Few trails traverse the rugged Santa Lucia Wilderness, an isolated, little-traveled part of the southern Santa Lucia Mountains in San Luis Obispo County. Perhaps the most enjoyable of pathways is Big Falls, which delivers the destination promised by its name, along with a couple of fine swimming holes and a lush, shaded canyon.
Big Falls, paired with its cascading little cousin, Little Falls, adds up to wet and wild adventure.
Getting to the falls can be an adventure in itself. The road up Lopez Canyon crosses the creek more than a dozen times before dead-ending at the Big Falls trail head. A high-clearance vehicle is required to negotiate the creek crossings, where water often reaches the bottom of car doors. One 200-yard stretch of road is the same route taken by the creek.
The best time to visit Big Falls is in late winter/early spring when creeks and cascades are at full throttle. Unfortunately for the visitor, high water often closes the access road at this time. After this year's heavy rains, Big Falls did not become accessible to two-wheel-drive vehicles until early summer.
During summer, the lush canyon is hot and a bit steamy, and Big Falls shrinks to a shadow of its springtime self, but at least the hiker can drive into Lopez Canyon and enjoy Big Falls Creek. (Even in summer it's a good idea to call the Forest Service and inquire about road and trail conditions.)
Now a freshwater creek, saltwater was the dominant influence in the area several million years ago. Fossilized scallops and sand dollars embedded in the nearby hillsides are evidence of an ancient seashore.
The trail wanders from one bank to another up Big Falls Canyon Creek, reaching two waterfalls, then ascending the wooded canyon to Hi Mountain Road for views of the wilderness and nearby Lake Margarita.
For hikers looking for a longer excursion, I recommend a 12-mile loop on Big Falls Trail, Hi Mountain Road, Little Falls Trail and Lopez Canyon Road.
Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in Arroyo Grande, take the Lopez Lake Exit and head east on California 227, following signs to Lopez Lake. Ten miles from the highway, and shortly before entering Lopez Lake Recreation Area, bear right onto Hi Mountain Road. Drive eight-tenths mile to Upper Lopez Canyon Road and turn left. You'll drive north, then west 6.2 miles into Lopez Canyon. The pavement ends and in 1.4 miles you'll reach the trail head for Little Falls.
(Signed Little Falls Trail is a creek-side path, lushly vegetated with oak, sycamore, maple and bay, that passes some intriguing pools before reaching--50-feet high in winter, dry now--Little Falls.)
Continue another two miles, crossing shallow Lopez Canyon Creek many times before reaching road's end and a very small parking area. You can also park on both sides of the road. Signed Lopez Canyon Trail continues straight ahead, but you begin your Big Falls hike from the unsigned trail head on the west side of the road.
The hike: Follow the trial down creek very briefly and cross it. On the other side, head up Big Falls Canyon in the heavy shade of bay, oak and sycamore.
Maidenhair ferns flourish above handsome rock pools. However, profligate poison oak lines the path, which crosses the creek several times. Half a mile's travel brings you to the lower waterfall, a 50-foot cascade with a pool at its base.
The path that continues past the falls is the 90-foot high upper falls, which also drops into a large pool.
Beyond the falls the trail begins a switchbacking ascent, soon reaching a more open area, which boasts several shallow pools. Sometimes by midsummer the upper reaches of the creek are dry. A last mile of switchbacking and a serious ascent (1,000-foot gain) brings you to Hi Mountain Road.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Big Falls Trail
WHERE: Los Padres National Forest near Arroyo Grande
DISTANCE: T o lower pools and falls is one mile round trip; to upper falls is three miles round trip with 400-foot elevation gain; to Hi Mountain Road is six miles round trip with 1,500-foot elevation gain.
TERRAINE: Wet, wooded, west-flowing tributary canyon of Lopez Canyon.
HIGHLIGHTS: Inviting pools, two waterfalls, views from top of canyon
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate
PRECAUTIONS: Access road impassable in rainy season; abundant poison oak.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Los Padres National Forest, Santa Lucia Ranger District, 1616 Carlotti Drive, Santa Monica, CA 93454; tel. (805) 925-9538.