Rinconada Trail–Big Falls

I’d been looking forward to today’s Sierra Club hike throughout a challenging week filled with classes, student conferences, 90 minutes of testimony at a deposition and lots of meetings. Big Falls is a famous local attraction and I’d never been there.

I carpooled with Chris on the way to Santa Margarita. Dense fog met us at Cuesta Pass, and at our meeting place, people shivered in the cold. There were 35 of us eager to tackle the nine miles and 1700 foot elevation gain announced on the Outings page of the monthly Chapter newsletter. I asked if anyone was interested in having a copy with articles about the many activities going on during the month and a membership application. Fifteen people asked for it.

Ruby RAV filled with two more passengers for the last ten miles of car travel to the trailhead through Santa Margarita Ranch and out toward Pozo. Huge valley oaks, bare of leaves during the winter, loomed in the fog, their limbs arching over the road and dividing into gnarled branches looking like arthritic witch fingers.

At the trailhead the fog broke up and we took off at a breathless pace up the first long ascent through blue oaks and coastal scrub. The small trees were still bare, but black sage, California sagebrush and chamise were in fresh new leaf. People spoke about how hot and dry this hike was during summer. At the top of the first ridge, we took a break and looked out over the Santa Lucia range to Cuesta Ridge on the horizon hiding Edna Valley on the other side.

Heading downhill toward Lopez Canyon, one could see a series of parallel valleys to the south filled with fog. Other than a couple of water tanks and fireroads, nowhere on the whole hike were there signs of human habitation, not even a fence.

Occasionally the scrub and serpentine outcrops alternated with meadows, mostly gray with last years dead grasses, but showing the green of new growth hesitantly emerging. I saw hardly any of the annual grasses that filled the hills in the lower elevations; instead these were native perennial bunch grasses. Clearly this area had not been cultivated by the early settlers. The remains of the highway 41 fire of twelve years ago were still in evidence, but I thought that this area would soon welcome more fire, since in some places the scrub was getting thick and clotted with dead growth.

The group was large enough to spread for half a mile along the trail, and it was fun to watch people far below on the steep slopes crisscrossed by switchbacks. They moved in shifting groups, pairs and singles and conversation flowed easily.

It was not too early in the season for dramatic displays of red current

and Chris noticed one large shooting star growing right alongside the trail.

Soon we descended into a shady oak woodland of non-deciduous California live oaks. Then I noticed a series of pools beside the path that gave way to a trickle. For the next mile it dropped away out of sight but within earshot of its increasing babble. Suddenly we came out of the woodland to a crossing where the water flowed over smooth rocks and formed lovely pools surrounded by wooded canyon walls.

This was the most pleasing part of the trail, and all too soon we we arrived at the top of the falls, where some folks decided to sit and rest while others explored the lip of the falls.

The trail spiralled through woods down the fifty foot drop and returned to the base of the falls where most folks chose to eat lunch. There was a festive sense of arrival at a worthwhile destination.

I really wanted to swim in the pool at the base of the fall–in my underpants. I took off my boots and crawled out on a log hanging over the clear inviting water. I knew it would be chilly, but I expected to be able to immerse my legs up to the knees until the pain went away and the rest of my body acclimated. This method had worked to allow me to swim for an indefinite time in the cold water of local beaches. But I couldnt leave my feet in for more than a minute or two at a time, and after a quarter of an hour I realized that my plan wouldnt work. So I stared at the tumbling spray and listened to its sounds and resigned myself to a chaste encounter.

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