By John McKinney
Discount prices on The Trailmaster’s books including The Hiker's Way, the perfect gift for that hiker in your life. Check out the new Los Angeles County, A Day Hiker’s Guide
Get the most out of your time on the trail! Inspiration, information, practical tips & entertaining stories
Hiking this land is a good way to shed some stereotypes about Southern California in general, and Orange County in particular. One stereotype, that OC is now and only now, disappears when you take a trail through the county’s rich history. While hiking in Modjeska Canyon, visit the home of renowned actress Madame Helena Modjeska. A saunter along Serrano creek in Lake Forest leads to Heritage Hill Historical Park and to a collection of buildings that tell the story of the early days of Saddleback Valley.
Another stereotype--that Orange County is nothing more than a monotonous urban-suburban sprawl--vanishes when you witness firsthand the ecological diversity of the backcountry.
The big buzzword among biologists, land-use planners and conservations these days is biodiversity. By biodiversity, scientists mean a wide range of plants and wildlife within a region. Not surprisingly, California, with its wide range of climates and topography from redwood forests to High Sierra glaciers to Mojave Desert sand dunes is renowned for it biodiversity.
Surprisingly, so is Orange County. OC is one of California’s smallest counties and its most densely populated, and yet it is the state’s second most biologically diverse county. The most dominant flora is the coastal sage community that thrives in the region’s Mediterranean-style climate.
Another stereotype--that Orange County's history is all Anglo--disappears when you walk into the land's Spanish, Indian, German, Polish and Japanese heritage. The names on the land--from Flores to Modjeska to Anaheim--speak of this rich tapestry of cultures. The special places--and the trails exploring them-- protected by the County's parks are priceless assets to the megalopolis.
Mountains Extending the entire length of Orange County's eastern perimeter, the Santa Anas roughly parallel the coast. This coastal range is only about twenty miles inland and the western slopes are often blanketed with fog. The coast has a cooling influence on what is often a very hot range of mountains. Except for the dead of summer, most days offer pleasant hiking.
The Santa Anas are round, brushy, inviting. At first glance, they seem to be inundated by a monotonous sea of chaparral. But the chaparral teems with wildlife, and even the most casual hiker will be amazed at the number of rabbit and quail who hop and flutter from the dense undergrowth. The range is covered with great masses of buckthorn, greasewood, sumac and scrub oak. Alternating with the chaparral are oak woodlands, wide potreros, and boulder-strewn creeks with superb swimming holes.
The range is a granite block, which has been uplifted and depressed below sea level several times. On top of the mountains, marine sediments occur in successive formations. The Santa Anas increase in altitude from north to south, culminating in the twin peaks of Old Saddleback--Mount Modjeska and Mount Santiago.
By following trails charted in this guide, the peak-bagger can conquer Orange County’s highest summits, the Fab Four of the Santa Ana Mountains: Santiago Peak (5,687 feet) and Modjeska Peak (5,496 feet), the two comprising revered landmark Old Saddleback; Trabuco Peak (4,684 feet) and Los Pinos Peak (4,520 feet).
Hills The Chino Hills top out at about 1,800 feet. But summits short in stature can deliver very long views, particularly on a clear winter day. Stand on summits of such high points as Gilman Peak and San Juan Hill and you can see parts of four counties and a delightful expanse of valleys, canyons, hills and steep slopes.
The Anaheim Hills and Laguna Hills have miles of inviting trails and serve up some great views, too. In this guide, you’ll find accounts of many excellent paths that lead to hilltops, bumps on ridges, and knolls (many under the 1,000 foot-mark) that offer great views.
Creeks and Rivers We hike past portions of Orange County’s creeks, both wild and tame, including San Juan Creek, Trabuco Creek (Arroyo Trabuco), Salt Creek, Aliso Creek and Oso Creek. The Santa Ana River extends more than 100 miles from its headwaters in the San Bernardino Mountains and past Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana—in fact, all the way across Orange County—to the Pacific at Huntington Beach.
Lakes Let’s face there aren’t many lake shores to saunter, but paths do lead around OC’s only natural lakes, the rather redundantly named Laguna Lakes in the Laguna Hills. Fans of hiking around freshwater can ramble along reservoirs such as the one in Peters Canyon and around the man-made lakes that form the centerpieces of Craig, Clark, Yorba and other regional parks.
Beaches What could be more (choose one or more) invigorating, romantic, calming, centering or refreshing than a walk on one of Orange County’s beaches? Some of the county’s beaches attract visitors from across the U.S. and around the world. If you ever get jaded and think “it’s just the beach” look at the happy faces and listen to the voices of visitors who may be experiencing what you’re missing.
Suburban Edge Many of the county’s newest cities have pathways that extend along the border between the built and natural world. While certain purists (those who insist a hike is only a hike if it is in the remote backcountry)will scoff at trails that might be all or partially paved, and don’t get all that far away from it all, I believe in a broader definition of a hike in a place such as Orange County. I say hike into the green scene, even if it’s closer to home (and the homes and backyards of others) than you’d prefer.
Inland Empire County borders are often as not created from political gerrymandering as much as by geographical boundaries of rivers and mountain ranges. As does Los Angeles County, Riverside County has some natural features in common with Orange County—the Santa Ana Mountains, the Santa Ana River and the Chino Hills. I’ve detailed hikes in my favorite Riverside parks and preserves.
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