Looking more like a mini-version of South Dakota than the traditional picnic table and tree-lined park site, Badlands Park in Laguna Niguel is a raw piece of land beckoning to the hearty, hiking-boot-clad naturalist.
The 2 1/2-acre natural vegetation park sits atop bluffs above Three Arch Bay, overlooking Wood Canyon. Badlands, so called because of the terrain's sandstone bluffs that resemble South Dakota's Badlands, is on the outskirts of a new housing development on Isle Vista Street.
The park features unusual sandstone formations produced by the effects of wind and water and affords a sweeping view of the coast and the canyon below.
According to Jim Smith, who enjoys hiking from Badlands Park into Woods Canyon, it is a perfect area to enjoy the outdoors.
"I love to hike in the canyon," he said. "These cliffs have been forming for hundreds of years. Badlands probably looks just the way it did when the Indians were the ones standing right here, where I'm standing right now."
Signs posted at the park entrance warn visitors to stay away from the edges of the bluffs and to treat the land with respect and care. There are no picnic tables. No cement paths lead the way through a self-guided tour. This is raw, undeveloped coastal chaparral.
"Anybody that comes out here should be aware of the delicate nature of this land," Smith said. "Irresponsible trashing and destruction will ruin what is here for everyone to enjoy."
Sandstone formations are the result of rapid erosion, which loosens dry soil and cuts soft rocks into strange shapes.
The area below the park, known as the Aliso Greenbelt, features chaparral-covered hills, dotted with coastal sage scrub and pampas grass. Within the greenbelt is Woods Canyon, which in turn opens into Aliso Creek. The greenbelt supports several types of trees that normally grow inland, including the California sycamore and the interior live oak.
Below the bluffs, a coastal plateau offers naturalists an opportunity to closely explore the area's diverse vegetation. Favorable soil conditions and the cooling influence of coastal fog allow plants normally found in the inland mountains and northern coastal California to grow alongside plants prevalent in San Diego County and Baja California.
A concern for the protection of the bluff made Smith reluctant to share Badlands Park with the rest of Orange County.
"This is a real find," he said. "I haven't found any other local hillside where I look this far out into the Pacific and not be standing in somebody's living room."