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SPOTLIGHT : THE HILLS ARE ALIVE : Take a Closer Look at the Santa Ana Mountains and You See Hikers, Bikers and Other Critters Having Fun

May 13, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

It's tempting to call the Santa Ana Mountains a well-kept secret, but then how discreet can a mountain range really be, especially one on the very edge of urban Orange County?

The twin peaks of Old Saddleback (5,496-foot Modjeska and 5,687-foot Santiago) lend the county its most familiar landmark, a comforting presence but one that doesn't necessarily command a lot of day-to-day attention. Perhaps it's most accurate to say that people know the mountains are there, but generally don't pay them much mind.

That's too bad. Though they may be short on flash--no ski resorts, no reservoirs full of power boaters, no granite spires--the Santa Anas are long on more subtle pleasures. For those who know where to look, and are willing to get off the freeways, there are lush canyons, dense oak woodlands, year-round streams with tumbling waterfalls and even Olympic-size swimming holes, tree-shaded campgrounds, sweeping views and, especially, miles and miles of surprisingly pristine and roadless wilderness.

"The Santa Ana Mountains is the closest region of really wild California," said Allan A. Schoenherr, a professor of ecology at Fullerton College and author of "A Natural History of California" (University of California Press, 1992). "So many people don't even have a notion of how close we are to some really beautiful country."

While summer can be hot above the tree-shaded canyons, May remains a great month for hiking, particularly in the mornings. Many of the wildflowers are still blooming, the streams and waterfalls are still flowing, and the temperatures aren't overwhelming. Good hiking can continue through June, when the overcast mornings cut down on the heat.

The Santa Anas occupy most of the southeastern corner of the county, rising a few miles inland from the beach and stretching into Riverside and San Diego counties. Most of the mountainsides are blanketed with the fragrant, mostly evergreen plants of the scrub communities (coastal sage scrub and chaparral), with scattered stands of coast live oak, canyon streams lined with Western sycamore and arroyo willow, and even a few coniferous forests at the higher elevations, with big-cone Douglas firs and Coulter pines.

Grizzly bears once roamed the range in abundance, but the last one was killed in 1908 near the hamlet of Holy Jim (it was the last wild grizzly killed in California, according to historian Jim Sleeper). Among the big mammals that remain are mountain lions (rarely seen), bobcats, gray foxes, coyotes and mule deer, along with a host of smaller mammals ranging from several species of mice to skunks and raccoons.

The mountains are home to some botanical curiosities, including stands of the rare Tecate cypress, along with the only Southern California stands of madrone (a manzanita-like shrub) and the knob-coned pine. Marine fossils, evidence that the area was once under a shallow sea, can be found in some of the road cuts.

Most people who experience the Santa Ana Mountains do so through a handful of county parks (such as Irvine, Santiago Oaks and O'Neill on the edge of the range or Caspers, closer to the heart) or by driving Santiago Canyon Road, which skirts the canyon towns of Trabuco, Modjeska and Silverado. Others know Ortega Highway, which cuts across the heart of the range from San Juan Capistrano to Lake Elsinore.

While Ortega Highway is a beautiful drive, some of the wildest and most pristine areas of the Santa Ana Mountains can be found on the less-beaten paths. "The best advice I can give is to get off the main roads and get onto the dirt roads and trails, if you really want to see what's back there," said Kenneth S. Croker, author of "The Santa Ana Mountains Trail Guide," now in its fourth edition (Whale & Eagle Publishing Co., 1991).

This slim volume was the first trail guide, when originally published in 1976, to give serious attention to the Santa Anas, and remains the essential guide to trails that lie within the Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest (which encompasses most of the range). Croker started hiking the range about 30 years ago and as a member of the Sierra Club began organizing volunteer trail maintenance and construction on National Forest Service land, a task he continues.

The main season for serious hiking in the range stretches from late autumn to late spring, but that doesn't mean the mountains are off-limits in summer. "The canyon bottoms can be quite pleasant year-round," Croker said.

Trails in the Santa Anas include some that stick to shady canyon bottoms and others that climb to ridgelines with commanding views. Truck trails and other dirt roads, most of which are open to vehicles at least part of the year, can make for good, accessible hikes.

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