Far too steep for suburban housing developments, the Box Springs Mountains in Riverside County remain a place to get away from it all. "It" in this instance is the hustle and bustle of the Inland Empire, which surrounds this little-known mountain range.
Little-known, but not remote. Four freeways--the San Bernardino, Riverside, Pomona and Escondido--surround the Box Springs Mountains.
The peaks of the range rise sharply from the floor of the Moreno Valley to 3,000 feet and offer commanding clear-day views of the city of Riverside, the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains, as well as a great portion of the Inland Empire.
The mountain's namesake peak, as well as 2,389 acres of native Southern California coastal sage terrain, is preserved in Box Springs Mountain Park, under the jurisdiction of Riverside County. The park is a natural island amid one of the fastest-growing urban and suburban areas in California.
Vegetation includes members of the coastal sage scrub community: chamise, lemonade berry, brittlebush, white sage, black sage and buckwheat. More than 30 types of wildflowers brighten the park's slopes in the spring.
Coyotes, jack rabbits, skunks and kangaroo rats are attracted by the tiny springs that trickle from the mountain. Wildlife biologists call Box Springs Mountain a "Habitat Island" because it provides a home for animals while being surrounded by development.
The mountains, along with "The Badlands" to the east of the range, were shaped in part by the San Jacinto Fault, a major branch of the San Andreas system. Some geologists believe that the granites of Box Springs were once attached to the granites of the San Jacinto Mountains, but were moved to their present location, about 20 miles away, by lateral displacement along the fault.
Perhaps the most eccentric resident of Box Springs Mountain was Helene Troy Arlington, who moved to the mountain in 1945. The self-styled hermit secluded herself in a mountain retreat she called Noli Me Tangere, a Latin phrase meaning "do not touch me."
Arlington was devoted to dogs, particularly Dalmatians, and kept many of them in her home. She wrote canine poems and magazine articles under the pen name "Dear Dog Lady." On a plot of land next to her home she established "Arlington Cemetery," a final resting place for her four-legged friends.
Dogs, in fact, were her only friends. She sold her land to the Riverside County Parks Department in 1974 and moved to Arlington Virginia to be near the grave of her long-dead husband Masefield. She wrote the parks department: "There was no reason to remain there any longer, as I still do not have one friend in California."
Park trails include 3-mile-long Pigeon Pass Trail, which offers great views, and 1 1/2-mile-long Ridge Trail, which travels over Box Springs Mountain. (Avoid Two Trees Trail, which climbs from Two Trees Road in Riverside to meet Box Springs Mountain Road inside the park. Trail head access is poor, as is the trail itself.)
The park's premier path is Skyline Trail, which loops around Box Springs Mountain. If Riverside can be said to have a skyline, this is it; not tall office buildings but sky-scraping granite and a top-of-the-world view.
Directions to trail head: From the Pomona Freeway (60) in Moreno Valley, exit on Pigeon Pass Road. Proceed some 4 1/2 miles north, then a short distance west. Pigeon Pass Road turns north again, but you continue west, joining a dirt road and following the signs into Box Springs Mountain Park. Signed Skyline Trail is on your right.
The hike: From Box Springs Mountain Road, Skyline Trail heads west, soon serving up views of the city of Riverside. Next the trail bends north, passing rock outcroppings that are geologically and aesthetically similar to those found atop Mt. Rubidoux, Riverside landmark and site of a long-popular Easter service.
The path comes to an unsigned junction. Skyline Trail angles east and begins bending around a hill back to the trail head. Hardier hikers can join an extension of the trail known as "Second Loop" and make an even larger circle back to the trail head.
Where: Box Springs Mountain Park. Distance: 4-6 miles round trip, with 500-foot elevation gain. Terrain: Fractured granite peaks above Moreno Valley. Highlights: Views of the Inland Empire and San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains. Degree of difficulty: Moderate. Precautions: Park is prone to temperature extremes-freezing in January, more than 100 degrees in the summer. For more information: Call the Riverside County Parks Dept. at (714) 275-4310.