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Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County!

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail...Snow in Orange County!
Click any image to enlarge

First off, HAPPY NEW YEAR! It's hard to believe 2014 has come to an end and we're staring into the face of 2015. It's the future, man! If Back to the Future II has taught me anything, I know the next 12 months will bring us hover boards, instant-dry jackets, and Nike Air Mags. I can't wait.

2014 ended with a bang here in Orange County with a pretty impressive winter storm that dumped several inches of snow in unlikely places like Temecula and Rancho Santa Margarita. We didn't get any down here in Tustin, but the nearby Santa Ana Mountains with its centerpiece Saddleback Mountain were blanketed in a glorious sheet of white. That's right, Orange County in snow- it can happen.

New Years day brought with it clear skies, calm wind, and cold temperatures - the perfect conditions to go exploring one of my favorite Southern California hiking trails: the Trabuco Canyon Trail in the Cleveland National Forest. I've shown pictures and video from this trail before (check it out here). The Trabuco Canyon Trail doesn't scream Orange County at any time of year with its densely forested hillsides and abundant spruce trees, but it was especially out of character on this day with at least 8 inches of snow in most parts.

My girlfriend, my brother, and I set out to explore the area and see it in this unique state on the morning of January 1st. Thought it would be a perfect way to start 2015. Unfortunately, half of Orange County had the same thought. The trail, luckily, was empty, but the traffic jam leaving the mountains would have made east-coasters double over in laughter. It's ridiculous how terrible southern California drivers are at negotiating icy roads. If the thermometer drops below 40, all hell breaks loose. The dirt-road drive that normally takes 15 minutes stretched to over an hour with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

But aside from that little hiccup, this hike treated us to some of the most unique and stunning scenery I've ever seen. It's not often you get to see prickly pear cactus and giant oak trees poking out from deep snow. I didn't bring my "serious" camera equipment to document this unique sight because I didn't want to slow my group down and I just didn't feel like carrying the weight. Instead, I travelled with my pocket-sized Canon s100 point-and-shoot camera. The pictures aren't my best (ugly lighting, limited equipment, other dumb excuses), but they captured the Trabuco Canyon Trail in a way most people will never see.

Navigating the trail in this weather was tricky at best. And I don't mean it was difficult to find the trail on account of the snow cover (it was) but the trail was just littered with massive branches and bent over trees. The forest service has a hell of a job ahead of them cleaning this trail up, that's for sure. I hope they have some good chainsaws. The storm that passed over must have been a hell of a sight. The winds had to be incredibly strong to cause the destruction we saw.

This picture is a cluttered mess, which is exactly why I'm sharing it with you. This is the kind of chaos that storm wrought. Plus, check out those massive Southern California oak trees covered in snow...you don't see that everyday.

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

But now on to the pretty pictures. I guess there's no need to explain them. Simply feast your eyes on the Trabuco Canyon Trail in snow. And for the folks in other parts of the country, I know this must seem comical to you getting this excited about a few inches of snow, but hey, it's big news when we finally get a shred of weather around here. And I mean, come on, it's snow in Orange County!

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Nothing better than the smooth lines and reflected light you get with snow:

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Where's Waldo Drew?

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Snow and giant leaves? What the hell is going on?!

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

On Location Photography: Cleveland National Forest, Orange County

View on YouTube for full HD version

In the Cleveland National Forest of Orange County, CA you'll find something interesting along the Trabuco Canyon trail (adjacent to the more well-known Holy Jim Falls trail). Just a few minutes into the hike is an old car mangled and broken from decades of decay. How it got there I cannot imagine. The trail is narrow enough to only accommodate a single person and there are no roads within a reasonable distance. My guess is that the hiking trail was once wide enough for a car. Someone drove this car out on the treacherous road, got stuck, and ditched it. Or perhaps the story was much more interesting than that involving a cache of stolen goods, a bag of lye, and a Tommy gun. Whatever the case, this thing is just begging to be photographed in its rusted state.

Orange County, like California, offers a diverse range of landscapes. When you think "OC" you probably imagine sandy beaches and real housewives. But the Cleveland National Forest blanketing the Santa Ana Mountains offers some decidedly "un-Orange County" scenery with plenty of spruce trees, a babbling brook, and even the occasional snowfall. This area is as rural as Orange County gets and it's also where you'll find some of the best hiking in the county.

A little while back I decided to venture out to this area of "rural Orang County" looking for a short escape from the crowds and I was itching to photograph that car I'd photographed several times before. Having been there previously with my 35mm film camera in 2003 and years later with my Canon 5D DSLR in 2011, my goal was to get a new take on it, create some new compositions, and try an overall different approach. That's why I planned to do some black and white photography (which I'd never done there before) and some color landscape photography a little less vibrant and saturated than my usual stuff.

Here are the 2 shots I'd taken previously at this location. The first is my 35mm film image from 2003 and the second is from my DSLR in 2011:

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Upon arrival, I realized quickly that this photo trip wasn't going to go like I planned. The verdant forest surrounding the car that I remembered from my previous trips wasn't so green this time around. Everything was brown, dead, and dry. Even the creek bed was empty. We've had a terribly dry winter here in Southern California - one of the driest on record - and the vegetation in Orange County has been feeling the effects.

Without rich greens surrounding the rusting car, there was really no visual separation between my main subject and the background. It just blended in with everything else. The black and white photos came out so-so in my opinion and the color shots were absolutely abysmal. It was one of those shoots that just didn't go as well as I hoped. But as I say in the video, the sweet isn't as sweet without the sour, so although I didn't get any great shots, at least it'll create a deeper sense of appreciation the next time things do work out.

Click any image below to enlarge:

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Car Mods and the View From Santiago Peak

Well this is going to be a little bit different kind of post than my usual new pics, how-to's, announcements or testimonials. This one is about my truck...

Wait! Come back, ladies! I'll be brief about the truck and then it's on to some pretty pictures that I was able to get because of the truck! I promise.

2000 4Runner with Gobi Stealth Rack

Okay, so I recently completed a big project on my Toyota 4Runner in order to make it more capable for the type of work I plan on doing and the types of trips I plan on taking. First, I installed a sweet roof rack from Gobi that replaces my factory roof rack rails with a very handy basket-style rack. It'll make it easier to carry big loads of gear and anything I don't want to keep in the car, like gas cans and/or my mountain bike.

After the rack, I personally installed 8 auxiliary lights for nighttime off-roading and camping. There are 4 lights up front, 2 in the back and 1 on each side. The lights up front pierce through the darkness as I travel through new territory. The lights in the back will serve as reverse lights as well as utility lights for when I need some illumination as I pack up gear, cook a meal or even help someone change a tire in the darkness (which already happened). The lights on either side can serve as utility lights as well, but also are great for illuminating the inside of hairpin turns going up and down switchbacks.

2000 4Runner with Gobi Stealth Rack

Installing the lights took a total of 30 hours over a very, very hot 3-day weekend last month. Totally worth it. I'll be taking a trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the next month or two where they will really come in handy.

Alright, enough about my truck...

Yesterday, I decided to spend my labor day off-roading up to Santiago Peak in the Cleveland National Forest. For those of you outside of Orange County, Santiago Peak is the highest peak in Orange County (actually, I'm not even sure it's technically in Orange County or Riverside County). It's the taller of the 2 peaks of Saddleback Mountain, the tallest and most prominent geographic feature to the east.

Basically, if you were driving from inland towards the Pacific Ocean, this peak is the last peak over 5000' before you hit the beach.

When I reached the top, I could see all the way out to Catalina Island off the coast and up to Long Beach in the north. The east and south were blanketed mostly by a late-summer storm, but still had great views. Actually, that summer storm made for a very interesting sky.

Here's the view looking south:

Looking South from Santiago Peak, Orange County, CA

Looking west towards the Pacific Ocean with Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo and others in the foreground:

Looking West from Santiago Peak, Saddleback Mountain, Orange County, CA

Here's a panoramic view of Orange County to the Pacific Ocean. Be sure to click the image for a much, much bigger version!

View from atop Saddleback Mountain overlooking Orange County

Anyone living in OC will recognize those radio towers atop Saddleback Mountain:

Radio Towers atop Saddleback Mountain

Here's the view looking west again. Notice Catalina Island off to the right:

Looking West from Santiago Peak, Saddleback Mountain, Orange County, CA

One of these days, I'm going to make this long drive to the top of Saddleback for sunrise or sunset. With the lights I installed on my truck, the dark trail will be a cake walk 😀