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Heading Off the Beaten Path in a Wild Part of Orange County

Some canyons, though invaded by roads, can still manage to feel wild. Canyons disrupted only by trails are even wilder. And canyons with neither road nor trail to disturb their tranquillity are the wildest of them all.

Hot Spring Canyon falls into the last category, a remarkable feat considering its location: Orange County. Despite being so close to a metropolitan area, the canyon is off most hikers’ radar, perhaps because, despite its name, it has no hot springs nor any trails.

At least no developed trails. A faint path guides hikers willing to hop rocks, cross creeks and bushwhack to some pools and a small waterfall. It’s not difficult hiking, but the loose pieces of canyon wall and the slippery rock on the ground can make the trek tricky.

Access to the canyon, however, is easy. The upper part of the canyon is near California 74 (the Ortega Highway) and the popular Blue Jay Campground.

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This column will focus on upper Hot Spring Canyon. (Lower Hot Spring Canyon involves five miles of trailless hiking through thickets of poison oak and slogging through a creek.)

Directions to the trail head: From Interstate 15 in Lake Elsinore, exit onto California 74 and drive 91/2 miles east to Main Divide Road. Turn right (north) and follow the winding road on a 41/2-mile ascent to Falcon Campground, which is closed during winter. Park in a turnout near the campground entrance. Walk past the vehicle gate and look for Falcon Trail on the left, near the top of the campground access road.

Another option is to drive a little farther on Main Divide Road to Blue Jay Campground, which is open all year. Look for Falcon Trail near campsite No. 50. Follow the trail for a few minutes toward Falcon Campground and the unsigned junction described above.

The hike: From Falcon Campground, Falcon Trail descends past pines, crosses a wood bridge and splits at an unsigned junction. The main path (Falcon Trail) bears left, while the route to Hot Spring Canyon forks right.

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Go right and descend with the gully, which soon intersects another. Here, at the head of Hot Spring Canyon, you and the faint path continue to follow the gully. You pass rock outcroppings and cross the creek several times; the creek bed serves as the trail in a few places.

Shortly before a junction for a larger (and usually wetter) canyon to the north, you emerge atop a rocky perch that overlooks a small waterfall spilling into a grotto. Ferns, mosses and two pools add to the pretty scene.

It’s possible to continue down the canyon among the rocks and alders another half-mile or so. Only the foolhardy will continue over the loose rocks and unstable canyon walls. Another small waterfall and some pools lie down the creek, but I strongly discourage anyone from going farther.

For more of John McKinney’s tips, visit www.thetrailmaster.com.

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