Visit Palomar's Love Valley during the peak of its vernal splendor.

After a wet winter, the shallow ponds in Love Valley hold the shimmering, upside-down image of a classic California landscape: a weathered barn nestled at the far end of an Ireland-colored meadow, rounded foothills studded with oaks, and perhaps white cumulus clouds billowing over the dark, conifer-draped Palomar crest. By perhaps early May this year, the shallow ponds in the valley bottom will have nearly evaporated, leaving in their wake a colorful display of yellow tidy tips and other short-lived wildflowers.

Love Valley is a little-known day-use destination near the foot of Palomar Mountain in the Cleveland National Forest. The starting point is easy to find, mile 3.3 on East Grade Road (3.3 miles north of Highway 76). Park in the large turnout on the south side of the road, walk around the locked vehicle gate, and continue over a low rise on the dirt road ahead.

As you descend, watch for three kinds of oak trees -- black, coast, and Engelmann oaks. The 3600-foot elevation here is a bit too low for coniferous trees. As you curve south, Lake Henshaw comes into view, tucked into a corner of the large Valle de San Jose -- which is a down-dropped basin along the Elsinore Fault. Gazing beyond the lake, you can discern where this fault passes through a gap in the mountains beyond. Out of range of your sight, the fault continues past Julian, descends Banner Grade, and strikes southeast into the Anza-Borrego Desert.

When you reach the edge of Love Valley at 0.8 mile, you can walk straight to the old barn (which, upon closer inspection, is made of unromantic and rusty corrugated metal), or veer left toward the ephemeral ponds on the valley floor. If you want to have a picnic lunch, choose a spot on the open meadow or beneath one of the spreading oaks. There are no facilities such as trash cans out there, so be sure to pack out whatever you pack in.

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