Chino Hills State Park, which reaches parts of Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, preserves some much-needed "breathing room" in this fast-growing area. Nearly 3 million people live within sight of the Chino Hills, and more than 9 million live within a 40-mile radius.
The park, which is the state's most expensive ever, cost more than $50 million by the time it opened for full-time use in 1986. Some development (but not too much) is in the works, but mostly the Chino Hills will continue to be the province of horseback riders, mountain bikers and hikers.
The 12,000-acre park is near the northern end of what geologists call the Peninsular Ranges Geomorphic Province. Together with the Puente Hills to the northwest, the Chino Hills form a roughly triangular 35-square-mile area of valleys, canyons and steep slopes blanketed by extensive grasslands.
High temperatures, often combined with heavy smog, suggest that a summer visit can be something of an ordeal.
One of the more tranquil spots in the park is Water Canyon, where a creek runs through a long, narrow line of oak and sycamore.
You can begin your hike to Water Canyon from the small park visitors center. However, the tangle of trails that needs to be negotiated to the park's campground, where the path to Water Canyon really begins, is apt to befuddle most first-time visitors. I'd suggest checking in at the visitors center, driving the short distance on the park road to the campground and leaving your car there.
Directions to trail head: Despite its location so close to the metropolis, Chino Hills State Park can be a bit tricky to find. The park is west of California 71, between the Riverside (91) and Pomona (60) freeways. Traveling south on 71 from 60, turn right on Los Serranos Road, then make a quick left onto Pomona-Rincon Road. (Heading north on 71, you will spot a left-turn lane leading directly to Pomona-Rincon Road before reaching Los Serranos Road.) Half a mile of travel brings you to Soquel Canyon Road. Take this road to Elinvar Road and turn left. Just after Elinvar turns east and becomes Sapphire Road, you'll see the signed park road on your right.
Enter the park on this unpaved road (it returns to pavement in two miles) and follow signs to the park office. To the right are the ranger station and visitors center, where you can check in and pick up a park map. The trail begins at the far south end of the campground.
The hike: Follow the road from the gate, skirting tree-lined Aliso Canyon and heading across a flatland.
After half a mile's walk from the trail head, you'll dip in and out of the often-dry Aliso Canyon creek bed and arrive at an intersection. A left turn here would take you into Lower Aliso Canyon; but turn right, and in a very short time you'll join unsigned Water Canyon Trail on your right.
The path leads through the willow- and sycamore-lined canyon. The diverse flora en route includes walnut trees, big old oaks, cacti and a few more trees of heaven.
The trail continues almost a mile and a half before ending in a perfect-for-picnics oak woodland.
Water Canyon Trail Where: Chino Hills State Park Distance: Campground to Water Canyon, 4 miles round trip, with 400-foot elevation gain. Terrain: Rolling grassland, oak-lined canyon. Highlights: A look at the "wild side" of Southern California. Degree of Difficulty: Easy-moderate. For More Information: Contact Chino Hills State Park, 1879 Jackson St. Riverside 92504, (909) 780-6222.