Let's face facts. In Orange County, the fall season is nothing more than a hiccup between summer's heat and winter's chill. Palm trees never burst into vivid color, and there isn't a decent pile of dry leaves to shuffle though on the entire block.
However, you can still savor the cool, crisp flavor of fall in the San Bernardino Mountains, about 90 minutes outside Orange County. A drive along Highway 18, better known as Rim of the World Highway, offers breathtaking views of the dogwood, oak, cedar and fir trees in color this month, and access to some of the area's most popular mountain attractions. Here are just a few of the stops along the way:
Take a break along the shores of Lake Gregory, off Lake Gregory Drive in Crestline. The lake is about one-fourth the size of its more prestigious kin, Lake Arrowhead, but it is just as soothing and far more accessible to the public. Most warm-weather activities, which include boat rentals, a 300-foot water slide and a swimming beach, are closed for the season, but nature lovers can still enjoy a level of walking/jogging trail that follows the shoreline. (Enter the trail from the South Beach area.) Shore fishing for trout, catfish and bass is open all year.
For some of the best views on the mountain, take the Bear Springs Road turnoff from Highway 18 to Strawberry Peak (elevation 6,153 feet). Climb the lookout tower for a panoramic vista that, on a clear day, stretches all the way to Saddleback. Manned by local volunteers, the tower is open during daylight hours only.
Ready for lunch? A detour up Highway 189 will bring you to the village of Blue Jay, a bustling little community of 50 shops and restaurants. The town is also home to a large ice-skating rink and one of the mountain's two movie theaters. On weekends, the local Chamber of Commerce operates a staffed information booth near the Thrifty store, where you can pick up maps and visitors' guides for the entire mountain.
Continue up 189 to the grande dame herself, Lake Arrowhead. You can take Lake Edge Road into the heart of town, or follow the scenic North Bay Road around the perimeter of the lake. But be forewarned. While there are a few vantage points from which to view this 2.2-mile beauty, it's strictly look but don't touch. The lake is controlled by property owners in pricey Arrowhead Woods, and there is virtually no public access to the water or surrounding beaches or trails. The exceptions to this are the Arrowhead Queen, a restored 60-passenger paddle-wheeler that will offer year-round lake cruises departing from Lake Arrowhead Village beginning next month, and a small swim beach near the village, open during the summer.
This "village," by the way, is a slick tri-level complex of 75 shops and restaurants that fairly breathes destination resort. The center holds varied special weekend events, including a lively Oktoberfest with German food and music through Oct. 28, and a Dickens-themed Christmas celebration featuring carriage rides and carolers Nov. 24 to Dec. 30.
About 2 miles past Lake Arrowhead on Highway 18 is Santa's Village, an elfin theme park featuring a dozen kiddie rides, a petting zoo, shops and, of course, Santa himself. The park is open weekends only through Nov. 10, then daily through the Christmas season.
Just down the highway is Heap's Park Arboretum, where families can enjoy an easy hike of three-quarters of a mile. A trail guide, available at the information kiosk, points out native flora and fauna, including the California black oak and Pacific dogwood. The trail is one of a dozen local hikes outlined in the "Trails to Hike" guide, available through the Arrowhead ranger station by calling (714) 337-2444.
About a half-hour's drive past Heap's Peak is Green Valley Lake, one of the area's tiniest and most rustic communities. No powerboats are allowed on the 8-acre lake, but weekend visitors can rent rowboats and canoes through the end of October. Mountain bike can be rented nearby and at Green Valley Campground, a small public campsite about a mile from the lake. In season, skiers can visit the Ski Green Valley area or drive a bit farther to the better-known Snow Summit and Snow Valley.
What: Lake Arrowhead and vicinity.
Where: On and near Highway 18, or Rim of the World Highway.
Whereabouts: Take the Riverside Freeway to northbound Highway 215. Go about 4 miles to "Mountain Resorts" turnoff, which will take you to Highway 30 east. Continue to Waterman Avenue, turn left, road becomes Highway 18.
Where to Call: Weekdays, call the Lake Arrowhead Chamber of Commerce at (714) 337-3715. On weekends, call (714) 336-3646.
MORE FUN STUFF:
Family-oriented entertainment and exhibits highlight the Kids' Stuff Expo Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 13 and 14, at Anaheim Stadium, 2000 S. State College Blvd., Gate 10. The event, which runs from 10 a.m.to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, features interactive play areas, arts activities and shows for children ages 12 and under, along with 65 booths promoting kids' toys, products and services. Admission: $2.50 to $4. (714) 496-6864.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," an adaptation of Washington Irving's classic folk tale presented by the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre, continues through Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tickets: $4 and $6. (714) 494-8021.
* CHILDREN'S LISTINGS, Page 24.