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A Good Week of Wandering . . . Ending With My First Hike up Falls Canyon (And a Warning!)

November 18, 2012

Wandering with and without my camera, but always barefoot: and this week with some company . . .

Wednesday, late

Back to the site of my first barefoot hike: the 1.8-mile Quail Hill loop next to the 405 Freeway. It’s been almost three years since those first tentative steps on the cracked clay trail; the freeway noise is still annoying—but the (pretty much guaranteed) meadowlark songs are still soul-stirring.

And the sunset views of the Santa Ana Mountains across the Saddleback Valley are forever stunning.

Thursday, mid-morning

Same Quail Hill trailhead, but this time across Shady Canyon Drive and up into the hills. David Whiting from the Orange County Register joined me for a short run, I guess to see what this whole barefooted trail running/hiking thing is about. He was a good sport, and even took off his shoes for about a quarter-mile try. Here’s a hard-core outdoorsman, mountain biker, mountaineer, who just finished climbing (not hiking) Mt. Whitney, who had never tried barefoot trail running before! I was glad to introduce him to the joys of feeling the earth for real beneath your feet, in all its rocky-sandy-shards-of-glass glory. (There’s a section of this trail that seems to have been an old “let’s drink stuff out of glass bottles and smash them on the ground” ritual spot.)

I’m not sure he was quite convinced.

But he gave it a try, and might even write about it for the newspaper. AND: I was able to run for an hour! Longest run since my shin-splint-hiatus in September, and it felt pretty shin-splinty fine…

David Whiting tries barefoot trail running for the first time. Go David!

Friday: A helpful rolfing session to work out some of the twisty tension in my upper back/neck/shoulders. (What, me stressed?)

Saturday: Morning fun running my familiar trail out of Santiago Oaks, up the steep Hawk Trail, down Bumblebee, up the mile-long sinewy Coachwhip to Barham Ridge and down Old Mountain Goat. I actually had some leg-muscle pain from Thursday’s overdoing-it run, but I took it way slow, walked a lot, and enjoyed a morning on the trail without my camera—I forgot it, was sad, then glad, and ended up leaving my watch back at the car too.

There’s a blog all about “Naked Running” – the good folks there have a goal (“Naked November”) to nudge people outside without electronics—no GPS, phone, music, watch, etc. I don’t own a GPS or music player, and have never even considered running with a phone, but it felt freeing to not have a camera or watch along. Just me and my un-profound thoughts out on the trail. (That’s one of my many regrets in life: that I don’t have more moments of great insight while hiking/running. In fact, so far, it seems the most philosophical thing I’ve come up with is: why don’t I have more profound thoughts, a la Thoreau or Muir?)

More running, some ankle soreness after, but I’m beginning to think my left shin/ankle is going to be stiff no matter what I do, so why not run and enjoy the hills?

Sunday: To Falls Canyon with one of my favorite groups, the Orange County chapter of the California Native Plant Society. So many interesting/knowledgeable/friendly folks . . . and what a morning!  The light rains had left a scattering of diamond droplets everywhere, the newts were out in abundance, blending in with the fabulous burnt-orange native-maple leaf litter, the trail was beauti-

Wait a minute. Forget what I just wrote. This is what I meant to say:

You must stay away from Falls Canyon. Not only will the mud-puddled, pot-holey road that leads to it wreck your sedan’s suspension, there are crazy people zooming around on mountain bikes. Families with kids, even.

Stay away! You will never find the trail (except if you read Karin Klein’s amazing book, 50 Hikes in Orange County, so don’t!), as it is unmarked. There are no parking stalls for you at Falls Canyon, no picnic tables, and definitely no restrooms.

Don’t go there! Or you will run into poison oak, everywhere: its flaming red leaves might warn you away, but be more afraid of the leafless stalks lining the trail—they carry as much urushiol (the irritating oil that will break down your skin into a red morass of oozing pus and itch) as the leaves do. And you won’t notice them amongst all the other anonymous autumn sticks and stalks.

Speaking of fall: there’s a reason why it’s named “Falls Canyon” – don’t believe people who tell you it’s because of the spectacular 50-foot waterfall at the end of the trail, or the many smaller waterfalls along the way.

It’s called “Falls Canyon” because, if you go there, you will fall.

The “trail” is often not a trail, just a faint track that leads you in and out of the year-round creek (where—gasp—you might slip and get your feel wet! Oh no! That would be a real disaster . . . unless you don’t wear shoes to hike. Then it’s quite refreshing…)

Where was  I . .  .  Falls Canyon, where the poor excuse of a trail skirts the sheer edge of the creek’s precipice, but how can you call something a trail when it is so narrow, when it slants so precariously sideways, when it is so snot-slippery after a rain. When it reeks so strongly of native bay leaves and damp earth. . .

Falls Canyon? You’ll have an opportunity to take a tumble, all right, while scrambling over the bumper crop of rocks growing out of more rocks, and each spot your feet try to land for safety is another shale shard, off-tumbled from the canyon walls. Not to mention the boulders rolled down-canyon by ferocious winter deluges.

Or you can come undone climbing the 10-foot-high jagged crag the blocks the trail, your clinging fingers detached by gravity just when you think you hear the tinkle-rush of the waterfall, just after you may-or-may-not have survived the belly crawl under one more fallen tree blocking your way.

You will definitely NOT “fall” in love with this place. There is no cell phone access, no Starbucks, no holiday decorations (unless you count the brilliant green ferns unrolling, but you’re not), nope nothing here keep moving folks South Coast Plaza is the other way.

And just to prove what an awful place Falls Canyon is, I’m going to be going there regularly from now on to find out what other dark surprises it offers, probably taking copious notes, so I can continue to do my civic duty of warning everyone away. It’s plain awe-ful.

Somewhere in the mist lurks: Falls Canyon

Don’t be fooled: the road to Falls Canyon is fraught with potholes.

Newts everywhere in the leaf-damp aftermath of last night’s rain.

Lots of creek crossings = lots of toe refreshment.

The trail allows you to choose your way: over or under the clog of fallen trees.

Ron can’t always be there to help you when the hiking turns to climbing (although you never know–it seems like he lives out on the trail), so maybe better to stay away.

Was it worth it?

What’s not to love about Falls Canyon?

Poison oak, overhead and underfoot . . .

Sign of fall: ferns unrolling after autumn rain. Let the downpours begin . . .

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bernd permalink
    November 19, 2012 4:32 am

    Thea, I always enjoy reading your stories!


  2. November 18, 2012 9:03 pm

    Thanks for the note, Ron–and especially THANKS for leading today’s hike up Falls Canyon. I sure appreciate all you do for native plants (and us folks who love them) here in Orange County.

  3. Ron Vanderhoff permalink
    November 18, 2012 6:02 pm

    Thea, your writing is magnificent. You’re a poet – oh yeah, you are a poet.

    Fun morning. Glad you enjoyed, err, ah – didn’t enjoy.

    Oh yeah, everyone stay away from Falls Canyon!


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