Tarabal Trail

1.9 miles to Indian Kitchens. Continues on to
Sage Flat and Alder Canyon. Interesting country
but a difficult trail to follow in some spots and
fairly steep returning

The Tarabal Trail is one of the most historic trails in the Lost Valley area. It was part of a trade route used by neighboring Cupeño and Cahuilla Indians for centuries. By the early 1900’s it was also being used by Anglo prospectors and trappers. The original Indian trail continues down to the desert by way of Sage Flat and Alder Canyon.

The upper part of the trail was reopened in 1968 by a group of Lost Valley Scouts and Scouters. They continued on down the canyon into Sheep Canyon--a rugged, rocky route which also leads to the desert floor. The route was named the Tarabal Trail about that time. The Hiker’s Guide from around 1970 explains:

“In 1790 the Indian Tarabal, an outcast from one of the desert tribes, led Anza and his men through the canyon from the desert. This story goes on to say that Anza proceeded by Lost Valley and then out of the valley towards the sea.”

Another version of the story handed down from the 1970s claims that Tarabal brought a mother and her newborn child up the trail and through Lost Valley on their way to the sea. Only one part of these stories is true . . . Sebastian Tarabal was Anza’s Indian guide.

In the 1770s, Col. Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish frontier soldier, wanted to prove that it was possible to reach California by going across the desert. At that time, all the men and supplies for the new missions had to come by sea. Sebastian Tarabal was a Baja California Indian who had been brought north to help found the missions here. In 1773, fed up with mission life, he and another couple (perhaps his parents) fled from Mission San Gabriel and set off across the desert.

It was a terrible trip. They were lost much of the time, and the other Indians both died. Finally he stumbled into one of the Indian villages along the Colorado River. From there, he was taken to Tubac, in Mexico, where Anza was just preparing to leave on his exploration trip. Learning that an Indian had just come over the route he hoped to explore, Anza went to see Tarabal. One can only imagine what Tarabal thought when Anza told him that he would now get to guide Anza back across the desert to California.

As it turned out, Tarabal was not much of a guide, since he had been lost and near death much of the way across the desert. When he did reach a landmark he recognized, it was always a cause for rejoicing. Anza finally left the desert by way of Coyote Canyon, passing just a few miles east of Lost Valley, but Tarabal never used the trail that now bears his name.

In this century, the Tarabal Trail was the site of Lost Valley’s most extensive mining operation. In 1929, W.F. Wheeler, a San Bernardino prospector, filed five mica claims in the hills north east of the valley, which he called the Carlsbad Group. He also filed a mill site claim at Indian Kitchens. The mica was of good quality, and could be found in large sheets, some as big as 12-inches square. During the next year or so, Wheeler and a couple of miners opened up several long cuts and a 25-foot shaft. Wheeler planned to haul the mica out in gunny sacks on the backs of burros, but he soon found out it cost more money to haul it out than the mica would bring when sold, so he abandoned the whole project. Signs of their efforts can be seen at various places along the Tarabal Trail, but several searches have failed to relocate Wheeler’s open cuts and shaft.

The trailhead is located along the Cat Road, .3 of a mile above the Cupeño Archery Range in Camp Grace. Notice the bedrock mortars in the rock to the right as you start up the first steep grade on the road. The trail leaves the road to the right (east) as the road makes a sharp turn to the left.

0.0 Trailhead. The trail soon drops down into a gully, then begins climbing a ridge leading out of the valley.

0.2 At the top of the ridge, turn around for a good view of the valley. Looking across the valley down Agua Caliente Canyon, you can see Aguanga Mountain in the distance, a part of the Palomar range. The trail bears right (east) from the top and follows a gully down into the top of the canyon. Once in the canyon, turn left (north) towards the trees. (This is a turn you don’t want to miss coming back up.)

0.3 A small grove of pines makes a good rest spot. Strict divisions between plantlife (as described in biology textbooks) don’t always apply in a transitional life zone such as this--with manzanita, red shank, and pine trees all growing together. As you continue down the trail, more and more true desert plants appear. From the trees the trail drops down into the creek. From here on out, except for a few places, the trail we be either in the creekbed or alongside it. The trick is to be on the lookout for the spots where the trail climbs away from the creek--this usually means that the creek is blocked to foot traffic ahead.

0.5 The trail climbs out of the creek to the right (east) and continues alongside it for about .1 of a mile or so.

0.55 About 25 yards to the left are the remains of an old campfire ring of undetermined age.

0.6 The trail begins to drop now as the canyon continues its descent towards the desert floor. Soon after this point the trail drops back into the creek.

0.75 As you come up a slight rise, you will get your first good view of the Santa Rosa Mountains on the far side of Coyote Canyon.

1.1 The trail leaves the creek to the left. The Santa Rosas are now constantly in view down the canyon.

1.2 To the right (east) are three rocky points, perhaps half a mile away. Atop the center one, over a window in the rock, is a surprisingly realistic figure of a mountain lion. There are still real mountain lions living in the area, but the chances of seeing one are very slight.

1.4 The trail leaves the creek and climbs up the right (east) side of the canyon to get around some rocky stretches.

1.8 The canyon widens here as you drop down to an old campfire ring. A spring is located just upstream which keeps water flowing in the creek here year ‘round. The old timers named this Grapevine Spring because the native grape vines that grow here. According to Walt Bergman, as late as the 1940s the vines “were solid clear up to the top of the trees and clear across the stream.” Later they were all but destroyed because commercial growers feared the native grape would become a breeding ground for vine diseases. Almost invisible as recently as ten years ago, they have made a comeback recently and add to the beauty of this spot. The trail continues the right side of the canyon here. This is the uppermost end of the Indian Kitchens area. It is also the spot pictured on the camp’s Tarabal Trail award patch.

1.9 This well-watered stretch of the canyon is still part of the area known as Indian Kitchens -- a Scout name from the 1960s. Some bedrock mortars can be found on the east side of the canyon, about 35 yards off the trail. There are several small meadows in the area that make good resting spots.

2.0 Just below Indian Kitchens is Metate Falls. A pleasant trickle of water can often be found here, dropping some ten feet into the rocks. At the top of the falls, on the east side, there is an obvious scattering of mica flakes that is apparently a reminder of W.F. Wheeler’s mining efforts of 1929-30. When he abandoned his claims, he left bags full of mica all along the trail that just slowly rotted away. This may have been one of them. Below Metate Falls the trail continues downstream along the creek past one last small oak meadow on the left.

2.1 As the canyon grows deeper, the Santa Rosas drop out of sight. The trail is less and less used the further it gets below Indian Kitchens. The underbrush is not that thick, but there are years of accumulated brush and downed branches to pick your way through.

3.0 The canyon turns here, but the trail continues ahead up the ridge towards Sage Flat. The canyon turns to the right (east) and begins to drop rapidly down into Sheep Canyon and from there 4.8 miles down to Coyote Canyon. This route is for very experienced hikers only. The Indians used the Sage/Alder route because it is shorter, not as steep, and offers more water along the way. The trail follows a brushy watercourse up the ridge, which is fairly step. Several old trail markers are still visible along the way, including piled stone cairns and rocks marked with a “T”. Signs of Indian use, such as broken pottery, are also sometimes found.

3.3 Over the top of the ridge is Sage Flat, an open sandy area of about five or ten acres with plenty of the white sage plants that give it its name. The start of two obvious canyons are visible ahead. Bear towards the left canyon. The trail is fairly level through here, but begins to drop again when you start down the canyon.

3.8 Top of the canyon. This unnamed canyon is a fork of a fork of Alder Canyon. The old Indian trail actually went down the ridge here between this canyon and Salvador Canyon, but modern hikers can only follow the canyon. As you continue down, there are trees again; not the oaks and pines of above, but desert trees--cottonwoods and even a few alders. Other small canyons join the canyon from either side, but the trail leads on downhill following the creek. As the canyon bears to the left (northwest), it grows rockier, forcing some scrambling.

5.4 Junction with the South Fork of Alder Canyon. The biggest cottonwood tree I’ve ever seen in my life stands here. The trail turns right here down the South Fork. This is the roughest part of the trip. The South Fork is choked trees and saplings, the undergrowth is a tangle of duff and branches, and catsclaw lines both banks of the creek. There is nothing to do but push your way through, avoiding the thorny catsclaw. Further down, a few old cattle trails begin to cut their way through the brush, making travel a little easier. Wild cattle still roamed the canyon as late as 1987.

7.9 End of the old road up the South Fork of Alder Canyon. From here the road leads down .2 of a mile to the confluence of the North and South Forks. The ruins of a 1920s homestead are still visible at the confluence, but the most interesting landmark is a 1950’s cattleman’s water pipe--complete with spigot --coming out of the hillside to the left of the road just above the cabin site. In wet years, the old spring there still puts out a good flow of water. Four-wheel-drive vehicles can reach this point from the Anza end of Coyote Canyon. If you have not arranged a pick-up, the only way back is the 2,500-foot climb back up the trail to Lost Valley.

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