Hiking is not a glamorous sport. It gained some favor during the '70s environmental awareness boom (raise your hand if there's a backpack gathering dust in your garage) but it never achieved the sort of sexy, flashy aura some other outdoor pursuits can boast.
Skiers, river kayakers, surfers and mountain bikers get to bounce and race and wipe out spectacularly. Their adrenaline pumps. Ever fashion conscious, they get to wear outrageously gaudy duds made of stretchy, skintight, space-age fabrics. They rely on flashy technological contraptions that grow obsolete faster than home computers. They get to be on light beer commercials.
Hikers, on the other hand, tend to plod. Their wardrobes run to old T-shirts and cutoff jeans. They don't spawn personality cults--no hiker chicks waiting faithfully at the trail head for their hiker dudes. They eat trail mix. They don't end up on "Wide World of Sports."
But what hikers lack in image, they make up elsewhere. Where the equipment-intensive sports tend to use the great outdoors as a blurred backdrop for their various forms of thrill seeking, hikers immerse themselves in the medium. They walk slowly and get to know a place, even become part of it. No rush. Done right, it's mobile meditation, a temporary but revivifying respite from the less savory aspects of civilization.
And that's more important than ever in Orange County, where the stucco tide that long ago swamped the flatlands continues its inexorable rise into the once-pristine hill and canyon country. Luckily, getting out into the wilds for a few hours still doesn't require a lot of planning or driving. Orange County has miles of scenic and challenging trails left, especially in the Santa Ana Mountains region along the Riverside County border.
State, county and city parks can provide ample introduction to the local backcountry. The trails, ranging from short strolls to strenuous multimile hikes, are well marked. Maps often are provided, there is plenty of parking, and many parks have nature centers and posted nature trails to acquaint visitors with the local flora and fauna. Guided walks may be offered on weekends.
This guide is intended as an introduction to the best parks in the county for hiking. A few items to note before setting out:
* Equipment. Keep it simple. Sturdy walking shoes--even sneakers--or lightweight trail boots are adequate for most purposes. Take along at least a quart of water. A basic first aid kit is not a bad idea on longer hikes. Bring sunglasses. Other items, depending on personal interests, might include binoculars or a camera. Keep the essentials in the trunk of your car and you're ready to go whenever the mood strikes you.
* When to go. June is really the last month of the county's hiking season--July, August and September are simply too hot and dry in most spots. Even in June, the midday heat can quickly sap the fun out of a hike, so go in early morning or late afternoon. Keep your eyes open for the last bloom of the spring wildflowers.
* Trail dangers. Local hiking, especially in the parks, need not be a dangerous activity. Poison oak, with its reddish leaflets grouped in threes, is a nuisance. Learn to identify it. Rattlesnakes sometimes sun themselves on the trails but they are easy to spot and avoid. Mountain lion warnings are posted in some county parks, and a mountain lion did attack a young girl in Caspers Park a few years back. They are not likely to attack an adult. Be aware of other trail users; equestrians and, increasingly, mountain bikers share the trails in many parks with hikers. Stay to the right of your trail and be alert on blind curves, especially at the bottom of a descent. Most mountain bikers are courteous and conscientious, but some are not.
* Trail etiquette. This is common sense stuff: Stay on the trail, don't litter and don't smoke or use an open flame for any reason. Check the park rules when you enter.
* Graduating. Hikers who want to leave the parks and move on to new challenges can explore the many trails of the Cleveland National Forest. Some of these treks can be extended to overnight jaunts. An excellent guide is "Trail Guide to the Santa Ana Mountains" by Ken Croker, who as a longtime Sierra Club volunteer is responsible for the upkeep of many of the trails he describes. Another good introduction is Jerry Schad's "Afoot and Afield in Orange County." Both can be found in camping stores and some local bookshops.
* Caspers Regional Park: The county's best park for hiking encompasses 7,600 acres of the Santa Ana Mountains' coastal slope. The trails, most of which depart from the Old Corral Picnic Area at the end of the park road off the Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano (see map, Page 12), go for miles and are interconnected to make possible dozens of different loops, allowing some variety for frequent visitors.