Santa Cruz Trail to Nineteen Oaks

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View from the Nineteen Oaks Trail Camp

View from the Nineteen Oaks Trail Camp

Geology on the Santa Cruz Trail

Geology on the Santa Cruz Trail

Santa Cruz Trail to Nineteen Oaks

    • Location: Upper Oso Campground, Santa Ynez Recreation Area north of Santa Barbara.  From Highway 101, head southeast on Highway 154 for 22 miles if you’re coming from the north; northwest on Highway 154 for 10.6 miles if you’re coming from the south, to Paradise Road.  Head east on Paradise Road for 5.8 miles and turn left onto Camuesa Road, signed for the Lower Oso Campground.  Drive a mile to the campground and park in the day use area in the northeastern corner, just past the out houses.  A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) is required. Click here to purchase.
    • Agency: Los Padres National Forest/Santa Barbara Ranger District
    • Distance: 4 miles
    • Elevation gain: 500 feet
    • Difficulty Rating: PG
    • Suggested time: 2 hours
    • Best season:  Year round
    • USGS topo map: San Marcos Pass
    • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat; bug spray
    • Recommended guidebook: Day Hikes Around Santa Barbara
    • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; photos here; Eveytrail report here
    • Rating: 8
0:00 - Trail head at the Upper Oso Campground (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

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

It’s hard to go wrong in the oak-shaded canyons, wide meadows and tall mountains of the Santa Ynez Recreational Area and the hike to the Nineteen Oaks Trail Camp is about as close as you can get to a hike that will please everyone.  It’s easy enough that novices shouldn’t have too much trouble and it also serves as a gateway for more challenging hikes, such as Little Pine Mountain.  The scenery includes both flora and geology (including limestone, sandstone and shale) of interest; the views are panoramic and the sense of solitude is strong.  Though the area can be hot during the summer, with an early start the hike can be enjoyable even on warm days.

0:21 - Start of the Santa Cruz Trail (times are approximate)

0:21 – Start of the Santa Cruz Trail (times are approximate)

From the end of the campground, follow the dirt road (signed as Buckhorn Road or Cameusa Canyon Road on some maps) up hill for a gentle 3/4 of a mile along side a seasonal stream.  Much of the route is shaded by oaks and sycamores.  At 3/4 of a mile, continue straight on a single-track while the dirt road makes switchbacks up the hill.  The going becomes a little more challenging here (watch out for poison oak) as you traverse some rocky and sometimes slippery terrain, although most hikers shouldn’t have too much of a problem.

0:34 - Crossing the stream bed on the Santa Cruz Trail

0:34 – Crossing the stream bed on the Santa Cruz Trail

For the next mile-plus, the trail follows the east side of the canyon, weaving in and out of more woodlands, crossing a stream bed and taking in some impressive mountain views.  At 1.8 miles from the start, you reach a junction.  Take a hairpin right turn and begin a short but steep climb to a meadow where the trail splits.  Bear left and follow the path to Nineteen Oaks, where you can sit at a shaded picnic table and enjoy the view.

0:55 - Turnoff to Nineteen Oaks

0:55 – Turnoff to Nineteen Oaks

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.

1:00 - Nineteen Oaks Trail Camp

1:00 – Nineteen Oaks Trail Camp

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Aliso Canyon Loop (Los Padres National Forest)

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Sunset in the Los Padres National Forest from the Aliso Canyon Loop Trail

Sunset in the Los Padres National Forest from the Aliso Canyon Loop Trail

Descending the Aliso Canyon Loop

Descending the Aliso Canyon Loop

Aliso Canyon Loop (Los Padres National Forest)

    • Location: Sage Hill Campground, Santa Ynez Recreation Area north of Santa Barbara.  From Highway 101, head southeast on Highway 154 for 22 miles if you’re coming from the north; northwest on Highway 154 for 10.6 miles if you’re coming from the south, to Paradise Road.  Head east on Paradise Road for 4.5 miles and turn left into the Sage Hill Campground.  Turn left into the campground, make a hard right, make another right and bear left into the lot signed for the Aliso Canyon Trail.  A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) is required. Click here to purchase.
    • Agency: Los Padres National Forest/Santa Barbara Ranger District
    • Distance: 3.5 miles
    • Elevation gain: 800 feet
    • Difficulty Rating: PG
    • Suggested time: 2 hours
    • Best season:  Year round (hot during the summer)
    • USGS topo map: San Marcos Pass
    • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat; bug spray
    • Recommended guidebook: Day Hikes Around Santa Barbara
    • More information: Trip descriptions here,  here and here; Eveytrail report here
    • Rating: 8
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 hike has a little bit of everything: pleasant oak and sycamore shaded woodlands, narrow canyons, panoramic mountain and valley views and some rather steep climbing to get to it all.  Though the upper ridges are exposed, with an early or late start, the hike can be done during warm days.  Sunsets here can be exceptional; the Santa Ynez Valley resembles Ojai but feels even more remote.

0:07 - Beginning of the loop (times are approximate)

0:07 – Beginning of the loop (times are approximate)

From the parking area, follow the signed Aliso Trail into the canyon.  You stroll for a peaceful 0.3 miles beneath the oaks before reaching a junction.  The loop can be hiked in either direction; by hiking clockwise (staying straight) you can wait a little before tackling the major ascents (if you head right, you will be climbing immediately).

0:27 - View across Aliso Canyon from the ascent

0:27 – View across Aliso Canyon from the ascent

Assuming you opt for clockwise, continue north into the canyon which quickly narrows.  You climb briefly up from the stream bed and drop back down briefly before beginning the major ascent: almost 600 feet in 0.7 miles.  The good news is that you get some excellent aerial views of Aliso Canyon on your ascent.

0:40 - View across Oso Canyon from the T-junction (turn right and continue climbing)

0:40 – View across Oso Canyon from the T-junction (turn right and continue climbing)

The trail gradually levels out, bending to the east and heading through a meadow (watch out for burrs on the plants; wear long pants if possible) before reaching a T-junction.  Here you get a good view down into the neighboring canyon, Oso.  Turn right and make another steep but short ascent to an unnamed summit where you can sit and enjoy a 360-degree vista.

0:45 - View from the first high point on the ridge

0:45 – View from the first high point on the ridge

From here, follow the ridge between the two canyons, heading south, making one more brief climb to another knoll before descending back into Aliso Canyon.  You drop down to another meadow and make a final series of steep switchbacks – sometimes cutting right up to the edge of the hill – completing the loop at 3.2 miles.  Retrace your steps back to the campground.

1:20 - Making the steep switchbacks back down into the canyon

1:20 – Making the steep switchbacks back down into the canyon

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.

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.

Holcomb Crossing Trail Camp Loop

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Looking west toward Lake Arrowhead and the San Gabriels from the Hawes Peak Trail

Looking west toward Lake Arrowhead and the San Gabriels from the Hawes Peak Trail

View of Hawes Peak from road 1W17

View of Hawes Peak from road 1W17

Holcomb Crossing Trail Camp Loop

      • Location: San Bernardino National Forest, between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, near Green Valley.  From Highway 18, just east of Running Springs, turn left on Green Valley Road.  Go 2.6 miles and turn left on a dirt road signed for Crab Flats (forest road 3N16).  Follow the signs to the campgrounds, ignoring several side roads that branch off.  Road 3N16 is in pretty good shape, but after about 3 miles, you will have to ford Crab Creek, which, according to the guidebook, is “impassable” in high water.  Even in low water, high clearance vehicles are best.  After crossing the creek, continue to a junction (3.8 miles from Green Valley Road) and turn left on forest road 3N34.   Go 0.5 miles and park in a turnout at the side of the road, near the vehicle trail numbered 1W17.  The trailhead coordinates are N 34 15.888, W 117 05.408.   A United States Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 for the year) is required for parking. Click here to purchase.
      • Agency: San Bernardino National Forest/Arrowhead Ranger Station
      • Distance: 5.2 miles
      • Elevation gain: 900 feet
      • Difficulty Rating: PG
      • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
      • Best season:  March – June; September – November
      • USGS topo maps: Butler Peak
      • Recommended gear: sun hat; insect repellentsunblock
      • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Inland Empire
      • More information: Description of a backpacking trip including Holcomb Crossing Trail Camp (longer route) here; Description of Holcomb Crossing Trail Camp here; Everytrail report here
      • Rating: 7
0:00 - Start of the hike on road 3N34 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike on road 3N34 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This enjoyable loop explores some of the less-traveled area of the San Bernardino National Forest east of Lake Arrowhead.  Highlights include a variety of plant life (black oaks, manzanitas, pines and more); panoramic views of the eastern San Gabriel and western San Bernardino Mountains and interesting geology, including an almost spherical boulder. Timing can be important: a lot of the trail is exposed, so if you hike during the summer, plan accordingly. Conversely you have to drive about 4 miles of dirt road, including a fording of Crab Creek, to reach the trail head, so heavy rains will likely prevent you from doing this hike during the winter or early spring. Expect to battle bugs as well.

0:20 - Sharp right on the single-track (times are approximate)

0:20 – Sharp right on the single-track (times are approximate)

From the parking turnout, follow road 3N34 due west for a pleasant if not particularly interesting 0.8 miles to the Tent Peg Group Camp (ignore a road branching off to the right about half way there.) Just past the camp by an information board, turn right on a single-track trail signed for Hawes Peak; it’s also listed as 2W08 on some maps. The trail descends for an enjoyable 1.6 miles, yielding views of Hawes Peak and its neighboring summits straight ahead and Lake Arrowhead and the distant San Gabriels on the left (you may also get a glimpse of the Pinnacles). You pass the spherical boulder, negotiate a few fallen trees, duck in and out of a woodland and meet the Pacific Crest Trail at 2.4 miles.

0:30 - Spherical boulder on the Hawes Peak Trail

0:35 – Spherical boulder on the Hawes Peak Trail

Turn right and head east on the P.C.T., passing a junction with the Cox Creek Trail.  This stretch is largely shaded and fairly level, making it one of the more enjoyable sections of the loop.  After about a mile you reach a 4-way junction. You can shorten the hike by heading right (uphill) on 1W17, a steep vehicle trail. However, if you have time take a scenic 1/2 mile detour by heading straight on the P.C.T. to Holcomb Crossing Trail Camp.

1:00 - Junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, turn right

1:00 – Junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, turn right

Here, beneath some tall pines, you can sit and enjoy the sound of nearby Holcomb Creek. It’s fairly easy to work your way down to its banks. When ready, retrace your steps to the junction. Complete the loop by heading southwest on 1W17. A steep and sometimes tedious ascent brings you back to the parking area.

1:28 - 4-Way junction (right is your return route, straight leads to the camp)

1:28 – 4-Way junction (right is your return route, straight leads to the 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.

1:40 - Holcomb Crossing Trail Camp

1:40 – Holcomb Crossing Trail Camp

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

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Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Antelope Trail

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Antelope Trail

Looking south from between the Kitanemuk and Antelope Butte Overlooks

Looking south from between the Kitanemuk and Antelope Butte Overlooks

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

  • Location: 15101 Lancaster Road, Lancaster.  From the 14 Freeway, take the Avenue I exit and head west for 14 miles (Avenue I becomes Lancaster Rd. along the way).  The park entrance will be on the right.  Parking is $10 per vehicle.  During the peak season, the lot gets crowded on the weekends so plan accordingly.
  • Agency: Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve State Natural Area
  • Distance: 5.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 650 feet
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG
  • Best season: March – May; call the park hotline at (661) 724-1180 for reports on wildflower bloom or check their website
  • USGS topo map: Del Sur
  • Recommended gear: sun block; sun hat
  • More information:  Trip descriptions here and here; Yelp page here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Start of the hike (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

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

The California Golden Poppy is our state’s flower and the Antelope Valley can be one of the best places to see them.  In the spring, especially following heavy rains, the bloom is a stunning sight.  The green hills are blanketed with thousands of orange poppies and on days of good visibility, the distant San Gabriel and Tehachapi ranges add to the scenery.  Keep in mind that the area is completely exposed and that high winds are common.

0:02 AND 1:00 - Stay left for the North and South Poppy Loops, then head uphill toward the overlooks when you return (times are approximate)

0:02 AND 1:00 – Stay left for the North and South Poppy Loops, then head uphill toward the vista points when you return (times are approximate)

The park has eight miles of trails. A stroll of any length can be enjoyable; one doesn’t have to hike a specific route to experience the poppies, but those who want a little more of a workout can try this 5.7-mile double loop around the perimeter of the park.

From the parking lot, follow the paved walkway past the visitor center to the beginning of the Poppy Loops. (For now, ignore the trail branching off to the right – that will come later.) Head toward the Tehachapi Overlook and turn left onto the South Poppy Loop Trail. For the next two miles, follow a more or less level loop clockwise around the base of a hill, taking in views of the poppy fields.

0:03 - Turn left onto the South Poppy Trail

0:03 – Turn left onto the South Poppy Trail

When you complete the loop, instead of going back to the parking lot, turn left on the trail signed for the Kitanemuk and Antelope Butte Vista Points. You head uphill, staying straight as another trail branches to the right. A climb brings you to the Kitanemuk Vista Point, where you get a 360-degree panorama. You continue along the ridge, following the signs to the Antelope Butte Vista Point (3.7 miles from the start and the highest point in the reserve, at 3,041 feet above sea level.)

0:23 - Moving from the South to North Poppy Trails

0:23 – Moving from the South to North Poppy Trails

After enjoying another 360-degree view from the Antelope Butte Vista Point, take a sharp right and head downhill, back toward the poppy fields. At 4.7 miles, you reach a T-junction; you can take either route as they converge again in about 0.6 miles. Soon after they rejoin, take a left on a trail signed for Valley Vista and get one last view of the area before heading back to the parking lot.

1:18 - Kitanemuk Overlook

1:18 – Kitanemuk Vista Point

In addition to the poppies, keep an eye out for purple lacy phacelia, yellow goldfields and white forget-me-nots.  Wildlife includes caterpillars, whiptail lizards and rattlesnakes – so watch where you step even as you enjoy the panoramas.

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.

1:51 - Antelope Butte Vista Point

1:51 – Antelope Butte Vista Point


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