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Tucked into a dry and isolated corner of the Cleveland National Forest, the oak-rimmed oasis of Barker Valley is an incredible surprise. The perennial west fork of the San Luis Rey River gurgles through the narrow valley floor, sustaining a growth of willows and sycamores along its banks. Centuries-old live oaks cast inviting pools of shade across grassy meadows now bleaching from green to gold under the relentless rays of the sun.

Falls below Barker Valley

Getting there requires some serious driving and hiking -- first on an eight-mile stretch of bone-shaking "truck trail" that will surely loosen a nut or two on your vehicle, then on a gently descending, sun-exposed, three-mile hiking trail. Get an early start if you're heading down for a picnic, so as to avoid some of the midday heat. Also, bring all the water you need -- at least two quarts for a day's visit during springtime -- or take along the proper filtering device for purifying the stream water.

Barker Valley is a popular destination for backpacking. No campfires are allowed, however, and you'll need a remote camping permit from the Forest Service for an overnight stay. A National Forest Adventure Pass (call 619-673-6180 to obtain one) is also required. Call 760-788-0250 weekdays for more information and to inquire about road conditions.

To reach the trailhead, turn west from Highway 79 onto Palomar Divide Road (forest road 9S07), 6.5 miles northwest of Warner Springs. Continue on the winding, unpaved road 7.8 miles to the Barker Valley Spur trailhead on the left side.

Park off the roadway and head down the trail (an old roadbed), which gradually descends along a chaparral-covered slope. Hike for 1.7 miles until the old roadbed switches back sharply. Continue around the U-curve, and within 0.1 mile veer to the right on a narrow trail that lazily zigzags down to the valley floor, 3.1 miles from and 1000 feet lower than your car.

By poking around the valley a bit, you may find evidence of former homesteads (various rusty pieces of metal and square nails) and evidence of early Indian use as well. Bedrock mortars (holes for grinding acorns) can be seen worn into some of the larger slab rocks. Keep in mind that all features are protected; there's no collecting allowed.

A rugged set of falls and pools awaits adventurous hikers a mile downstream from the foot of the trail. By following rough paths traversing the steep, brushy north canyon wall, it's possible to reach hidden swimming holes worn in the water-polished rock. Wild trout can be found in the pools below the first falls (a license is needed for fishing). Don't attempt to explore this area unless you're adept at scrambling over steep terrain and across potentially slippery, water-polished rock. An ill-timed slip in a couple of places could result in a deadly 50-foot plunge down a cascade.

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