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A Rare Trip Into One of Orange County’s Best-Kept Secrets

If you enjoy throwing cans out car windows and painting your name on rock formations and driving with a six-pack under your belt, you should stop reading this and run down to the corner convenience store right now. They’re handing out free beer. OK? Bye.

Now that they’re gone, listen up. They’ll be back pretty soon, and I don’t want them to hear this.

There’s still a place of natural beauty in Orange County, a place just one step this side of primeval, that is unique because you can drive to it and through it. Imagine that. A place open to the motoring public where there is still more beauty than beer cans.

This place has deep gorges and wooded gullies. It has untouched hillsides and meadows so green they look like part of a “Visit Ireland” poster. It has a creek and a tall waterfall--a hundred feet or so--and they run almost all year.

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It has history: a clearing where the mortars of prehistoric man are still plain in the rocks; a valley where Orange County’s only Indian massacre occurred; a modest, 19th-Century ranch so isolated, it has almost always been called Hidden Ranch.

You can see almost all of this without ever getting outside your car. Most weekdays you can drive the 7.8-mile road and not see another person. And you can be back home way before dinner.

It’s Black Star Canyon in the mountains east of Orange. The name is probably familiar; it’s on the road sign that directs you from Santiago Canyon Road into Silverado Canyon.

But if you’ve ever tried to take Black Star Canyon Road, you probably found the gate closed and locked, because the road is closed most of the year.

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During the winter, the county’s road department closes the narrow, twisting dirt road because of flood danger. During the late spring, summer and fall, the county Fire Department closes it because of fire danger.

This has spared Black Star Canyon most of the miseries easy access has inflicted on the other canyons--weekend joy riders, drunken carousers, vandals and JPJs (Just Plain Jerks).

But now, while they’re all down at the corner store demanding to know why there’s no free beer, let me tell you that Black Star Canyon Road is open. It’s the sometimes brief gap between flood season and fire season.

So now’s your chance. Take it seriously--and I mean seriously. Take a sturdy, narrow vehicle, for the dirt road is rough in parts and so narrow that if you meet someone coming back, you’re going to have to negotiate.

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And don’t stop for a beer on the way up. In the appraisal of local historian and former forest ranger Jim Sleeper, “That road is an absolute pistol to drive, and you could starve to death before you hit bottom if you fell off.”

“Up until the Black Star Coal Mine really got into operation--the coal deposits were known since 1876--it was known as Canon de los Indios (Indian Canyon),” Sleeper said. “This name stems from the February, 1831, massacre, Orange County’s one claim to an Indian battle.

“These were desert Indians that appropriated a lot of local livestock, particularly horses. A number of trappers who had just arrived from New Mexico to trap beaver--and who had discovered there wasn’t any and wound up simply annoying the locals--decided to redeem themselves by tracking the Indians from L.A. to Santiago Canyon to Black Star Canyon, where they bushwhacked them. It was bows and arrows against rifles--no contest.”

Sleeper said the coal mine was worked until 1890. The advent of petroleum fuel and the difficulty of transporting the coal closed down the mine.

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Hidden Ranch is hard to miss; it has “HIDDEN RANCH” painted in huge letters on a steel outbuilding. It’s the descendant of a ranch that began in the 1870s. The waterfall, however, is hard to see and takes an experienced hiker a long time to reach.

The problem for the Sunday driver is determining what is public and what is private property here.

The road was built in 1927 by the county and the U.S. Forest Service to provide access for firefighters. The county today says that the public has unrestricted use of the road, despite the sometimes heated denial of one of the property owners in the canyon.

This owner has erected a bulletproof sign--inch-thick sheet steel welded to a railroad-rail post--claiming that the road is private. But it just ain’t so, county officials insist.

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Property lines are not apparent, and Sunday drivers are advised not to make any assumptions. There is a boundary marker showing when the road enters the Cleveland National Forest, but even some of the land past that sign is private and fenced off. The prehistoric Indian site, while visible from the road just past the boundary sign, is on private property.

When you reach the ridge, you will see “Beek’s Place,” the remains of what Joe Beek, longtime secretary of the California Senate, wanted to make into a resort. The steel scaffolding was for wind-driven electric generators. But there was no water and, consequently, no chance. Beek had more luck founding the Balboa ferry.

At this point you can turn around and go back, but it’s easier to keep going and take the left fork 5 miles down to Corona and the Riverside Freeway.

But please, don’t tell anyone about this. Not everyone will be as good to that canyon as you and I.

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