The Dr. Moustache Swimming Hole Gazetteer: Royal Gorge Part One

Another classic from On The Natural:

My first attempt at the Royal Gorge, a swimming hole in the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, ended with me squealing like a pig and scrambling like a goat over the rocks, logs and boulders of Long Canyon. I’d failed to reach the gorge itself; I decided to turn back while suspended on a rock wall over a murky pool of algae-choked water. I’d just hurled my walking stick over the pool and was unbuckling my pack to throw that as well, intending to leap after these accessories and continue the quest. I paused for a minute and watched a California Newt paddling in the muck below.

The trail that lead me to this rock perch starts out at the mouth of a La Cañada subdivision at mile 26.4 of the Angeles Crest Highway. It’s actually a fire road that runs alongside a power plant before descending into the canyon below. Here in Southern California there is literally no buffer zone between wilderness inhabited by black bears and mountain lions — not to mention coyotes, deer and squirrels — and suburbs full of people who have no idea how to deal with these native fauna.

The Gabrielino Trail runs alongside a bubbling creek: It’s a good walk for a warm day, winding through diverse forest full of palms and agave along with lush groves of oak, aspen, alder and willow trees draped in ivy. I made this first attempt in early June, so Californa Poppies and Tiger Lilies were still blooming along the path. After five miles seekers of the gorge diverge from the trail for two miles of boulder-hopping up Long Canyon.

I hadn’t been to a swimming hole for a few years. The last trip I took to look for a woodland dip was back in 2003, shortly after I’d returned to Los Angeles from six month sabbatical I’d taken in a cabin in the mountains north of Santa Cruz. I’d reunited with an ex-girlfriend and we commemorated the day we’d first split — July 4 — by taking a trip into Los Padres National Forest with the swimming hole guide, Day Trips With a Splash! in hand.

Day Trips is a pretty crappy guide to swimming holes, but it’s the best one I know of. Not only is Pancho Doll an awkward writer, but the directions he gives are on par with those offered by a drunken local: They give you enough confidence to go out get truly tangled and lost. After spending most of the morning north of Fillmore, CA cruising up and down Goodenough Road and eyeing “No Trespassing” signs riddled with bullet holes, I was convinced that our options consisted of ambling down one of these sinister paths to a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type denouement, or heading home dry and frustrated.

Eventually we found the right starting point: A fire road that wound down to Tar Creek through dense scrub buzzing with bees from the apiary at the trailhead. The creekbed at the bottom of the canyon was dry, but a mile downstream we came across a true Shangri-la of deep sandstone bowls, brimming with cool mountain water. Though it was a holiday weekend, our only companions were two teenage boys smoking a bowl, to whom we promised not to divulge details of their secret paradise beyond those that I’ve offered here.

Though I split up with that girlfriend a year or so after that dreamy day of cliffside cannonballs and floating around under a clear blue sky, swimming holes still connote renewal and celebration — particularly here in the Southwest where they require hiking down dry creekbeds under the burning sun. Each leap over stagnant pools and between dry boulders is a step made on the basis of hope against common sense that the path will lead to a riparian paradise.

So it was with a sense of impending depression and defeat that I re-buckled my backpack and headed back down the trail alone, having failed to reach the Royal Gorge. It was getting dark, it was no longer hot enough to swim and I didn’t feel like bushwhacking through any more poison oak, or jumping across boulders and risking a twisted ankle and an impromptu overnight in the woods. As I trudged slowly down Long Canyon I nearly stuck my hand on top of a rattlesnake, and stopped to take her picture instead. It was not five minutes later that I stuck my boot into a crevice and set one of her siblings off, the distinctive rattle and hiss being the cause of my shrieking and leaping through the fading twilight. The adrenaline carried me the six miles back to my car.

I returned to make another attempt at reaching the Royal Gorge a month later.

To be continued in part two …

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