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ACCESS TO ORANGE COUNTRY : Rediscovered Wilderness of 'New' Parks Restores Alternatives to Stucco, Malls and Cul-De-Sacs

April 08, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

I used to walk almost daily through Orange County's backcountry as a teen, and I never met a fence I didn't hop.

Not to make excuses for a boyhood vice, but all the good hiking was still officially off-limits back then, in the mid-'70s. The Cleveland National Forest had some good trails if you had time (and wheels), but the hills closer to home were mostly in the hands of private landowners.

Oak glens and sycamore-lined streams, coyotes and rattlesnakes and mountain lion tracks--all those things waited just beyond the bland edge of suburbia, and a few strands of barbed wire seemed no barrier at all to a kid with an aversion to stucco in those pre-Nintendo days. The remote possibility of getting chased off the property only added to the allure.

If I'm a semi-reformed trespasser these days, it's mostly because some of those same lands since have been opened to the public, slowly but steadily. Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park above San Juan Capistrano set the local standard: It's a large track of open land with little in the way of "improvements" aside from a place to park the car and a network of trails.

Since Caspers opened in 1974, other large "wilderness" parks have come on line closer to Orange County's suburban core. There are the state parks, Chino Hills and Crystal Cove, bookending the county north and south. The county's regional park system has in the last couple of years seen two fine additions, Whiting Ranch (near Rancho Santa Margarita) and Aliso and Wood Canyons (near Laguna Niguel).

Two new county parks will open this month, offering still more options to locals who want to escape the asphalt without resorting to anything illicit. Most of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, to be dedicated Saturday (reservations required: (714) 834-4338), will be open only on Saturdays and only for docent-led tours, but it promises someday to be the jewel of the county's park system. Peters Canyon Regional Park, east of Tustin, is more modest in scale but offers its own pleasures.

More good news on the wilderness front: The Irvine Co. has contracted with the Nature Conservancy to conduct weekend tours at two future county park areas. One is Limestone Canyon, a splendid 5,300-acre stretch north of the current Whiting Ranch Regional Park. The other is open space between Crystal Cove State Park and the Irvine Coast section of the Laguna Coast park to be dedicated Saturday.

These docent-led tours (hiking, biking and equestrian) are expected to begin in May, although details are still being worked out.

LAGUNA COAST WILDERNESS PARK The complicated story of this new park involves a cast of thousands representing numerous governmental agencies (the cities of Laguna Beach and Irvine, the county, the state and even, indirectly, the Feds) along with a group of very dedicated citizens (the Laguna Greenbelt people and others) and the usual landowners and developers. We could get into the history, but we won't.

"It's taken me two years to make sense of all this, and it's almost impossible to explain in a day," said Larry Sweet, the county ranger in charge of the new park. So instead of explaining, he showed, with a rambling five-hour tour (by four-wheel-drive and by foot) accompanied by his dry-witted, bantering narrative.

The tour revealed lush, sycamore-shaded canyons, high ridges with commanding views of the Pacific, patches of flat grassland (disturbed by decades of cattle-grazing but still shot through with wildflowers), Orange County's only natural lakes, and stands of coast live oak.

Four distinct areas of the park, totaling about 3,200 acres, will open with Saturday's dedication. Only one, the Laguna Heights parcel, will be open daily and without supervision. The parcel butts up to the westernmost edge of Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park and will be operated as a section of that park.

The other three areas will be open on the second, third and fourth Saturdays of the month, only for docent-led tours. Uses will alternate; on any given Saturday, one area will be open to mountain bike tours, another to hikers and the third to equestrians. The main reason for the restricted access, according to Sweet, is the delicate nature of the coastal sage habitat in the park, home of the tiny but controversial California gnatcatcher.

East of Laguna Canyon Road and north of El Toro Road is the James Dilley Greenbelt Preserve, which includes part of the largest of the three Laguna Lakes. This portion of the park will be open to mountain bikers the second Saturday of the month, hikers the third Saturday and equestrians the fourth Saturday.

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