By John McKinney
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James Dilley Preserve
Canyon, Edison, To-the-Lake Trails
From Laguna Canyon Road to Barbara’s Lake is 3.5-mile loop with 300-foot elevation gain.
Lakes are few and far between in Orange County and for the most part are decorative contrivances created for city parks, golf courses and suburban neighborhoods.
Orange County’s only natural lakes are the Laguna Lakes in Laguna Canyon. The largest of the three lakes is delightful to visit, particularly for the hiker, because it’s accessible only by a trail through the engaging James Dilley Preserve.
Early maps referred to the lakes as laguna, Spanish for pond, while modern maps generally opt for the rather redundant Laguna Lakes. The lakes are replenished by rainfall and possibly some water from underground springs.
Barbara’s Lake, largest of the lakes, honors conservation activist Barbara Stuart. Fringed by bulrush, cattail and willows, the lake offers habitat for coots, grebes and mallards.
From the preserve’s high points, hikers get good views of Bubbles Lake, named for the hippopotamus Bubbles who escaped from Lion Country Safari in the mid-1970s and took up residence in the little lake located on the west side of Laguna Canyon Road. For a time, the wayward hippo eluded capture, staying underwater by day and emerging only at night. Alas for Bubbles, she was shot with tranquilizers and died while attempting to elude her captors.
In the 1960s, James Dilley, a Laguna Beach bookseller, began promoting his vision: the creation of a band of parks and preserves surrounding Laguna Beach. Dilley’s notion of a greenbelt ringing the coastal town was enthusiastically supported by local conservationists, and a broad cross-section of the community.
Thanks to “The Father of the Greenbelt,” plus four decades of cooperative efforts among conservation groups, park agencies and the area’s major landowner, the Irvine Company, Laguna Beach is green on three sides and Pacific blue on the fourth. All Southland communities should be so fortunate!
The preserve, owned by the city and managed by the county’s parks department was established in 1978 and is the oldest portion of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Spearheaded by the nonprofit Laguna Canyon Foundation, conservation efforts continue in order to expand the park, preserve other hills and canyons, and open up the greenbelt to increased public use.
The preserve is something of an island on the land. It’s bordered by Laguna Canyon Road on the west, El Toro Road and Leisure World on the east and the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor (toll road) on the south. The Laguna Lakes form the preserve’s north boundary. James Dilley Preserve’s “islandness” is apparent from looking at the map and even more obvious when contemplating the landscape from atop the preserve’s ridges.
Canyon Trail, part of my suggested loop around the preserve, is the first leg of a nature trail with numbered wooden markers keyed to an interpretive pamphlet (sometimes available at the trailhead). The pamphlet is by no means necessary to enjoy the hike.
Directions to trailhead: From the San Diego Freeway (405) in Irvine, exit onto the Laguna Freeway (133), which soon becomes Laguna Canyon Road. Drive south miles to the signed entrance for James Dilley Preserve on the left (east) side of the road and park in the dirt lot. The preserve entrance is just north of San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor (toll road).
The hike: From the parking area, take the dirt road east and soon join Canyon Trail. The path swings north up the canyon, which is lined with coastal live oak and sycamore, white sage, black sage and buckwheat.
Leaving the moist canyon bottom, the path climbs higher slopes with a change in elevation to prickly pear cactus, lemonadeberry and monkey-flower. Near a ridgeline the path forks. The left branch, sometimes called the Eagle Scout Trail, descends south toward the trail head.
Continue up the remains of a dirt road to the top of the hill and you’ll see a gravel road leading downhill west toward Laguna Canyon Road and a steep Edison fire road Edison Trail) heading north. I prefer taking the Edison Trail for the views, which can include the San Gabriel Mountains on a clear winter day.
The more immediate view from the trail is of Orange County’s largest natural lake, with a surface area of about 12 acres. Cattle grazed the slopes back of the lake for more than 150 years.
Barbara’s Nature Trail, another interpretive trail, leads along the lakeshore to an old pump house, and an intersection with To The Lake Trail, which heads south, parallel to Laguna Canyon Road back to the trailhead.
For more of John McKinney’s hiking tips and trails, visit www.thetrailmaster.com
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