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SECRETS OF THE SANTA ANA MOUNTAINSClear air, wide canyons, chaparral, ravens, snakes, coyotes, deer, wild flowers, tall forests, oak woodlands, streams, waterfalls....Could I be talking about the Santa Ana Mountains? That puny, dry outcropping of wanna-be mountains lying halfway between Orange and Riverside Counties? No, the Santa Anas are not California's most majestic range, but YES, they are still beautiful and unique! Although surrounding cities encroach on the edges of the Trabuco district of the Cleveland National Forest, which encompasses much of the Santa Anas, one can still enjoy over 100,000 acres of mountain scenery between Ortega Highway and Anaheim Hills. You do not realize the size and diversity of the range until exploring its roads and trails on your own power. My personal mode is the mountain bike. In three hours time I can cover ground that would take me two days to walk. And there is indeed a lot to take in! Did you ever watch a soaring red tail hawk from above? Have you ever seen deer tracks followed by mountain lion tracks on a dirt road? Did you ever see how fast a striped racer snake can get out of your way? Or, have you ever smelled the delicious fragrance of a billion tiny deer brush blossoms on a blue-tinted hillside in the Spring? One cloudy morning I paused on a ridge. The only sound was my own breathing and the buzz of insects, which were attracted to my bright helmet and my heat. Suddenly, a flock of cliff swallows (the kind that are famous for migrating to San Juan Capistrano each spring) began swooping by, snapping up those pesky insects. I could hear the zinging swish of their pointed wingtips disturbing the air as they made their impossibly sharp turns past my head. Obviously, down in noisy Megalopolis I had never heard the sound of swallow wingtips! Such are the delights of mountain biking on Skyline Drive right above my home in Corona.Some of the Santa Ana Mountain Range looks rather plain. However, some canyons, such as Fremont Canyon in the North are simply spectacular, with great cliffs, wildlife and even a sandstone arch. Thousands of cars rush by Fremont Canyon on the 241 Transportation Corridor – that monstrous road that now cuts right through these beautiful mountains. The motorists don’t have any idea that right up and over the Main Divide ridge into Coal Canyon, is a fragrant Tecate Cypress forest. Only a few such forests exist and this is the most northerly. Several fires of late have all but devastated it. But come back in 100 years and this hardy forest will still be thriving. A few miles away on the same freeway, the bleak-looking scenery belies the fact that just up into the hills there is an viewpoint called the “Bolero Lookout”, with an absolutely stunning view of "The Sinks". This is a 500-foot deep, pinkish-orange sheer gorge, which has been weathering for 35,000,000 years. "The Sinks" is a baby-size Grand Canyon, but it is virtually unknown. After you get off the freeway and study your very own copy of Franko’s Map of Santa Ana Mountains, you will find that you can visit some well-known wonders as well, such as Holy Jim Canyon and Holy Jim Falls. Interestingly, this canyon and waterfall were named after a local named Jim Smith. Actually, old Jim was not exactly "holy". Rather, he was known far and wide for his prolific cussing! Some early Government cartographer apparently did not like the sound of "Cussin' Jim Canyon", and so switched it to "Holy Jim Canyon". Another interesting point about this canyon is that this is where California's very last grizzly bear was killed in 1908. Can you imagine grizzlies in Orange County? On the note of cartographers naming things in the Santa Anas, you will like to know that yours truly has named a few spots here as well. I named “Echo Point”, right next to the “Paul Fall Zone”, for obvious reasons - if you yell really good there, it will come back at you 7 times. The “Paul Fall Zone” high up near the top of Skyline Drive, is a beautiful little trail where my good buddy, Paul Falsone, failed to keep the rubber side down while riding with me not once, but twice. Yes, many of us have ruined a perfect day in the Santa Ana Mountains with our own version of what Paul called “the human dart maneuver." Note that further down Skyline toward Corona there is a spot called the “Franko Fall”. Yes, I did my version of “the human dart maneuver” too.The Santa Anas have an amazing geographical history. Over the eons the region has been repetitively flooded by ocean waters, shaken and tilted by cataclysmic earthquakes, cooked and covered by pyroclastic lava eruptions, and laid out to dry for multimillions of years before man ever set eyes or knobby tires on it. Their very oldest known surface appears to be a drab cloak of ancient rock hanging on the brushy shoulders of Bedford Peak, called the "Bedford Formation". This 150,000,000 year-old outcropping, which straddles Orange and Riverside Counties, was brand new right in the middle of the reign of dinosaurs. Presumably these beasts chewed on the plants and on each other right here. Did you know that a 100,000,000 year-old long-necked Plesiosaur (a rather toothy, dinosaur-size marine reptile) was exhumed from a ridge right between Modjeska and Live Oak Canyon? Every few million years, so the geologists and paleontologist postulate, for a period of, say, 140,000,000 years, give or take a few, the underlying "Santiago Volcanics", and pressurized upheavals repetitively folded, tilted, shook and uplifted the range. Finally, over the past 10,000,000 years Mother Nature has relaxed and left the eroding hills we see today. It does not appear that the Main Divide will fume with volcanic vents any more, but you can bet the Elsinore Fault will shake the ground beneath your sneakers a few more times yet.Way before the shaking and baking subsided there were vast periods when marine life swam and proliferated over the Santa Anas. Near the entry of Tin Mine Canyon, for instance, as well as in Gypsum, Coal and Trabuco Canyons, oyster beds lie in what was a huge shellfish congregation some 70,000,000 years past. I've heard that at a place called “Shark's Tooth Hill”, buckets of the serrated teeth have been carted off. Here and there, skeletal remains of fish and oceanic plankton have been found. I once dug up a whole fossilized clam shell at Beek's Place, elevation 2820 feet! On Trabuco Mesa, now a subdivision of Megalopolis, a 60 foot whale left his bones! It’s hard to imagine whales swimming around Coto De Casa in deep waters!In their formation, the Santa Anas somehow received a lean scattering of minerals. Practically everything except diamonds has been found, but not in adequate abundance to do much good. Sporadic prospecting has dug up a few bucks worth of coal, silver and even a few gold nuggets have been found, but the main products of the region are just sand and gravel - remnants of those old beaches. Without a lot of prospectors probing, and with only sparse minerals to attract their machinery, the range has managed to maintain its natural beauty. Even with the surrounding cities crowding the edges and poking into the interior of the Santa Ana Mountains, one will still be able to enjoy the scenery and wildlife!Of course, the Santa Anas have had their share of man-made history as well - Native American villages, ranchers, hunters, prospectors and miners, jeepsters, motorcyclists, mountain bikers, and, don't forget, zillions of dwellings crowding at the fringes of the range. Fortunately, Mother Nature has managed to keep this area beautiful and unique. One must hope that the range will endure the pressures. When you enter the Cleveland National Forest or any of the nearby regional parks or properties for recreation or for any other reason, you must remember to tread lightly. There is no one to pick up your garbage! Stay on the trails, don't ever start fires (not even to light up your pipe!), don't tear up the trails and scenery with your unauthorized off-road vehicles, and don't do any target shooting. The forest service has a legitimate list of dos and don'ts and they should be well respected. Have common decency when you are in the mountains and save the nonsense for when you are in your own home!Yes, indeed, above Transportation Corridors which interconnect pieces of Megalopolis, up in the Santa Ana Mountains there is another world! Come and enjoy the clean air, steep canyons, chaparral, woodlands, wildlife, flowers, streams, and even waterfalls! But listen, folks, let us not tell too many people about this place! The treasures of the Santa Ana Mountains are a secret! Okay?
FrankoMountain Biker Extraordinaire & President of Franko’s MapsCorona, California