Day 2 (February 21, 2016 – Los Angeles, California): “Just Like The GEICO Commercial”
It was about 7:30am when all of us were fully awake. However, it certainly didn’t feel that way as Tahia was fighting a nasty cough with a temperature as well as what appeared to be symptoms of pink eye, yet again. She had the pink eye condition a couple of years ago, and Julie was very vigilant about applying eye medicine to help the body fight off the virus responsible for pink eye.
Anyways, Tahia was hacking throughout the night so we knew that she wasn’t getting a good night’s rest. And her coughing could be heard through the walls of our bedrooms so that further conspired to make it difficult for us to get a good night’s sleep. Indeed, all signs were pointing to this anticipated waterfalling excursion to this so-called Hidden Falls in Trabuco Canyon being cancelled.
But since Julie and I knew that we had to take our opportunities where we could, especially with Global Warming causing our rainy season in Southern California to disappear or dramatically shorten from what was once reliable months of rain in the late Winter and early Spring months, we reasoned to ourselves that perhaps we should just do this hike anyways since Tahia needed the Vitamin D from the sun.
I remembered having a similar dilemma last Saturday when I decided that as heavy and beat-up as my lungs felt from a nasty flu, I figured the fresh air and exercise to Fish Canyon Falls would do the body more good than harm, especially if the alternative was to just be couped up at home exposed to more indoor air pollution and hardly any of the healing properties of the sun.
And so we made up our minds, Julie prepared a quick brekkie for Tahia and I, and it was about 8:40am when we finally left the house.
The drive going south on the I-5 was pretty smooth going. Before we knew it, we were well past Irvine and then into Mission Viejo, where we took the Alicia Parkway exit after refusing to listen both Julie’s iPhone and my Garmin Nuvi, who both insisted that we should take the toll roads on the 133 and the 241.
Then, we followed the busy Alicia Parkway, which took us through several lights including a pretty scenic stretch of what appeared to be a man-made like (called Lake Mission Viejo), which itself was flanked by expensive-looking homes. I’m sure this was one of the better-planned residential zones, and I’m willing to bet that some real estate photos must’ve been taken of the lake and the homes around it for the purposes to propping up property values here.
Anyways, once we got to a 3-way intersection with Rancho Santa Margarita Parkway, we then turned right, then crossed over the Hwy 241, which was one of the toll roads the GPS wanted us to take, before turning left onto Plano Trabuco Rd.
Next, we continued past more suburban developments before Plano Trabuco curved left and became Trabuco Canyon Road. Then, the road narrowed as it winded and descended its way down to the Trabuco Arroyo. But just before crossing the bridge over the creek, we turned right into a half parking lot and half unpaved gravel road. My memory wasn’t that great of the last time we were here for Holy Jim Falls, but once we were on the gravel road, which the GPSes confirmed to be Trabuco Creek Road, then I knew we were in the right place.
The drive continued pretty uneventfully as the gravel road seemed pretty tame for the first couple of miles. But sure enough, we started to see some deep ruts and potholes, and now we had to maneuver our car around some of these craters without scraping the underside of Julie’s car. Tahia seemed to be enjoying the bumpy ride since she was always the thrill-seeker.
We then got to a large pullout adjacent to a gate and a concrete ford. According to my pre-trip waypoints that I had inserted into the Garmin Nuvi, we were still 3/4-mile from the trailhead. So I kept driving, but Julie was now studying her internet directions and she kept nagging me to go back to the concrete ford to start the hike there since those internet directions said so.
Something had to give because I wondered how the topo map could be so incorrect. So I kept driving, but the further I went the stronger Julie’s nagging became. Finally after we went past my pre-trip waypoint from where Falls Canyon was supposed to be, I finally found a turnaround point, which appeared to be near some informal campgrounds, which I think was part of Trabuco Canyon Campground. There were other hikers around here watching what we were doing, but they kept walking towards Holy Jim Trailhead as they realized we were turning back per Julie’s nagging.
So eventually at 9:50am, we were back at the concrete ford and large pullout. But now there were a lot more cars parked here than before. So we awkwardly parked between a pair of cars just as at least four more cars had pulled up around this spot. One guy asked if he was in the right place, and Julie was telling him that Holy Jim was further ahead while we were in search of a different waterfall.
Apparently, that different waterfall caught that guy off guard (not knowing this Hidden Falls existed). In any case, he was on his way, and so were the other cars. Meanwhile, we were busy lacing up our boots and walking past the concrete ford before Julie was religiously trying to follow the hints provided on her printout of the hiking blog that alerted her to this place in the first place.
Anyways, I suspected that we had to hike an additional 3/4-mile just to even get to the mouth of Falls Canyon, but Julie kept insisting that the “trail” was only a few paces away from the brown Holy Jim sign on the other end of the concrete ford. I knew it couldn’t be it because I looked around the canyon and saw no such opening in the immediate area. Indeed, we were still in Trabuco Canyon and Falls Canyon was nowhere nearby.
There was then a group of four younger folks (2 ladies and 2 men) carrying the book Afoot and Afield in Orange County by Jerry Schad. We asked if they were going to Falls Canyon, and they affirmed that they were. According to a map in their book, they had to hike on Trabuco Creek Road for 3/4-mile or so as I had suspected before entering Falls Canyon. But that map didn’t seem to show there was a trail going into Falls Canyon, which made me suspect that off-trail scrambling would be required.
Anyways, they kept going on Trabuco Creek Road, but Julie was still way behind trying to make sense of those internet blog directions that all of the sudden didn’t make any sense to her. Still, she was insistent that the blog was right, but it still didn’t add up to what I saw on the maps and what I was observing in the canyon.
So while Julie and I were having this GEICO Commercial moment (where Tarzan and Jane were arguing over directions), and Tahia was getting antsy about this hike becoming longer than she had bargained for, we kept going back and forth arguing over where the hiking began. And all this was happening while lots of other cars kept driving by either going to Holy Jim or coming back from Holy Jim or somewhere else. There was even some laughter from one of the passer-by cars obviously sensing that we were lost and we were about to put our daughter at risk.
Finally, I convinced Julie that I’d hike back to the car then pick them up and drive back to the original spot where I thought Falls Canyon was supposed to be.
That would at least save us the extra 3/4-mile of hiking.
So eventually at 10:45am, we finally pulled over at an unsigned pullout just east of where I had noticed there was a tributary or side canyon emptying into Trabuco Canyon. I suspected that that must be Falls Canyon. But it wasn’t until we stopped the car (we were the only ones parked there at the time) then got out of the car and looked around where I pointed to the mouth of what I thought was Falls Canyon did Julie finally see the log crossing Trabuco Creek that she saw in her internet directions.
Not long afterwards, the group of four that had overshot this spot just so happened to come back and realized that we had probably found the correct scrambling route for Falls Canyon.
So they were the first to go down the steep little gully down to Trabuco Creek, where they then crossed over the log that was pictured in Julie’s printout. Julie and Tahia followed behind (one of the guys was nice enough to help Tahia in some of the trickier spots), and then I came in last as I was trying to document the whole thing.
Just beyond the log crossing, there was then another short climb over a fallen tree, and right after that, there was a little cave on the opposite side of Falls Canyon. Yep, that pretty much confirmed that we were in the right place!
The group of four chilled out at the cave for a bit as I’m sure that presented some good social media photo ops. One of the guys who got all the way up to the cave said that the cave didn’t go anywhere. So I guess it was really nothing more than a visual hint that we were in the right place.
Beyond the cave, the trail was fairly obvious to follow as it meandered back and forth across the stream responsible for Falls Canyon. That stream was mostly dry, but the further up the canyon we went, the more we started to notice stagnant pools of water, and then eventually we started to notice the creek had some flow along with a few mini-cascades.
We eventually let the group of four pass us as we were letting Tahia set the pace. We had to go slow because there was quite a bit of poison oak growing around the narrow trail. Plus, there were a few rocky spots where we had to use all four of our limbs to get over some rock walls, and we had to be careful around some eroded sections where we had to watch where Tahia was placing her feet in case she would take a misstep and fall into the minor dropoffs.
It wouldn’t be until around 11:30am when we finally made it to the Falls Canyon Falls (aka “Hidden Falls”). Just as that group of four and ourselves were enjoying the falls, there were these black flies that kept swarming around us and annoying the heck out of us. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to be the biting kind of insects so we just let them be while we were basking in the glory of finally witnessing this waterfall, which appeared in none of our guidebooks and seemed to be one of the few new waterfalls we’ve visited that weren’t duds.
The young group of four that were here were busy cliff scrambling and even noticing some ropes that seemed to go up to the top of the falls. There would be no way we’d be taking those kinds of risks, especially with our little one depending on us so we were content to take our pictures and movies as well as watching Tahia build up her arm strength throwing rocks into the shallow plunge pool beneath the Falls Canyon Falls.
This waterfall reminded me of Little Falls in the Santa Lucia Wilderness not far from Arroyo Grande given its split mossy appearance, but Falls Canyon Falls seemed to have rapidly dimishing flow. Julie said she had seen an Instagram photo of this falls just two days prior that seemed to have better flow than what we were seeing, and since we knew there had been fairly decent rain on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, that meant that this falls might only last one more week before diminishing to nothing more than a trickle.
Perhaps that would be another reason why Falls Canyon Falls was so “hidden” as it probably didn’t have a very long season, if our observations and conclusions were to hold.
As we were making our way back towards the beginning of Falls Canyon, there was another group of four folks that were coming in. We wondered if they found this place thanks to our parked car providing the hint as to where to get started. In any case, we then got past the cave, then past the familiar log crossing of Trabuco Creek, and then back up the steep mini-gully to get back onto Trabuco Creek Road, where sure enough, there were quite a few cars passing by (further attesting to just how busy this road was despite the rough conditions).
Julie found the colored ribbon on the ground nearly out-of-sight from Trabuco Creek Road, and we wondered if someone knocked it down to keep it from being a hint for others to find this place easily. I was always wary of such “landmarks”, and sure enough, it seemed clear to me that some locals didn’t want this place to be found so easily.
By 12:30pm, we were all back in the car. We each had ourselves clementines for an injection of vitamin C (especially since I was still shaking off the remnants of my flu and Tahia was fighting off hers that seemed to become more full blown). Still, Julie and I hi-fived each other despite our GEICO commercial moment earlier in the day, and now we could head home fully satisfied that we finally found this elusive falls when it seemed like we would be defeated.
By about 12:50pm, we were back on Rancho Santa Margarita Road as we were leaving Plano Trabuco Rd, and five minutes later, we were finally back on Alicia Parkway eventually sending us back onto the I-5 north. And on the way home, we decided to spoil ourselves with a quick late lunch eating in the car at Brodards for their signature nem nuong. Meanwhile, Tahia was lulled to sleep by the motion of the car.
Once we were done eating the late lunch at 1:45pm, we then left, where 30 minutes later, we’d finally make it back at home. Now, we could finally unwind the rest of Sunday afternoon and prepare ourselves for the work week ahead…