By John McKinney
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Get the most out of your time on the trail! Inspiration, information, practical tips & entertaining stories
Stewards of the Land
County parks, that is to say the beach parks, regional parks and wilderness parks are under the stewardship of the County of Orange Harbors Beaches & Parks. Many county parks attract visitors because of their recreation facilities—basketball courts, baseball diamonds picnic areas and much more. However, some of these recreation-oriented parks also have natural areas that invite a hike.
By definition, regional parks are usually 50 acres or more in size and provide a wide range of amenities. These parks were designed to—and indeed do—attract people from up to 30 miles away. Regional parks offer significant recreational or natural attractions usually not found in local city parks.
The county park system includes more than 35,000 acres of varied landscapes that are laced with trails. This guide describes hikes in more than two dozen Orange County parks. The ratio of developed to undeveloped parkland varies widely from park to park.
Some OC parks, such Mile Square Park, are highly improved for recreational purposes and as a kind of after-though offer the hiker small “Natural Areas” suitable for short walks. Other parks are more evenly divided between natural and developed land. Irvine Ranch Regional Park, for example, has plenty of facilities (plus a zoo and paddleboats around a lake) and yet also boasts an engaging trail systems in the hills surrounding the developed area of the park. William R. Mason Regional Park offers plenty of lakeside leisure activities, as well as a natural habitat that can only be reached by trail.
Wilderness parks, such as Caspers and Laguna Coast, are mostly wild terrain, offer only the most basic of facilities, and are the domain of hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers. Alas, the county’s five wilderness parks—Aliso & Wood Canyons, Laguna Coast, Limestone-Whiting, Ronald W. Caspers and General Thomas F. Riley—are not evenly distributed through the county, but located in the southern and far eastern sections of OC. Wilderness Parks offer the hiker plenty of room to roam.
The California Department of Parks and Recreation Parks has a major presence along the OC Coast; in fact, state parkland comprises about 30 percent of the county’s coastline. Huntington and Bolsa Chica state beaches add up to more than seven miles of sand strand and a very long beach-hike. Doheny State Beach and San Clemente State Beach offer camping and Crystal Cove State Park offers the hiker several more miles of beach and bluffs to explore, as well as a large expanse in the coastal hills to wander.
Chino Hills State Park, located in Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, preserves some 13,000 acres of rolling grassland and lovely oak woodland. An excellent trail system offers tranquil and away-from-it-all hiking.
Cleveland National Forest The Santa Ana Mountains came under federal protection in 1893 when the Trabuco Canyon Forest Reserve was formed. The name was changed to the Trabuco National Forest in 1906; the forest later was enlarged and eventually assigned to the Cleveland National Forest in 1908. Trabuco (Spanish for "blunderbuss” is a name left behind by the 1769 Portola Expedition. Today, 136,500 acres of the Santa Ana Mountains are included in the national forest's Trabuco District.
The Ortega Highway, which crosses the Santa Anas from San Juan Capstrano to Lake Elsinore, offers access to many trailheads. Other hikes require travel on rough dirt roads.
Highlight of the range is the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, set aside by Congress in 1984. The 40,000-acre preserve protects San Mateo Canyon, a relatively untouched land of 200-year-old oaks, potreros and quiet pools.
The Irvine Company Make no mistake, the longtime ranching company builds homes, tens of thousands of them since the 1950s when it began to change its business from ranching and farming. The Irvine Co., which at one point in history owned about one acre of every six in Orange County, and seems to do everything in a big way, has created the 50,000-acre Irvine Ranch Reserve in the heart of the county. At present, access to portions of this remarkable country is by guided tour only. The Irvine Ranch Land Trust was founded in 2005 to “protect, restore and enhance the natural resources” of the Reserve.
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