Southern California: Reviews of Travel Books and Maps

If not for a little research to go waterfalling locally, we wouldn't have encountered divine sights like this along the coast in Malibu
The purpose of this page is to reveal to you the resources that we have used both prior to and during our trips throughout Southern California. We have reviewed such resources so we can convey to you which ones we thought were most useful as well as those we didn't find useful. Hopefully, this may better direct your information gathering efforts for your own trip...

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California Waterfalls (Foghorn Outdoors) [Overall Rating: 5/5]:
For Julie and I, this was the book that started it all. It was the source we used to hunt down waterfalls locally in Southern California before expanding to other parts of the state. It became the primary guidebook for our spontaneous local trips on the weekend, and it didn't take long before the book became quite wrinkled and dog-eared. Needless to say, we have to credit author Ann Marie Brown with jump starting our obsession for waterfalls around the world.

This thick nearly 500-page book (we have the second edition and the fourth edition) covers most of the accessible waterfalls throughout California. Although it's in lackluster black and white and not all chapters have waterfall photos in the second edition, Brown's descriptions have spunk and her maps are adequate to get oriented (though you'll still want to supplement them with Topo! maps).

She divides the books into regional chunks of the state. Obviously, we focused more towards the back of the book which was concentrating on Southern California. She also had quick summaries containing at-a-glance ratings, access & difficulties, elevation, and best season. Then, she went right into the descriptions along with select photos. In other words, the book had all the relevant information we needed to seek out our own waterfalling adventures in the state.

In the latest edition of the book that we have, it looked like they took out the ratings (maybe because it's so subjective and prone to controversy), but I personally appreciated the fact that she made her opinion known based on her own experience. In any case, there were a few more waterfalls in there, but I could see they tried to keep the production costs down by really tightening all the writeups together and limiting the amount of whitespace. So it was possible to have one waterfall writeup end and the next one begin on the same page. Otherwise, most of the descriptions looked pretty much the same as the 2nd edition.

All in all, we continue to use this resource, especially when seeking out new unfamiliar waterfalls. Admittedly, we've covered most of the higher rated ones locally, but that doesn't mean we can't be surprised with previously overlooked ones as well. In fact, she catalogs more than 200 of them so there's plenty of room to discover more. And despite the some of its shortcomings (we did spot a few incorrect directions or trail advice; e.g. going to the Cedar Creek Falls writeup near Ramona instead of a safer path to its base), we still view this book both with sentiment as well as a useful resource. Therefore, I had no trouble giving this book our maximum score.

The Definitive Guide to the Waterfalls of Southern and Central California [Overall Rating: 2/5]:
We picked up this book because it promised to reveal other waterfalls that our second edition of Ann Marie Brown's book didn't have. However, this book mainly focused on the central and southern parts of the state. Nonetheless, we thought of this book as an alternate source, especially if we were in the mood for something different than what was revealed in the Brown book.

The book was also in full color as well as contained lots of photos, which made it a little livelier. However, once we started using the book, that was when we noticed many problems. Among them were the lack of useful maps, bad directions, and the tendency for the book to devote whole chapters to waterfalls that I'd argue don't even count as waterfalls. So we not only had to flip through a lot of pages that we knew we wouldn't even entertain visiting, but we were led of a few wild goose chases with some of the other writeups in the book.

As our mood started to sour on this book, we started to notice other things that annoyed us. One was that it seemed to only exist as a feeble attempt to improve upon the Brown book. The approach was pretty much the same. There was also this attitude throughout the book as if it was ok to bushwhack and blaze your own trails towards waterfalls. Not only was this hazardous (and something we really had to watch out for if we were to really try to follow the book while not injuring ourselves), but it essentially encouraged people to degrade Nature in the name of the thrill of bagging a previously "undiscovered" waterfall.

To its credit, we did visit Tahquitz Falls as a result of this book as well as referenced it to find the Pywiack Cascade in Yosemite. But other than that, the Brown book was way better at being that reliable guide we could count on. So it pretty much was relegated to the role of the alternate guide only when the Brown book didn't cover particular waterfalls or provide pictures.

101 Hikes in Southern California [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
Since we have pretty much consulted the Brown book for waterfalls for just about all of our local adventures, it was easy for us to overlook the fact that Julie actually had this book even before the Brown book! We had bookmarked a few chapters to places like Hellhole Canyon, Cedar Creek Falls (near Julian), and El Moro Canyon in Laguna Beach. I suspect that this was around the time I was in grad school at UCLA in the early 2000s because I didn't join Julie on any of these hikes.

In any case, this book covered much more than waterfalls. I recalled we did use this book when some friends went with us to Joshua Tree as we were spending time there on short hikes while also looking for rock arches or other things that might be of interest there. But moments like that where this book was the primary resource of an excursion was pretty few and far between.

That said, as the Southern California climate continues to change into an all-or-nothing dry year versus wet year erratic pattern, we might have to expand our horizons and consult this book once again for non-waterfall adventures. But as of 2014 when I did this write-up, it was still relegated to a third source or a "second opinion" of the waterfalls we had already seen in the Brown book.

Perhaps this book ought to get a little more respect than we had been giving it, and we should pay more attention to it. From flipping through the other pages (in addition to re-visiting the pages we did use), I could see that it was well-written and mostly respectful of the nature it advocated exploring. So I actually look forward to consulting this resource more and seeing if we can see some of the rest of what author Jerry Schad had seen and written about. But in the mean time, I left it with an above average place-holder score until we use the book more to truly put it to the test.

Day Trips with a Splash: The Swimming Holes of California [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
This was another one of the overlooked books in our library where Brown seemed to strike a chord with us and all the rest were pretty much relegated to second opinions or supplementary resources to cover the holes that might have been left behind by the Brown book.

That said, as I was giving this book a second look, I realized that the emphasis of this book (as the title suggested) was to explore swimming holes. Julie and I normally don't visit waterfalls to go swimming, but as visitors to our website increasingly asked for waterfalls that they could swim in, I came to realize that perhaps this would be the perfect book for such an objective. In fact, in the book's beginning, author Pancho Doll went so far as to say that the swimming aspect at swimming holes or waterfalls were in fact the "complete experience" that was even more fun and immersive than doing as John Muir would do and just revere the Nature you're in.

Like the other waterfall books we owned, this book was divided into chapters where each one focused on a particular waterfall excursion. Each chapter contained a zoomed in blow-up of a topographic map of the area annotated with GPS coordinates and captions. The maps themselves were a little hard to read as I'd imagine the Topo California product (which I'll review later) weren't really well suited to a black-and-white publication like this one.

That said, each chapter also contained some verbage from author Pancho Doll concerning how to get to the falls as well as what the falls were like. However, unlike the other books such as Brown or Schaffer or Schad, this one didn't contain an at-a-glance summary or boom box of the degree of difficulty, approximate location or reserve, distance, or even a subjective rating. This was key because I saw some of the more hidden corners of the state being written about and was a little surprised to see that he actually advocated some climbing gear in order to access. So that kind of started raising some alarm bells in terms of ethical exploring as well as the degree of danger in partaking in some of the excursions advocated therein.

Nonetheless, I anticipate using this book a little more on future local visits or longer intrastate trips, and in the mean time, I'll leave a place-holder score until we can put this book more through its paces.

Topo! California (National Geographic) [Overall Rating: 3.5/5]:
I bought this product way back in the early 2000s not long after Julie and I decided that waterfalling would be our thing when it came to going on adventures and excursions in the state.

Back then, this was the only map product of its kind that let us look at California with such detail at an incredible 1:24k scale with raster-based superpositions of scanned maps put together and digitized into this digital form. In other words, we were able to see down to the level of walking trails, campsites, bathrooms, and even specific buildings. And this level of detail was for the entire state, which I guess would justify the $100 price tag. So needless to say, we used this product extensively for both trip planning as well as trip logging after our outings had concluded.

We used this map for almost all of our local excursions in the Southern California area, but we also found use for it regarding the state's National Reserves like Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Point Reyes, and more. We also found use for it for places like the more remote parts of our National Forests. In one instance, it even made me realize that a backpacking to trip to Waterwheel Falls in the high country of Yosemite was really only to LeConte Falls! It was that precise!

So to make a long story short, it was our de facto map resource as it had probably gained the most use of all of our map products that we own.

But with all the benefits that we were getting from this map product, there were also plenty of drawbacks. The most glaring one was the really kludgy interface that made it a real chore to try to use our GPS for real-time tracking, or even try to annotate the map for figuring out routes and marking them before even going on the excursion itself. They had follow-up products to try to address this, but they turned out to be buggy and not very reliable. So as it was, the map's functionality was frustrating at best, especially when the more functional Garmin MapSource products started becoming more prevalent later in the decade.

There were also smaller faults like a mistake in identifying Tueeulala Falls in Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite, but those were really few and far between.

The bottom line is that this map product was excellent for hiking and backpacking (or at least planning for them), but was terrible for in-the-field navigation or track and waypoint management. We didn't have much to go on besides this product at the time, but as the years went by, I can see we might just ditch this product and go for the Garmin Mapsource product of the Western US down the road (if they contain just as much info as this Topo! product itself, which I'd imagine would be derived from USGS Surveys)...

Garmin MapSource Topo! US 24k West Topographic Coverage for Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada [Overall Rating: 5/5]:
After getting over the wastefulness of buying quite a few states of the National Geographic Topo! CD-ROMs and then going out and getting this product, it didn't take long before I realized just what I was missing from those older maps that we had bought. Not only did it contain a similar level of detail (though I'm not sure if it had all the place names that the NatGeo Topos had or if they were just as many but in different places), but it also had that full functionality of trip logging and planning that I came to appreciate about the MapSource softwares that the NatGeo products had seriously lacked.

I was especially impressed to see the level of detail that included default waypoints for pretty obscure places such as the Bunnell Cascade in Yosemite, specific forks of rivers or creeks, and of course peaks or other landmarks. Even the diving board atop Half Dome was waypointed as well as spring locations. Just the fact that these points were clearly waypointed meant that if I searched for them, I'd find them. That was a bit of a roll of the dice with the NatGeo software.

So even in an age of GoogleMaps where there might be plenty of disjointed waypoints and tracks from random bloggers, hiking clubs, business, and general info providers, this map is still necessary to get the rest of the USGS info that otherwise wouldn't find its way onto Google. And for that reason alone, that makes this product very valuable. I know that little by little, these map products are being phased out, but I really hope that they stick around for a little while longer so I can buy up the other regions of the USA (or other countries for that matter) before such info is lost for good.

I know from seeing Amazon reviews that quite a few people have trouble with getting the product installed or used, but I can't say I've had terrible difficulty in getting up and running with each MapSource product I have. Perhaps what's more annoying is having to enter serial numbers or license info and connecting with there server, where I fear one day I might get stuck having to re-install it only to find out that I can't communicate with their server anymore (thereby rendering the product useless even though I bought it).

I noticed on the US 24k West product, even though it had a sticker with the serial number on it, I was never prompted at the install. So perhaps that already did away with this? I don't know. But nonetheless, until the product is rendered useless, I still contend this is the most useful map product out there and only lags behind GoogleMaps in that the place name search may not be as extensive, flexible, nor up-to-date...

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