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Time for reflection

Along Doane Creek, you can savor changes that are measured in decades, not in seasons.

November 08, 2005|Jerry Schad | Special to The Times

WITH closed eyes and open ears, I listen to dreamy music: the faint background drone of a hundred pairs of tiny wings, the whispering voice of water flowing over stone, the intermittent babble of half a dozen birds of different species, the staccato yammering of an acorn woodpecker and a blue note in what sounds like a grumbling rusty hinge.

A few moments of open-eyed reflection reveals the cause of the latter -- two thick-trunked white firs side by side, just 10 feet away, a low, dead branch of one tree rubbing audibly against the dry bark of the other.

My friend Lila and I resume our slow-paced hike in Palomar Mountain State Park, taking in the sweet, still, early-morning ambience of the park's most beautiful path, the Doane Valley Nature Trail, a four-mile walk through woods and meadows, now at peak autumn colors.

It's early fall, and down along Doane Creek, there's a skin-prickling chill in the air. Bracken ferns under the shade-giving oaks and conifers are still photosynthesizing, but in clearings where the noon sun blasts down, the ferns have faded to autumnal yellow. Ruby-red rose hips decorate the tips of the prickly branches of wild rose encroaching on the trail. Lila notices a mottled-yellow "leaf" on the path that turns out to be a butterfly wing.

After more than 30 years of walking these trails, I note changes that have nothing to do with the season, and everything to do with cycles measured in decades or centuries.

A ghost forest of dead or dying pines, firs and cedars stands out amid the remaining healthy trees. Gone are the lush box elder trees that once screened the view of Doane Creek.

Everywhere along the roads and trails of Palomar (and, indeed, in many mountain ranges in Southern California), a campaign is underway to thin the forest and remove dead, flammable wood.

With a little luck, last winter's buckets of rainfall will be repeated again this winter to help reverse the long-term drying trend here and elsewhere across the Southland.

These concerns are quickly forgotten, though, as we arrive at the "weir" -- a late 1920s miniature dam and stone-and-mortar water-gauging station at the confluence of Doane and French creeks -- and sit for a spell on a fallen log in the shade. Voices echo, and an animated group of teenagers appears.

We leave, returning circuitously by way of the French Valley Trail, which snakes across a sloping meadow and darts under several gnarled canyon live oak trees so massive and so robust that we fully expect them to be guarding this space at the turn of the next century.

On the last leg of our morning hike, we visit the matriarch of the forest, a centuries-old incense cedar reaching 150 or more feet into the sky. A wooden fence separates the tree from traffic on the trail, giving this battered old specimen the space it needs to survive.

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The particulars

Where: Palomar Mountain State Park, in northern San Diego County

What: A moderate, 3.8-mile hike

How: From Interstate 15, take Highway 76 east 21 miles. Veer left on South Grade Road and continue seven miles to the Palomar summit and East Grade Road. Follow East Grade Road three miles west into Palomar Mountain State Park ($6 day-use fee) and continue two more miles to Doane Pond parking area. On foot, take the Doane Valley Nature Trail and the Weir Trail to go straight to the weir.

On the return, backtrack about 100 yards from the weir and go left to reach French Valley Trail. Circle French Valley clockwise using this trail. As you approach Doane Valley Campground (near the starting point), veer right to complete the segment of Doane Valley Nature Trail you skipped earlier. That way you won't miss seeing the giant incense cedar.

Details: Palomar Mountain State Park, (760) 742-3462, www.palomar.statepark.org.

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Jerry Schad is a San Diego-based freelance writer and the author of "Afoot & Afield" Southern California hiking guidebooks.

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