12 April 2017

Black Star Canyon Falls

I've been looking forward to spring break for a while so we could try out some more hikes that are further away from home.  The boys & I hiked yesterday to Black Star Canyon Falls in Orange County -- about a 2 hr drive from our house, depending on traffic.  It was an excellent hike.  It was a high of 75 degrees there yesterday, which was just about perfect.  We spent 6 1/2 hours on the trail (we only took a couple of short breaks along the way, but probably spent 1 to 1 1/2 hours hanging out and climbing around at the falls).  It was perfect timing for this hike, since there was still good water flow after all the rain we had this winter, but it was late enough in the spring that the water wasn't too cold. I read that this falls is about 65 feet tall, with a unique little "cave" about 20 feet up on the left side of the main falls where water shoots out.

Lately, when I am researching a new hike I want to do, I've figured out a couple of helpful tips.  First I google the hike and check out at least 2 or 3 different websites about it to find out the general details and get an idea of different peoples' opinions about the difficulty of the hike (a few So CA hiking websites that I like include ihikesandiego.com, californiathroughmylens.com, hikingguy.com, hiddensandiego.net, & world-of-waterfalls.com).  Then I will check out alltrails.com -- the part of this website that I find helpful is the comments section.  You will see all sorts of comments about the difficulty level of a hike, which are mostly based on the skill level of the hiker leaving the comment, but the really useful comments are the recent ones about specific trail conditions.  For example, people may comment about the water levels at a creek or waterfall, or about a trail currently being overgrown with poison oak, etc.  Lastly, if I am hiking to a waterfall or a swimming hole area, I will watch youtube videos, and filter the videos by date, so I can get an accurate idea of water levels and the current flow at waterfalls.  This has been a great tool as we've visited a number of waterfalls this winter and spring after all the rain here.

The best tip we got while researching Black Star Canyon Falls was the series of recent comments on alltrails.com mentioning all the poison oak growing thickly on the trails along the creek.  (One commenter even said you had to walk through "tunnels of poison oak").  This helped me decide to have the boys wear water shoes and lightweight athletic pants, so we could walk right up through the stream bed, rather than having to rely on the trails which I had read frequently cross back and forth over the stream bed anyways.  That was a great decision.  The comments were right, there was lots of poison oak -- I never saw anything I would describe as "tunnels" of poison oak, but then again we stuck to the stream much more often than the trails.  From what we did see of the trails, we could probably have done them without getting poison oak, but there were plenty of opportunities to brush against it.  Kolby, especially, has been reacting to poison oak more frequently in the last couple of years, so we're trying to avoid it when possible.  Also, walking right up through the stream was more enjoyable, in my opinion: the water was cool, but not cold enough to hurt your feet when walking through it.  And it gave more opportunities for climbing the rocks and spotting salamanders & frogs.

There were SO many salamanders!  It was really cool.  They were really easy to catch too, so the boys probably caught about 30 or 40 of them along the way, until it finally got to the point where they didn't stop and pick up every single one.  There were also lots of grey or off-white frogs that blended in well with the rocks in the stream, and we saw plenty of blue belly lizards.

This waterfall doesn't offer the opportunity to jump into a deep pool at the end of the hike, but there were a couple deeper spots along the creek where the boys could get down under the water if they wanted to.  And lots of areas where you can walk in the water up to my ankles, and sometimes up to my knees or a little higher.

The thing I loved about it was that as you ascend up the stream bed and get closer and closer to the falls, the rocks and boulders that you scramble over get larger and larger, and the cascades and mini waterfalls along the way get bigger too.  As we approached the falls, the mini falls along the way got big enough that they would have been a cool draw in and of themselves, but most hikers were passing them by to get to the bigger falls.   So, basically, the whole hike along the stream was very enjoyable.  The dogs did great too.  There were only a couple spots where it was really difficult for them to find a way up the rocks, and I only had to give them each a boost up the rocks 1 time at one spot just before we got to the falls.  Fortunately we only came across a couple other people on the stream bed part of the trail with dogs, so we didn't have to worry too much about a run-in with another dog that might not happen to get along well with ours.  And our dogs did fine around all the other hikers we passed (who generally seemed to really enjoy our dogs, or at least not to be bothered by the fact that I let them off the leash off and on for most of the hike -- at first I kept trying to get the dogs on leash whenever we passed other people, but I ended up leaving them off after a while because it wasn't easy for me to climb over the rocks and walk up the stream bed while holding their leashes as they jumped from rock to rock).  The dogs did a great job -- they stayed with us pretty well, and they were just troopers going along on those rocks all that way.  Once we got up there I was a little concerned that the rough rocks might wear on their paw pads, but fortunately they didn't damage them at all.  It's fun to see Harley try so hard to climb the rocks to get to where we are, and to see Berkley gracefully jump from rock to rock (it helps that she's several inches longer than Harley, she can make it up and down even more of the big rocks than he can without needing help).

There were plenty of other hikers that we passed along the way, although not enough that we had to have other hikers coming along with us as we hiked.  And there were not nearly as many as I expected gathered at the falls when we got there (and we spent at least an hour at the falls) -- there were probably 4 or 5 couples and 2 other families there the whole time we were at the falls, so that was great.  I still would have preferred fewer people on the trail, but it wasn't bad -- I'd imagine that the weekends would be a lot more crowded!

One of the best parts of the hike was when we got to the falls.  There is a little cave to the left of the falls, about a 20 foot climb up from the ground.  I had read a few hiking websites that cautioned against climbing to this cave because it was too dangerous, and although we often find that most people online seem to be a little more cautious than our family is about hiking and bouldering, I wasn't sure if we'd climb up to that cave or not, I planned to check it out when we got there.  Of course, after I took a few minutes to boost the dogs up over the edge of the rocks just before we came up to the falls, by the time I got up there 2 of my boys were already up in the mouth of the cave with a third one part way up.  I leashed the dogs to a tree, and accompanied Isaac & Courtland up too.  At first try Courtland decided against going up, but when he saw the rest of us up there, he decided to give it another try, and he climbed up without any problems.  I was proud of him that he decided to overcome his fear and try it again.  It was really fun to get up there and see the deep water hole inside the cave where the cool water was pouring in.  The cool thing about this whole hike was that the rocks there were pretty rough, which provided for a lot of traction and foot holds.  Even though we were walking up through the water the whole way, I think there were only a couple of falls between all 6 of us (normally a walk up stream like that would have resulted in dozens of falls for each of us due to slippery rocks), but this was great.  I would suggest good strong water shoes -- I got some of the heavy duty sandal kind of water shoes (I actually got them in the boys' section at Target the other day, because they didn't have anything like that in the women's section), and they held up great and protected my feet well.

The one thing that would have made our hike more enjoyable would be if we had a way to transport 6 bikes in our van (and still be able to have enough seats to buckle all 6 of us in on the drive).  The long, flat easy 2 1/12 mile portion of the hike at the beginning and end would have been more enjoyable had we been able to bike that part and then lock our bikes up and hike when we got to the stream.

It's hard to say whether or not Black Star Canyon Falls rivals Three Sisters Falls for the position of my favorite Southern California hike.  It's different in many ways: unlike Three Sisters the location doesn't feel as remote and the road to the trailhead is paved, you walk down a long flat stretch of paved and then dirt road (about 2 1/2 miles) before getting to the more technical part of the trail at the creek, although it feels like you've had a good work out this hike doesn't really feel "hard," it's in a much more green area with shady tree cover and lots of cascades and mini waterfalls leading up to the main falls, this time of year the poison oak seemed even thicker here than at Three Sisters, there are more climbing opportunities at Black Star Canyon, but there were also more people on a weekday on this trail, and there's no steep climb up on the hike back out.

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