That extra slice of Thanksgiving pie may weigh on your conscience (not to mention your thighs), and the kids will certainly howl if parents dip into what's left of the Halloween candy, but there is one seasonal indulgence that is guilt-free. The treat is not only pleasing to the senses, it's cheap, healthful and, at this time of the year, it literally grows on trees.
We're talking fall color: the annual showcase of deep ambers, burnished golds and vivid oranges that Mother Nature presents gratis even in temperate Orange County. Granted, this is no New England, but if you're willing to scout around a bit, there's some pretty impressive scenery close by. And if adults play their cards right, the kids might even let them shuffle through a few piles of dry leaves.
As director of Orange County's Department of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, Tim Miller knows his trees. And he says autumn is the best time of year for families to get out and enjoy them.
"The weather right now is beautiful; the sky is blue, and, after a rain, you not only have the fall colors, you get the grasses coming up too," Miller said. "The trees are starting to take a rest, and you have new life, so all in all, it's pretty spectacular."
Miller says he doesn't expect the recent cold weather to shorten (or intensify) the fall color season, which typically lasts in this area into mid-December. However, the show could come to an earlier close if the Santa Ana winds kick up (as they did this week) and strip the trees of leaves.
Miller recommends walking in the morning or late afternoon for the best light and the chance to spot migrating birds as well as deer, coyotes and the occasional bobcat (from a distance).
Although by no means comprehensive, the following list includes a few of Miller's favorite fall walking spots in the county's park system, along with suggestions from local hikers, bikers and nature buffs. Most of these sites offer ranger- or docent-led tours on a regular basis, but because of staffing shortages, it's wise to call before you go. Private tours can also be arranged. There is a parking fee at most of these locations, so be sure to pack a few bucks along with those extra socks and Barney canteens.
Trails in these areas vary in difficulty, but unless otherwise stated, all of these locales offer some access for young children and babes-in-backpacks.
O'Neill Regional Park
California sycamores are the big draw in this 3,000-acre parkland, which Miller says is home to one of the county's largest and most mature populations of these deciduous trees.
The sycamores are dressed in a brilliant golden yellow right now, and although you'll have to wait until next fall to take in the park's flashiest show (the 900-acre Arroyo Trabuco Wilderness isn't scheduled to open to the public until February or March), there are scattered groves of these trees throughout the park. Also look for the California holly, or toyon plant, a shade shrub that now sports bright red "Christmas berries," and masses of poison oak (remember kids: Look but don't touch), now dressed in shades of green, yellow and scarlet.
In O'Neill and other wilderness areas, Miller suggests you keep an eye out for the California buckwheat, a small rounded shrub currently topped by rusty red heads.
O'Neill park ranger Sara Girard coordinates a "Family Stroll" every Sunday afternoon at 4 and a campfire program on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Both are free. Maps outlining the park's six miles of nature trails are available at the park office, said Girard, who added that trails in the western section offer some of the best vistas.
\o7 O'Neill Regional Park, 30892 Trabuco Canyon Road, Trabuco Canyon. (714) 858-9365.\f7
Ronald W. Caspers Regional Park
Saturdays and Sundays at 9:30 a.m., rangers at this 7,600-acre park lead adult visitors on a one-mile walk through several natural environments, including an oak woodland and scattered sycamore groves. During the walk, guides discuss local natural history and demonstrate how Native Americans used some of the plants found here. Keep an eye out for possums, deer and coyotes. There's also a 7 p.m. campfire program most Sundays, also for adults only.
Note: The park is restricted to visitors ages 18 and over, due to the danger of mountain lions in the area.
\o7 Ronald W. Caspers Regional Park, 33401 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano. (714) 728-0235.\f7
Aliso & Woods Canyons Regional Park
Stop by this 3,400-acre parkland on the first Saturday of each month at 8:15 a.m., and you can join a "fairly easy" three-mile walk through the canyon, says park ranger Tom Maloney. But keep your hands to yourself should you venture further up the canyon.
"Poison oak is the most colorful plant we have here," Maloney warns.