It’s not that often I come upon a place that makes me want to take off all my clothes and ask my husband to start snapping pictures. Unfortunately, my camera was dead, so the photo shoot will have to wait until next time.
Last weekend, Chad and I finally got our butts into gear to check out the Grover Cleveland National Forest, which is about a half-hour drive southeast from here. The small obstacle that had been stumping us was the National Forest Pass, which, comes to find out, is available at any Sports Chalet for $30 a year. Believe me, if you wait to buy it at a ranger’s station, you’ll never get around to exploring any national forest legally. It’s $5 for a day pass, but I’d like to believe that I’ll get back out to a national forest six more times before May 2009…
We drove up the Ortega Highway, past the Upper San Juan Campground, past the Candy Store, and pulled over on a dirt turn-out. From there we could hear rushing water and see the glimmering promise of a waterfall among the tumbled granite and green scrub. Now a hike into a National Forest just off the freeway is a far cry from a hike in the protected thousands of acres of a National Park – meaning, that the trails from the dirt turn-out were many, narrow, and occasionally littered with reminders of ill-mannered hikers: cigarette butts, soda cans, water bottles. Unimpressive and forgettable graffiti was spray-painted on any flat rock surface like flamboyant cheap trail markers. But sometimes the strength of the wild outdoors makes human detritus look insignificant and ephemeral.
Here, with every step further from asphalt, there were more wild flowers springing up in bunches of hot pink, bobbing trumpets of purple, and sprawls of yellow; small visual treasures framed by the heady fragrance of crushed black sage. Ahead we could see the glinting gray-silver stones rising up, oblivious to all the petty human tromping and careless beer can crushing at their feet.
What trail we followed was not very well-maintained, likely because it was not a trail at all, and I was surprised at how much my sense of balance had changed since my last hike. My boots slipped in the eroded dirt and I clung on to each passing rock face. Chad seemed more sprightly and goat-like than ever, ahead and behind, making sure I was safe before bounding off again. I didn’t mind inching my way downhill; it gave me plenty of face time with delicate blooms and their intricate shapes.
At the bottom of the ravine we were rewarded with an absolutely clear babbling brook flowing from a small pool in the rocks. Avoiding the other hiking party around the corner (they were hiking with beer cans in hand), we scrambled up through boulders to the shallow pool and found a spot where we could eat a few snacks in the light spray of a delightful waterfall. It’s worth a thousand bucks, I’m sure, the revitalization you get from breathing the heady oxygenated air around a waterfall, even a small one. Just a few minutes here made me realize what I missed about living in Joshua Tree: that easy access to the outside, to the wilderness. Sure, there’s plenty of green in Laguna Niguel, but so much of it is manicured and primped. Chad and I just sat and rested. We talked in low voices and Chad began exploring the possibilities of climbing the side of the waterfall. Then we decided to head up the bank and see how far up we could follow the water. With very minor heart palpitations, I climbed up after Chad, taking far too much time I’m sure, to find secure footing with every step.
In the end, it didn’t take much to be at the top of the waterfall, looking down. The wind was channeled through the narrow passageway here, whistling and reminding me of that spot in Rattlesnake Canyon where Chad had proposed almost two years ago now. After some more snacks, Chad took off for more exploring, and I just sat on the smooth boulders, right by the edge of the water. I sat and I thought about coming back and spending time here with our new kid later this summer.