This one is long-winded as a result of the ORD airport SkyClub having margaritas ready-made, so be prepared to waste 20 minutes of your life!
Holding true to our theme of generally winging it for the weekend, Sunday plans weren’t cemented until Saturday night. Even then, “cemented” is a bit of a stretch. We decided to drive north up the Pacific Coast Highway to Dana Point, then east across the Ortega Highway to Lake Elsinore. Somewhere in the Cleveland National Forest on Ortega Highway we would find hiking trails and spend morning through early afternoon hiking, then head east past Lake Elsinore and visit wine country in Temecula in the mid-afternoon. Rough plans, but enough to run out the door with.
The drive up the PCH is beautiful, and a much better option than driving up Interstate 5 if you have the time. The only issue we ran into is that the PCH dumps you into I-5 at Camp Pendleton, so you’re stuck driving up I-5 for quite some time anyways.
Ortega Highway is known as one of the deadliest roads in America, and for good reason. Many of the local sportbikers choose to use it as their personal racetrack, and those with more testosterone than mental ability often find themselves over the double yellow lines mid-corner and getting clobbered by cars. That is not a win-win situation for anyone. There are also a high number of fatalities caused by them overshooting corners on the outside of the turn and launching themselves over the guardrail (where there is a guardrail) off of cliffs. Something about cleansing the gene pool I suspect – there’s a very good reason that I kept all of my racing on the RACEtrack…
These miscreants choose Ortega for a reason though – lots of curves, elevation changes, and relatively good scenery. While a lot of the surrounding hills are covered with the typical Southern California scrub, the terrain depth and constant change make for a good drive when you’re not white-knuckling the steering wheel around the next hairpin corner.
On our first pass through the mountains (hey – you can’t find EVERYTHING on the first pass), the foothills were covered with the typical So.Cal smog, and although limiting the overall view, it adds a very neat sense of depth to the photos that the co-pilot was shooting out of the passenger seat.
We didn’t find our hiking trails, but we did find a gem for Jimbo. The Lookout! If you Bing “Lookout Ortega Highway”, you’ll find that it’s been written up on almost every motorcycle site on the internet. It is the de facto hangout for motorcyclists in So.Cal, including Jay Leno and many other celebrities. While I’ve seen it in many motorcycling videos, I had never been there in person until now. Very, very cool.
As you stand at the Lookout and look out over the valley, you are provided with a gorgeous view of Lake Elsinore, and of course of the rest of the gridded, over-populated valley. Lake Elsinore was quite the booming place-to-see-and-be-seen from the 1920’s until the 1950’s, when the natural spring was dammed up and the lake stagnated. It is very sad to drive through the city and sense what once was greatness, now reduced to has-been status with many sections in disrepair and large chunks of what should be prime So.Cal real estate sitting vacant.
We stopped at the public beach for some photos, and Colette wandered into a local shop and struck up a conversation with the tender regarding local hiking possibilities. The little old lady directed us back to a grocery store at the base of the Ortega Highway which sold the $5 trail use permit required by the US Forestry Service.
The lady also mentioned that Johnny Depp had just bought a house (aka mansion) up in the hills overlooking the valley, and we think that this is the place. An odd location off of Ortega Highway, but protected from the road noise by a good chunk of mountain and it certainly comes with what must be the million dollar view. I’m not necessarily sure that I’d pick a view of Lake Elsinore and the valley over a view of the ocean and Pacific sunsets, but I’m also not shopping multi-million dollar properties anytime soon so I’ll let Johnny buy his own chunk of the planet and not begrudge him.
We made the drive to the aforementioned grocery store, and were promptly redirected by the clerk to the El Cariso USFS Ranger Station located at the top of the mountain. Another excuse to drive like a madman ignoring the squeals emanating from the passenger seat. Poor, poor rental car.
To further extend our wild-goose chase, upon arriving at the ranger station, we discovered that they didn’t open until 12:00 to issue passes, and the sign directed us to go back to the Lookout! What a circuitous method to spend $5! If we had known then that the ticked issued for not having a pass was only $5 (discovered by talking to a ranger later in the day), we would have skipped the whole adventure and gone straight to hiking. Ah the joys of not having concrete plans though, it allows for dynamic schedule changes without undue stress.
Back to the Lookout, five bucks in hand. The lady behind the counter had a general idea of where the Ortega Falls were, but she was vague since she hadn’t been there for 30 years. I simply can’t imagine having natural resources such as this within a ten minute drive and not having been there for 30 years. To each their own, I guess.
We caught a couple (two guys, but we’re pretty sure they were a couple) hiking out of the trailhead, and they directed us to the Falls, only several hundred meters off the trailhead as the crow flies. Well the crow doesn’t have to account for vertical scaling, scrub brush, loose dirt on those vertical paths, or boulders the size of a 747. Give me hollow bones, a set of wings, and color me done.
The trip down to the base of the first set of falls really isn’t that bad. Because gravity is your friend when you’re headed DOWN that vertical drop. 215lbs of my big ass going down the hill is quite different than 215lbs going back up. The view of the falls from the bottom isn’t that great, since the falls are a set of 7 or 8 different falls, and the base set is a 30 foot boulder run into a good sized pool, but the vertical drop of the canyon block most of the peripheral view out.
We picked a great spot at the top of a flat boulder about 3/4 of the way up the lower falls for lunch, and spent a while laying back, soaking up the Vitamin D, and just generally enjoying the tranquility of sunshine, blue sky, and no sounds but the water rushing over the rocks. It doesn’t get much better. The lack of any noise save the falls brought about a discussion of the amount of money that people spend to recreate the waterfall sound and feel – and all this time, who knew that it was free for public consumption?
Easier said than done, as much of the trail well, isn’t trail at all. Following the stream up the falls requires clambering up those 747-sized boulders, risking life and limb (or at least getting wet), and blocking out your basic survival instincts. I’m glad I didn’t use up all my testosterone motorcycling on Ortega Highway and saved it for hiking up waterfalls…
One amazing thing to me was the complete lack of wildlife. No rabbits, no birds, no snakes, nothing. I discovered one camouflage frog hiding on a boulder, and that was it for the entire day. Not even a fish or a tadpole in the pools – weird.
One section of waterfall required mad bouldering skills to navigate around a pool on a wall to get to a spot where you could clamber up to the next set of falls. The penalty for failure? Falling to your death! Or at least to wetness in the two-foot deep pool. Falling to your death! sounds so much more dramatic though, and since we were the only ones there, we’ll choose to tell our version of the story! I was proud of Colette – she climbed across deftly and with nary a squeak. Now why is it that she can remain competely silent while defying death (hey, it’s our version of the story – remember?) but not while I’m focusing on whatever it is that nerds focus on.
After the bouldering section, it’s a fairly straightforward climb to the top through a few more sections of falls and their respective pools. Clear, cold water and smooth rock everywhere, surrounded by miles of foothills and scrub brush. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday. Oh that scrub covering the hillside? Not so much fun navigating your way through when you’re upstream from the trailhead and the widely used paths are way down at the base of the falls. Given that mountain lions and deer are the two primary species of large animals which populate this area, you’d think that they’d do a much better job of clearing some paths out. We were both very happy for our choice to wear long pants instead of shorts, or neither of us would have very pretty legs today.
When we finally made it back to the trailhead, the USFS rangers were handing out their quotas of $5 tickets left and right to those folks who hadn’t purchased a day-use pass. Again, if we had known that it was only $5, we wouldn’t have spend half of our morning in search of the elusive passed and just mailed the ticket in ourselves too.
We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in Temecula wine country. I knew absolutely nothing of the area, having only spotted it on a map at the hotel the day prior. Again, the joy of flexible travel plans. If it sucked, we would just cut it short.
And. We cut it short. After driving through Napa, Sonoma and Italy, Temecula fell far short of the visual appeal that we had hoped it would have. Granted, February is hardly the high season to appreciate the lush green vineyards, but it certainly was lacking overall. We quickly discovered that all local vineyards had long since stopped offering free tastings, oh and did I mention already that we’re both “frugal”? Cheap just has such a negative connotation to it!
I spent a bit of time playing with greyscale options, but since I’m using an older version of Photoshop I discovered that there is no sepia option. A few minutes on the interwebz, and voila – sepia!
The drive back to the hotel was pleasant and uneventful, we made a quick run to South Carlsbad State Beach again to catch the sunset, followed by a quick freshen-up, downloading 1.36Gb of pictures from the camera to my laptop, then off to dinner.
My friend Joe Golden moved from Michigan to San Diego to finish school in 2001, and like many others, he simply never left. That boy is wise beyond his years. Then he found a lovely young girl, got married, and had a beautiful baby. I’ve managed to see him several times since then – 2002, 2004 and 2006, but I always take the opportunity to have dinner and catch up when I’m in town. We were both craving some authentic Mexican since we had changed our lunch plans with Tanya, and Joe recommended Mi Guadalajara in Escondido. Authentic food, catching up with old friends, and a margarita or two always make the evening pass far too quickly. A good Yelp is on the way for this restaurant for sure.
I’m pretty sure that the trip from the restaurant back to the hotel went much faster for Colette than myself, as she conked out as soon as she hit the passenger seat and stayed that way until pulling to the parking lot. I really need to start making her drive from now on so I can experience the magic of time travel for myself.
4 days in Southern California is simply much too short. In a previous life I would have focused on the brevity of the trip, the things that we just didn’t get to do, and the cloudy skies on the final night of the trip. I’m glad that now I can simply appreciate the ability to experience all of this in a very inexpensive fashion, enjoying 60’ and 70’s while the rest of the folks at “home” are experiencing 20’s and 30’s, and spending quality time with the object of my affection. It’s certainly more rewarding to focus on the have’s rather than the have-not’s.
A week of work in the arctic chill of Chicago, then it’s off to Chattanooga for a Peterson family get-together next weekend – until next time.