  The upper end, Islip Saddle, is closer to most of the L.A. area; going downhill first allows hikers sensitive to altitude to more easily acclimate and while the grade is consistently moderate, there are a few tricky spots where the trail is covered by rock slides; while these areas don’t require any special technical skill they’re easier to negotiate in the downhill direction on fresher legs. Almost the entire route hugs the west side of the canyon, so during a late-afternoon/early evening ascent, your sun exposure will be minimal.

0:29 - Woodlands below Reed Spring (times are approximate)

0:29 – Woodlands below Reed Spring (times are approximate)

From Islip Saddle, pick up the South Fork Trail heading downhill (not to be confused with the Pacific Crest Trail which heads uphill toward Mt. Williamson).  You descend through open areas and pockets of mixed woodland: Douglas fir, pines, black oaks and more.  At about 1.1 miles, you cross a tributary of Big Rock Creek’s south fork, fed from Reed Spring higher up on the hill.  The trail continues its descent, providing striking views of the steep canyon carved by Big Rock Creek and the mountains opposite.
1:47 - Hanging on to the side of the canyon

1:47 – Hanging on to the side of the canyon

As you drop farther along, you’ll start to notice more of the high desert vegetation: pinyon pines, mountain mahogany and manzanita.  The trail descends a few steep switchbacks, finally meeting Big Rock Creek (4.9 miles.)  This can be a good turnaround point, but if you want to hike the entire trail or have set up a shuttle at the South Fork Campground, cross the creek (water levels may be high in the spring) and follow the trail another half mile to the High Desert Recreational Trail, which continues toward the Devil’s Punchbowl.  You can turn right on the dirt road and head a short distance to a picnic area, where you can sit and charge your batteries for the long ascent back to Islip Saddle.

2:04 - Crossing Big Rock Creek before the South Fork Camp

2:04 – Crossing Big Rock Creek before the South Fork Camp

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

2:15 - Looking back from the lower end of the South Fork Trail

2:15 – Looking back from the lower end of the South Fork Trail

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Acorn Trail (Wrightwood)

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View of the high desert from the Acorn Trail

View of the high desert from the Acorn Trail

Through the pines on the Acorn Trail

Through the pines on the Acorn Trail

Acorn Trail (Wrightwood)

  • Location: Wrightwood, at the corner of Acorn Drive and Quail Road.  From I-15, take the Highway 138 exit and head west for 8.6 miles.  Turn left on the Angeles Crest Highway (highway 2) and go 5.4 miles into the town of Wrightwood.  Turn left on Spruce St. and go 0.3 miles to Oriole Rd.  Turn right and go 0.1 miles to Acorn Drive.  Turn left and follow Acorn Drive 0.3 miles and park on the right side of the road in a small dirt turnout between Finch Road and Quail Road.  Though there is no indication that a National Forest Service Adventure Pass is required for parking, if you have one, you might want to display it.  If ou want to purchase one ($5 per day or $30 for the year) click here.
  • Agency: Angeles National Forest (Santa Clara/Mojave Rivers Ranger District)
  • Distance: 5.2 miles (from the corner of Acorn and Quail)
  • Elevation gain: 2,000 feet (from the corner of Acorn and Quail)
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, steepness, altitude)
  • Best season: April – November
  • USGS topo map: “Mt. San Antonio”
  • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat; hiking poles
  • More information: Here; discussion board about the trail here; video of the trail here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Start of the hike, Acorn Drive

0:00 – Start of the hike, Acorn Drive (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The Acorn Trail links a private residential community in Wrightwood with the Pacific Crest Trail.  The scenery–including stately pines, tall mountain slopes and views of the high desert–is similar to that of the nearby Blue Ridge Trail, although this one is longer, steeper and overall more difficult.  The actual trail is less than two miles, but due to its location at the end of a private road, hikers must tack on an extra 0.8 miles in each direction if they want to do it “by the book.”  Stories abound of hikers being harassed by landowners; while there is no guarantee that this won’t happen, as with other hikes in or around private land, such as Black Star Canyon, if you are respectful of their space odds are they will leave you alone.

0:15 - Beginning of the dirt road at the end of Acorn Drive (times are approximate)

0:15 – Beginning of the dirt road at the end of Acorn Drive (times are approximate)

From the corner of Quail, begin hiking steadily up Acorn Road, reaching its terminus in half a mile and almost 400 feet of elevation gain.  Pass by a gate and follow a dirt road past a water tank for an additional 0.3 miles to the signed start of the trail.  The trail, now a single-track, curves along the side of a ridge, soon providing a good aerial view of Wrightwood, with the high desert beyond.  A tree stump, about a mile (650 vertical feet) from the start makes a perfect spot to catch your breath and enjoy the panorama.

0:24 - Beginning of the Acorn Trail

0:24 – Beginning of the Acorn Trail

The trail continues switchbacking its way up the mountain, sometimes quite steeply.  You get a dramatic view of steep Acorn Canyon, where a few rogue oaks cling to the hillside in the midst of the taller pines.

0:30 - View from the tree stump about a mile in

0:30 – View from the tree stump about a mile in

Near the top, the grade levels out somewhat.  You pass under an “arch” made by a fallen tree caught between two that are still standing, and then you reach an intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail and a dirt road.  On the opposite side of the dirt road, you get an excellent view of Pine Mountain, the second tallest peak in the San Gabriels – but one that is not often visible due to being blocked out by its taller neighbor to the south, Mt. Baldy.  From this vantage point, however, Pine actually blocks out Baldy; you can also see a little bit of Dawson Peak, the third highest summit in the San Gabriels, in back of Pine.

1:00 - View through some fallen trees

1:00 – View through some fallen trees

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:20 - View of Pine Mountain from the Pacific Crest Trail (turnaround point)

1:20 – View of Pine Mountain from the Pacific Crest Trail (turnaround point)

M*A*S*H site from Corral Canyon via Bulldog Motorway

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Malibu Creek State Park from the Bulldog Motorway

Malibu Creek State Park from the Bulldog Motorway

Geology near the Castro Crest

Geology near the Castro Crest

M*A*S*H site from Corral Canyon via Bulldog Motorway

  • Location: Santa Monica Mountains, near Malibu.  From the Pacific Coast Highway, take Corral Canyon (2.3 miles west of Malibu Canyon Road, 0.7 miles east of Latigo Canyon Road) north for 5 miles to its end.  Park at the Backbone trailhead.
  • Agency: Malibu Creek State Park
  • Distance: 8.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2,200 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 4.5 hours
  • Best season: November – May
  • USGS topo maps: Point Dume, Malibu Beach
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sunblock; sun hat
  • Recommended guidebook: Day Hikes In the Santa Monica Mountains
  • More information:  Trip description (slightly different route) here; Everytrail report here; video taken walking through the M*A*S*H site here; Area trail map here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Castro Motorway trailhead (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Castro Motorway trailhead (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

There’s an easy way and a hard way to hike to and from the M*A*S*H filming site in Malibu Creek State Park.  This post describes the latter.

From the parking area, head uphill on the Corral Canyon Motorway.  The dirt road ascends steadily, providing views of Corral Canyon on the left and Malibu Creek State Park on the right.  Shortly before the intersection with the Bulldog Motorway, keep an eye out for a group of long and thin sandstone outcrops, sticking up from the steep slope in a manner resembling a forest.

0:20 - Beginning of the Bulldog Motorway (times are approximate)

0:20 – Beginning of the Bulldog Motorway (times are approximate)

At 0.8 miles, turn right on the Bulldog Motorway (the Castro Motorway continues 0.8 miles before dead-ending at private property).  You begin a long, winding descent, getting views of Castro Peak, Malibu Lake, the Goat Buttes and more.  At about 2 miles from the start, you enter a slightly shaded area, providing nice contrast from the exposed upper parts of the trail.

0:50 - Woodlands on the Bulldog Motorway descent

0:50 – Woodlands on the Bulldog Motorway descent

The Bulldog Motorway continues dropping toward Malibu Creek, passing a few spurs serving as utility access points (the main route is always pretty obvious).  Just over 3 miles from the start, turn right at the junction and head east, following a tributary of Malibu Creek for a little over a mile.

1:16 - Turn right at the junction and head east

1:16 – Turn right at the junction and head east

At 4.2 miles, you meet Crags Road.  Turn right and head through a pleasant oak grove to the former M*A*S*H site, where you can still see several vehicles used in the show and the famous sign pointing to different destinations.  A picnic area provides a good rest spot – because the bulk of the work is still ahead of you.

1:40 - Right turn on Crags Road

1:40 – Right turn on Crags Road

When ready, retrace your steps up the Bulldog Motorway back toward Castro Crest.  As you climb, your efforts will be rewarded with wider and wider views of Malibu Creek and the Santa Monicas.  While this hike loses points due to the long, largely exposed ascent from the canyon and high number of power lines, it is nevertheless one of the more scenic – and certainly challenging – trips in the area.

1:45 - M*A*S*H site; turnaround point

1:45 – M*A*S*H site; turnaround point

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

El Cariso Truck Trail: Lake Elsinore to Main Divide Road

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Lake Elsinore from the El Cariso Truck Trail

Lake Elsinore from the El Cariso Truck Trail

Pines near the top of the El Cariso Truck Trail

Pines near the top of the El Cariso Truck Trail

El Cariso Truck Trail: Lake Elsinore to Main Divide Road

  • Location: Grand Avenue and Toft Drive, Lake Elsinore.  From the north, take I-15 to the Lake Avenue exit.  Turn right on Lake Ave. and follow it 4.1 miles to Plumas St. (Lake becomes Grand Avenue along the way).  Turn left on Plumas, go 0.5 miles and turn right on Grand.  Park on the corner of Grand Avenue and Toft Drive.  From the south, take I-15 to Central Avenue/Highway 74.  Turn left and go 0.2 miles to Collier Ave.  Turn right and go 0.5 miles to Riverside Drive.  Turn left and go 3.2 miles to Grand Avenue.  Turn right and go 1 mile to the corner of Grand and Toft.
  • Agency: Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco Ranger District
  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,350 feet
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Best season: November – May
  • USGS topo maps: Alberhill
  • Recommended gear: Sunblock; Sun Hat; Insect Repellent
  • More information: Video of a dirt biker riding the trail here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating:6
ECTT Beginning

0:00 – Start of the hike on Grand Avenue (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Not to be confused with the El Cariso Nature Trail, the El Cariso Truck Trail (Forest Road 6S06 on some maps) forms a link between Lake Elsinore and Main Divide Road near its intersection with Highway 74.  The trail is basically a shorter and easier version of the Indian Truck Trail near Corona.  Popular with mountain bikers and dirt bikers, the trail tends not to see much foot traffic.  While it suffers from trash and graffiti (particularly in its lower reaches), on a cool, clear day, it can be a very enjoyable trip.  Hikers who feel as if they’ve seen it all when it comes to the eastern slope of the Santa Ana Mountains might want to give this one a look.

0:48 - Prickly Phlox flowers on the side of the trail (times are approximate)

0:48 – Prickly Phlox flowers on the side of the trail (times are approximate)

From the corner of Toft and Grand, follow Grand briefly southeast before seeing the beginning of the trail.  Take a sharp right turn and begin your climb, passing by the tops of a few houses.  Unfortunately the first quarter of a mile has become a dumping ground, but the trash soon thins out.  Your ascent soon gives you an aerial view of Lake Elsinore and while the trail is still exposed, chaparral growing on the sides provides some shade at least if you’re off to an early start.

At about 1.6 miles, the trail splits; stay right (the left route goes toward a private residence, the first of several you’ll see along the way).  After passing another trail merging in from the left, you reach the welcome shade of oaks and sycamores (1.9 miles.)  True, there’s a fence running along the left side of the road, but this is still a nice place to stop and take a break.

0:57 - Shade!

0:57 – Shade!

The trail climbs out of the woodland and continues toward Main Divide, weaving its way in and out of a few more stands of oaks.  The trail reaches Main Divide Road at 3 miles; a pile of rocks shortly before the junction makes a good spot for sitting and enjoying the view.  While the road might seem a slightly anti-climatic destination, the wide-ranging views of the lake – and, given good visibility, San Jacinto, San Gorgonio and Mt. Baldy – on the way back make the descent a very enjoyable experience.

1:30 - Trail's end at Main Divide Road

1:30 – Trail’s end at Main Divide Road

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk,and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Oak Spring Trail to Yerba Buena Ridge

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OSYBR San Gabriels

The San Gabriel Mountains from Yerba Buena Ridge

OSYBR Western panorama

Looking west from Yerba Buena Ridge

Oak Spring Trail to Yerba Buena Ridge

  • Location: Western San Gabriel Mountains near the San Fernando Valley.   From I-210 in Sunland, take the Foothill Blvd. exit and head northeast (turn right if you’re coming from the east; left if you’re coming from the west.)  Take a quick left on Osborne St. and follow it for a total of 3.8 miles (it becomes Little Tujunga Canyon Road along the way).  Turn right on Gold Creek Road and go 0.8 miles to a dirt turnout on the left side of the street, a few dozen yards past the signed Oak Spring Trailhead.  Trailhead coordinates are N 34 19.133, W 118 20.000.  A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 per day or $30 for the year) is required for parking here. Click here to purchase.
  • Agency: Angeles National Forest, Los Angeles River Ranger District
  • Distance: 4.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,400 feet
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (elevation gain, steepness)
  • Best season: October – May
  • USGS topo map: Sunland
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; insect repellent; sun block; sun hat
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot & Afield Los Angeles County
  • More information: Trip reports here and here; Flickr photo gallery here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This scenic and rigorous hike explores the secluded western corner of the San Gabriel Mountains.  In the wake of its post-Station Fire re-opening, it is popular with hikers and trail runners.  Just a short distance from the northeast edge of the San Fernando Valley, the Oak Spring Trail offers a welcome escape into nature during the fall, winter and spring months.

0:33 - View of the San Fernando Valley from the ridge (times are approximate)

0:33 – View of the San Fernando Valley from the ridge (times are approximate)

From the parking area, cross Gold Creek Road to the signed trailhead and begin your ascent. You start off shaded by oaks but soon enter exposed terrain as the trail switchbacks its way up a ridge. At least you are on a north facing slope so with an early start (recommended) the sun won’t be too intense.

0:35 - Heading down into the meadow

0:35 – Heading down into the meadow

As you climb higher you get a good aerial view down into Little Tujunga Canyon, with the Mendenhall Ridge dominating the landscape toward the north. The trail moves to an eastern slope, meaning more sun exposure, making the steep ascent more draining. However, the grade levels out at about a mile and soon after you reach a saddle with a great view of the Valley to the west.

The trail passes by a solitary tree, crosses a fire break and then drops into a meadow, passing through thick bushes of ceanothus flowers (be careful of bees). You then enter the welcome shade of the Oak Spring Trail Camp (1.3 miles). This makes a good resting spot.

Continuing south, the trail crosses a stream (be careful of poison oak) and enters the exposed hillside again, soon climbing up a steep, sometimes rough, break. At the top you follow the trail through a ridge with more ceanothus–and more bees–enjoying wide-ranging views. Finally you reach a four-way junction with a fire road. Follow it briefly downhill to where the single-track branches off south toward Fascination Spring a mile away (an additional destination if you have time and energy). Here you get excellent views of the Verdugo Mountains; if the air is clear you can see Old Saddleback in Orange County and Catalina Island.  To the west, you can see the Santa Susana range and with good visibility the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains.

0:39 - Oak Spring Trail Camp

0:39 – Oak Spring Trail Camp

The hike up to the fire road is a substantial workout, but if you want to extend your trip you can do so either by dropping down to Fascination Spring or following the fire road in either direction.

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.
1:09 - View of the Verdugo Mountains from the fire road; turnaround point

1:09 – View of the Verdugo Mountains from the fire road; turnaround point


Saddleback Butte State Park

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Looking northeast from Saddleback Butte

Looking northeast from Saddleback Butte

Looking southwest from Saddleback Butte

Looking southwest from Saddleback Butte

Saddleback Butte State Park

  • Location: High desert east of Lancaster and north of Pearblossom and Valyermo.  From L.A., take the 14 Freeway to the Pearblossom Highway exit.  Merge onto Sierra Highway and follow it 0.8 miles to Pearblossom Highway. Go 4.5 miles and continue onto Avenue T.  Go 11 miles and turn left on 170th St. East.  Go 9.4 miles and turn right into the park, then left into the campground.  Park by the information board near the Saddleback Butte Trailhead.  Parking is $6 per vehicle.  From Lancaster and the high desert, take Highway 14 to Avenue J.  Head east on Avenue J for 19 miles and turn right on 170th St. East, and follow the directions to the park.
  • Agency: Saddleback Butte State Park
  • Distance: 3.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,050 feet
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, steepness, terrain)
  • Best season: November – May
  • USGS topo map:  Hi Vista
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun block; sun hat
  • More information: Trip description (slightly different route) here; Yelp page here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Trailhead near the campground (click thumbnails to see the full sized version)

0:00 – Trailhead near the campground (click thumbnails to see the full sized version)

Located in the high desert east of Lancaster and Palmdale, Saddleback Butte State Park is like a mini Joshua Tree National Park.  While it doesn’t have nearly as many trails as the larger park, the climb to Saddleback Butte (elevation 3,651) is a worthwhile addition to any hiker’s resume.  Ideally, pick a cool, clear day when you can enjoy the panoramic view from the top of the peak.  You approach the peak from the west, so if you get off to an early start, you will have shade.

The hike starts easily enough, climbing only about 250 feet during the first mile. You pass by several tall Joshua trees, with the peak of Saddleback Butte dominating the foreground. After a mile, stay straight as another trail comes in from the left. Now the work begins as the grade increases. The trail bends southeast and briefly levels out, reaching a saddle where you get an excellent view of the north slope of the San Gabriels.

0:25 - Junction with the trail from the picnic area (times are approximate)

0:25 – Junction with the trail from the picnic area (times are approximate)

From here, you head northeast, climbing about 300 feet in the last quarter mile. There is a little boulder scrambling, though nothing requiring any special skills (still, parents with small kids might want to exercise caution). The trail is never too difficult to find; ducks and arrows made from pebbles or scratched in the dirt help show the way.

After a last bit of scrambling, you arrive on the summit. Here you can sit on the boulders and enjoy an unobstructed view: the San Gabriels, the Tehachapis and possibly the San Bernardino range are all visible. You also get a nice pseudo-aerial perspective on the streets running through the desert more than a thousand feet below.

0:51 - View of the San Gabriel Mountains from the saddle

0:51 – View of the San Gabriel Mountains from the saddle

When you’ve had your fill of the view retrace your steps. Exercise extra caution on the descent; your legs will likely be tired and the route down might not seem as obvious as the route up. Keeping the saddle as a focal point will be helpful if you’re worried about losing the trail.

1:00 - View from the summit

1:00 – View from the summit

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.


Upper Hot Spring Canyon

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Pool in Upper Hot Spring Canyon

Pool in Upper Hot Spring Canyon

Over the rocks in Upper Hot Spring Canyon

Over the rocks in Upper Hot Spring Canyon

Upper Hot Spring Canyon

  • Location: Cleveland National Forest, Falcon Group Campground.  From Orange County, take I-5 to Highway 74/Ortega Highway.  Go northeast for 25.8 miles to unsigned Long Canyon Road.  Turn left and go 3 miles, following the signs to Blue Jay and Falcon Group Camps.  Just past the entrance to Falcon Group Camp, park in a turnout on the left side of the road.  From Riverside, take I-15 south to Lake St.  Turn right and go a total of 5.9 miles (Lake becomes Grand en route) and turn right on Highway 74/Ortega Highway.  Go 5.1 miles and turn right on El Cariso/Main Divide.  Go a total of 4.5 miles and park in a turnout just before the entrance to the Falcon Group Campground.  From Temecula, take I-15 north to Baxter.  Turn left and go 0.4 miles to Central.  Turn left and go 1.3 miles to Grand Ave.  Turn right and go 7 miles to Highway 74/Ortega Highway and follow the directions above.  A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 for the year) is required for parking. Click here to purchase.
  • Agency: Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco Ranger District
  • Distance: 3.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 500 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Terrain, trail condition, navigation)
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season:  December – May
  • USGS topo map: “Alberhill”
  • Recommended gear: Poison oak cream; long sleeved shirts and pants
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
  • More information: Trip descriptions here, here and here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Start outside the Falcon Group Campground (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start outside the Falcon Group Campground (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This hike explores the headwaters of Hot Springs Canyon, perhaps Orange County’s most remote.  The challenges include rock scrambling, negotiating fallen trees, perhaps some stream wading, poison oak and navigation.  Unfortunately the real payoff–a 25-foot waterfall–can only safely be seen from the top; the precipice represents the end of the line for anyone without rock climbing/canyoneering expertise and reliable equipment.  Still, the scenic rewards of this area make it worth the drive; three smaller waterfalls along the way are all enjoyable spots to sit and enjoy the wilderness and you’ll get to experience peace and quiet that makes it hard to believe you’re in California’s second most densely populated county.

0:04 - Leaving the Falcon Trail and heading into the canyon (times are approximate)

0:03 – Leaving the Falcon Trail and heading into the canyon (times are approximate)

Start by walking into the entrance to the Falcon Group Camp. Almost immediately, turn left on the signed Falcon Trail which leads through a pleasant meadow filled with pines and oaks. After crossing a small wooden plank footbridge, look for a trail branching off to the right (just before the Falcon Trail heads uphill.) This is the route into Hot Spring Canyon.

0:18 - Junction with a canyon about half a mile in

0:18 – Junction with a canyon about half a mile from the start

The first 0.4 miles are fairly easy going as the trail follows the stream bed. You briefly enter the stream as it leads into a wooded area and walk out on the opposite side, continuing to follow the faint path. Watch out for a large oak with a low branch on which I’ve bumped my head at least once.

After entering an open area, you’ll meet with another canyon coming in from the north, about 0.5 miles from the start. Continue on the opposite side, making your way through ferns, around rocks, generally sticking to the north canyon wall (keeping the stream on the left.) There are a few spots where you have your choice of wading through the stream or scrambling up the side; use caution either way.

0:24 - Climbing rocks out of the stream bed

0:24 – Climbing rocks out of the stream bed

A smaller pseudo-canyon joins on the right side at about 0.9 miles and soon after you reach the top of the first waterfall, about 15 feet high. If you’ve had enough off-trail scrambling and poison oak lookout this is a nice spot to turn around; you can easily climb down the rocks and get close to the pool at the bottom.

0:31 - Ducking under a sycamore in the stream bed

0:31 – Ducking under a sycamore in the stream bed

Farther downstream, another canyon merges on the right. Continue forging your way ahead, navigating a gigantic fallen oak. You come to two smaller waterfalls, both of which can be easily negotiated by climbing rocks on the side, but as always exercise caution. If your shoes/boots are wet from the stream the rocks will be slippery.

0:39 - The first waterfall

0:39 – The first waterfall

At 1.6 miles from the start you reach the top of the large waterfall. You can get something of an aerial view, although it’s hard to get the full effect. Still, this is a nice place to sit and enjoy the sound of the waterfall and have a snack before heading back.

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:06 - Turnaround point at the top of the big waterfall, looking down canyon

1:06 – Turnaround point at the top of the big waterfall, looking down canyon