Get ready for Scouting adventure at Camp Three Falls! Located in the Lockwood Valley in northern Ventura County, at the base of Mt. Pinos, Three Falls offers summer camp for Webelos and Boy Scouts, as well as weekend camping for Scouts and other groups throughout the year.
Registration forms and other information are available on the Ventura County Council web site, or call the council at 805-482-8938.
This spring, Ventura County Council entered into an agreement with U.S. Borax, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Mining Company, under which U.S. Borax has given us permission to use more than 1,000 acres of their property for backpacking, hiking, nature study and low-impact camping.
This property runs across what you might call the Mt. Pinos front country -- a mile-wide strip of land that encompasses the ridge just north of camp, providing the backdrop for Fort Lockwood and our shooting ranges. U.S. Borax owns about 3,500 acres in all, running several miles east from the North Fork of Lockwood Creek. A hundred years ago, there were several good-size mines on the property that produced thousands of tons of colemanite, a borax ore.
Over Labor Day weekend, I had the chance to hike some of this property with Howard Kern, chairman of our council program committee, and Gary Lee, retired camp ranger. Gary's family has a long history with Three Falls -- council bought the camp property from Gary's grandfather in 1933. Gary has lived in Lockwood Valley for most of his life., and probably knows the backcountry better than anyone, so it was a real privilege to have him to guide us.
We left camp at 6:30 a.m. and walked up the fire road west of camp. The council-owned property ends just a short distance west of the parking lot (the dirt road that runs to the rifle range is on the property line). At this point, the road runs through Forest Service land.
About two-tenths of a mile from the gate, the road crosses a small creek bed, which is dry most of the time. We didn't hike up there this time, but if you walk about half a mile north along this wash, it leads up a canyon that is located on Borax land, and to a small waterfall. Tony Waters, our Fort director and staff hiking maven, led a group of hikers up there during Boy Scout camp this summer, and dubbed this Lee Falls.
The fire road runs roughly west for another quarter mile, crosses North Fork Creek, then curves northward into North Fork Canyon. At about three-quarters of a mile from the camp boundary, it enters U.S. Borax property. There is a small metal marker nailed to a tree if you know where to look. Just past that are the Chumash petroglyphs. A couple of these are fakes, according to Gary, but most of them are genuine. It might be interesting to talk to the Borax folks in the future about what we could do to better preserve this site.
The next mile or so the road is on Borax property. There are a lot of potential outpost campsites along here, and the geology is remarkable -- geologists come from all over the country to study this area. Down at camp the cliffs are a coarse conglomerate, then as you go up canyon there are areas of several different kinds of sandstone and shale. The top of the ridge is capped with a layer of basalt from an ancient lava flow, and farther up toward Pinos everything is granite. There are examples of faults, wind and water erosion, and much more -- an incredible area for Scouts to work on Geology Merit Badge.
The old Chicago Borax Mine is in the saddle on this ridge.
Several un-named side canyons run off to the left and right. A particularly nice one is on the west side about one mile from camp. The rock formations are awesome, and about a mile up the canyon there is a pretty little three-step waterfall (when I say little, I'm talking 25 or 30 feet total). It was still running in late July when I was up there. I call this one Lost Mine Canyon, because on the south ridge there used to be a small borax mine. Gary says that when he was a kid the mine tunnel was still open and you could find bits of old mining equipment up there, but there's nothing left now, and the tunnel has been blasted shut. Along the road near the mouth of the canyon you can find a few old rotted boards, which are all that's left of an old miner's cabin.
"That's a Really Big Rock!"
Just about a tenth of a mile farther on, a good-size side creekbed crosses the road from the right. This is where we turned off the road and things got really interesting.
Just short of half a mile up this wash is this really big rock. This thing is like the Half Dome of Three Falls. I first noticed it when I was looking at Google Earth earlier this summer, and one of the reasons I wanted to take this hike was because I figured it was going to be an amazing sight -- and I was not disappointed. It's got to be a couple hundred feet tall.
Gary doesn't know that this thing has a name, so for now we have agreed to call it -- drumroll please -- "The Really Big Rock," or "The Rock" for short. Maybe we'll have a contest next summer to come up with a better name for it, but then again, maybe not.
The Rock from half-way up the ridge.
Really Big Rock Creek continues east into the heart of the Borax property, but past The Rock it gets too steep and, well, rocky to be a good hiking path, so we wanted to see how hard it would be to climb up onto the ridge on the south side of this canyon. The answer is, really hard. When I got home and plotted our hike profile in my Topo mapping software, the profile line went nearly vertical at this point. When we start taking hikes up into the back country during summer camp, we'll have to find a better route than this one.
About 500 vertical feet later, the top of the ridge was easy going. This is where the rock changed from sandstone to basalt, and we found a lot of small pieces of what I'm pretty sure is colemanite. We walked about half a mile east along this ridge, then dropped down a bit to the north into a beautiful, hidden valley. In this area the pinon pines that you see around camp and in the lower part of the canyon are replaced by big, beautiful Jeffery pines, lots of pine duff on the the ground, and very little understory vegetation -- much more of a high country feel. Like most of the features up here, this spot doesn't have a name that I have found so far, so for the sake of conversation I am going to call it Pine Flat. This would make a superb site for outpost camping or a stopover on a backpack -- the only problem is there is no water. We tramped around the area quite a bit hoping to find a spring, but no luck. Looks like Pine Flat campground is going to be a dry camp.
Nice, fresh bear scat.
There were plenty of big trees, though. Some parts of the surrounding mountains were logged, and you don't find really big old-growth Jefferys so much, but Gary doesn't think the loggers ever got to this area.
We did see a lot of bear scat, and other signs of bear activity. Red-tailed hawks, jays, jackrabbits, and Howard thought he spotted a bobcat.
We hiked northeast, down a draw that we though might have some water in it,
View down Middle Fork Canyon, looking southeast. The falls are where the rocks are, just left of the center of the picture. That's Frazier Mountain in the far distance, behind the pine branch on the left.
then over to the south rim of Middle Fork Canyon. At this point we were maybe half a mile northwest of Middle Falls, looking downstream. We could see water in the creek below us, so I assume the falls must still be running.
After a short rest break, we started back, noting that the soil here is decomposed granite. My guess would be that the fault line that divides the sedimentary formations of the lower hills from the granite uplift that forms Mt. Pinos, must run along the south side of the valley. We hiked south back over the ridge we had followed coming in, then down along a different ridge, this one very brushy and hard to navigate, leading us southwest toward camp. From here we could look down on Lockwood Valley, and eventually, camp itself. My wife, Lisa, had stayed back in camp to run the trading post for a group that was doing a family camp that weekend, and she told me afterward that she saw us up there from the parking lot.
Getting down again was not quite as bad as the scramble up, but still very steep. There's kind of a sketchy old trail along the razorback ridge, on the east side of Lee Falls. Gary told us he remembers Scouts from the camp hiking up there when he was growing up, probably in the early 60s. On a pinon toward the bottom of this trail we found a sign that said "Station 1." Obviously it must have been part of some organized activity -- maybe a compass course? If anyone knows, please share the information.
Anyone know what this was used for?
That's about it. We got down to the streambed that leads to Lee Falls, followed that back to the road, and were in camp right about noon.
After taking this hike, I'm very excited to find ways to incorporate the Borax property into our summer camp program.
In the long run, I hope we will be able to develop a multi-day backpacking program, taking groups on a Philmont-style, guided backcountry experience. But that's probably several years away. It will require many more exploratory trips, and probably some challenging trailbuilding to get up onto the ridge -- though once you are up there, I'd probably have people use map and compass or GPS and hike cross-country. Also, if we are going to have people camping up there, we'll have to figure out the water problem.
Our use agreement only covers activities like hiking and camping, but somewhere down the trail, it would also be interesting to talk to Borax about preservation and research at the Chumash rock paintings and the Chicago Mine site -- possibly someday we can work with them and with local historians to use these sites to teach Scouts and others about the history of the area.
In the short run -- as soon as next summer -- we can run day trips to several sites, including Lee Falls, the triple falls in Lost Mine Canyon, and Really Big Rock. Middle Fork Canyon, where we already go on a regular basis, is also mostly on Borax land, and is one of the prettiest hikes in the area. I'd also like to work with our nature staff to run guided forestry and geology hikes up North Fork and some of the side canyons.
For now, that Station 1 sign we saw is kind of symbolic of where we are with the Borax property -- just at the beginning of what could be a very interesting journey. I'll do my best to keep you posted over the coming months as things develop.