SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Tony Forster, a member of the prominent San Juan Capistrano ranching family, first heard about the legend from his father, Judge Thomas A. Forster, who probably heard it from his father, Frank.
It's the story of Lucas Canyon, whose mere mention to South County old-timers stirs a California craving for gold as old as the state's ancient oaks.
According to the legend, it was in this narrow, rocky canyon snaking south of what is now Ortega Highway where prospectors turned up several good-size nuggets in the late 1800s.
"I can remember as a small boy riding around the rim of the canyon and looking down when my father pointed out the old gold mine," said Tony Forster, whose family used to own the largest ranch in these parts--about 250,000 acres. "My brother, Pancho, had some gold pieces that were pulled out of there. It was placer gold, like the kind someone probably panned out of the creek."
This month, when the U.S. Forest Service opens the new seven-mile Lucas Canyon Trail in the Cleveland National Forest, the old legend will be rekindled. But hikers must be willing to endure a sometimes steep, narrow trail that rises 600 feet above the canyon floor.
It was along the base of this shaded canyon that the legendary Maximo Lopez made his home from 1886 to 1940. Each time he made the 10-mile trek into San Juan Capistrano, Lopez helped stoke the gold fever by tantalizing the local merchants, said local historian Pamela Hallan-Gibson. "Lopez would never discuss what he found, but he used to pay for his supplies with gold nuggets," Hallan-Gibson said. "A gold scale was kept at Rohmer's General Store or Ferris Kelly's store, just for him."
These days there is no trace of Lopez at the foot of the deep canyon, where sycamores and oaks line the creek. But there are still reminders of prospectors and miners who sought the canyon's promised riches.
Buried in heavy brush are the foundations of one residence that was destroyed in a 1958 fire that swept through the entire wilderness area, devastating everything in its path.
There is an old brick well that still holds water, although it is stagnant and full of bugs. A couple of makeshift, man-made bridges consisting of only a few boards span the rocky creek.
Two other remnants of residences still stand in an offshoot canyon removed from the main trail, said Lee A. DiGregorio, an archeologist for the U.S. Forest Service who has hiked the entire trail.
"There is a mine shaft behind one of the houses that goes only about eight feet into the side of the mountain," said DiGregorio, a resident of Anaheim. "It's very difficult to get to because everything is so overgrown this year because of the rains."
The Lucas Canyon Trail actually runs along the ridges of the adjoining mountains and only drops down into the canyon for about two miles. The trail head is at the Candy Store near Ortega Oaks Park, which is 19 miles east of San Juan Capistrano.
Another entrance is at the old San Juan Hot Springs site, near the San Juan Station of the forestry service. Hikers may leave their cars at either place and shuttle back and forth, DiGregorio said.
But be prepared for long, difficult inclines entering and leaving the canyon, DiGregorio said.
"There is a lot of steepness, but from either end it's a good hike with a lot of variety," DiGregorio said. The wildlife along the way is similar to that found in nearby Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park: deer, coyotes, skunks, opossums, mountain lions and bobcats.
Signs are posted at the trail heads warning hikers to beware of some dangerous wildlife. DiGregorio said she has seen lions in the area during her 12 years with the forestry service.
"This is a wilderness area and this is their home," DiGregorio said.
The trail is for the most part exposed to the sun. The best times to hike are in the fall, when the weather is cooler, and the spring, when wildflowers are in bloom.
For as long as anyone can remember, Lucas Canyon has been associated with gold prospecting.
And at the turn of the century, the old Santa Ana Bulletin published reports of tin and copper deposits in the canyon, which sparked similar rushes to the remote site.
While none of the reports ever turned up any finds of great value, DiGregorio speculated that the canyon's size made it a prime candidate for a valuable mother lode.
Meanwhile, the forestry service has yet to solve one of the canyon's main mysteries: Just who was Lucas and why was the canyon given his name?
"To both questions, history has palmed an ace," said Orange County historian Jim Sleeper. "The canyon showed up on maps of the 1880s, but of Mr. Lucas there is no trace at all."