Silent, except for the gentle gurgle of water over stone, upper Hot Spring Canyon is an easy-to-reach hideaway in the Santa Ana Mountains, not very far from a pair of Cleveland National Forest campgrounds. Those campgrounds, Blue Jay and Falcon, could close during the winter season due to adverse weather conditions, but even then you can park outside either one to begin an exploratory trek down the canyon. Boulder-hopping and light bushwhacking take you to an interesting area of small waterfalls and dark, limpid pools in the upper reaches of the canyon.
To get to either campground from San Diego, follow Interstate 5 into Orange County and make a right at Ortega Highway (Highway 74) in San Juan Capistrano. Drive more or less east on Ortega Highway for 21.7 miles, and then turn left (west) on Long Canyon Road. Proceed nearly three miles to Blue Jay Campground, on the left. Or, continue a bit farther to Falcon Group Campground.
No matter where you decide to start — Blue Jay or Falcon — walk about halfway out the Falcon Trail, which connects the two campgrounds. From there, drop down into a shallow gully draining west, using any one of several informal paths. Follow this gully downstream, dodging chaparral shrubs along the way. You’ll soon join a bigger gully at the head of Hot Spring Canyon carrying water from Los Pinos Spring, which lies a short distance upstream. Memorize or mark this junction for the trip back.
A narrow, lightly beaten path goes down-canyon along grassy benches and across rock of a crumbly metasedimentary type, crossing the creek several times. The canyon ahead trends consistently southwest, despite a few bends. You’re following the Los Pinos Fault, an inactive fault running perpendicular to the Elsinore Fault and other faults responsible for the recent (in a geological sense) uplift of the Santa Ana Mountains.
Just before you reach the junction of a major, wet canyon to the north (2950 feet), there’s a small waterfall and a grotto with two shallow pools. On the rocks, ferns, mosses, and a type of succulent “live-forever” plant known as “lady fingers” add to the charm. Alder trees grow nearby; they are found in increasing numbers downstream.
After another 0.4 mile, the canyon bottom makes a bend to the right and drops abruptly. All but experienced climbers should stop here and turn back. Intrepid climbers have carefully worked their way over the loose metamorphic rock ahead to get a glimpse of a hidden 25-foot waterfall and a deep pool. Below this, the water shoots down a slot through polished granite. The rock in this area is very loose and unstable, though, so only the most experienced wilderness travelers should proceed, and then only with great caution.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Upper Hot Spring Canyon
Orange County’s Hot Spring Canyon hosts a beautiful collection of small cascades in its upper reaches.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 94 miles
Hiking length: 3.0 miles-round trip
Difficulty: Moderately strenuousl