TRABUCO CANYON — Choked with bushes, the old trail is seldom used, but Tim Miller pushes on, ignoring the scratches on his skin and the burrs clinging to his socks.
"The canyon," says the county parks chief, "is just a little farther. The view will be incredible."
He isn't exaggerating. A few hundred feet farther, the trail opens wide to expose a scene of immense power and beauty. Overhead towers an amphitheater of sandstone cliffs with a sheer drop of 200 feet or more.
Over thousands of years, wind and rain have sculpted the bluffs, carving out bizarre rock formations that would be at home in a museum. The hot afternoon sun burns brightly, casting a strange, reddish glow over the entire landscape. "There is nothing like this in any park I know of in Southern California," Miller said.
Part of a range of steep cliffs known to local naturalists as the "Grand Canyon of Orange County," the 1,500-acre Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park has never been open to the public--until now. County parks officials recently decided to allow public access to the park beginning next month--years ahead of schedule. Ceremonies marking its opening will be held Dec. 12, and afterward, local hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers will be allowed to roam the diverse terrain of the ranch for the first time.
Located near Trabuco Canyon between Lake Forest Drive and El Toro Road, Whiting Ranch is part of a grand plan by the county to eventually link up with the proposed 5,500-acre Limestone Canyon Regional Park, forming a site that would be rivaled in size only by Caspers Wilderness Park and a 10,000-acre super park being formed in the Laguna Canyon area.
The few people who know Whiting Ranch well say the land is incredibly rich in plant and animal life and has natural features that are completely different from what any other park in the county can offer.
"It's an absolutely magnificent park," said Alice Sorensen, a member of the Orange County Trails Advisory Committee, "and it's the closest we get to pristine, natural conditions in Orange County."
For several years, access to Whiting Ranch was a perk of the job to Randy Wheeler. The mountain biker worked for Hon Development Inc., the firm that bought the ranch in 1987 before granting it to the county in 1989 in exchange for approval of a 1,500-unit housing project.
At 5 a.m. on some days, Wheeler and a group of friends would meet on an old cattle trail and bike for miles through thick groves of live oak, often spotting mule deer, bobcat, foxes and, once or twice, even mountain lion tracks.
"It's such a beautiful piece of property," Wheeler said. "It's almost like you're not in Southern California, everything is so peaceful."
Miller said outdoors enthusiasts can look forward to a wide variety of terrain. The northeast end of the park features the sandstone cliffs-known as "the Sink" because from the air, portions of the bluff area appear to be crumbling into the ground. The portion of the park stretching toward Lake Forest ranges from heavily foliated flatlands to grassy hillsides and shaded canyon bottoms.
"That's what is so fabulous about this place," Miller said. "It's incredibly diverse. Yet it's still one of the hidden secrets of Orange County that nobody knows about. Now, people will have an opportunity to see it all."
County records show that Whiting Ranch was originally part of the Rancho Canada de los Alisos lands acquired by Jose Antonio Fernando Serrano from the Mexican government in 1841. Through bad land deals and back taxes, Serrano lost most of his property to Dwight Whiting, a Bostonian who purchased about 80% of the land for $23,000 in 1884.
Whiting anticipated the construction of links to the San Diego-Los Angeles railway, and around those tracks grew the community of El Toro, according to county documents.
After the Whitings sold the property in 1959, it passed through several hands until bought by Hon Development in 1987.
Ernie Eckhoff, a 74-year-old cattle rancher from Orange who leased the property for almost 20 years between 1969 and 1989, said he remembers several close encounters with wildlife on the ranch over the years.
"It's pretty nice land for animals," he said. "I remember one of our burros being killed by a mountain lion about four years back. It's also a No. 1 place for rattlesnakes. On a hot day, I can remember one sitting on a dirt road over there, sitting there like he owned the place."
Two months ago, the opening of Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park was still years in the future. The process for preparing a park for the public is long, exhaustive and expensive, Miller said, often taking five to seven years. But classifying the ranch as a wilderness park enabled the county to open it.
"A wilderness park means development is minimal," Miller said. "We cut most of the red tape. All we will probably ever have on Whiting is a parking lot and possibly a small nature center sometime later."