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A Walk on the Wild Side

Parks: Whatever one seeks, Orange County has just the right facility or place to find it.


Simba looked dazedly at his paws and leaned back against a log as the drug, telazol, began to take effect.

Simba is a 19-month-old, 100-pound mountain lion in the Orange County Zoo at Irvine Regional Park in Orange. Simba was anesthetized for a few hours recently, as zoo staff moved him a few yards to a new habitat designed specially for him courtesy of Disneyland.

Simba is just one of the many surprises in Orange County's large parks. Within the county's borders, there are 19 regional parks, two state parks as well as a portion of the Cleveland National Forest. The terrain at these parks ranges from underwater to snowy peaks and each one contains something unique.

The 477-acre Irvine Regional Park is one of the most well-rounded parks in the county, offering something for everybody. It's mostly a recreational park featuring three large picnic areas with barbecues. For nature lovers, the park's surrounding foothills support a variety of wildlife as well as walking trails and a four-mile equestrian trail.

Irvine Regional Park also offers a plethora of activities for kids--playing fields, pony rides and bicycle and paddle boat rentals. The Irvine Park Railroad, a 1/3-scale replica of the 1863 C.P. Huntington locomotive that made the first intercontinental crossing, winds around the park's recreational area and two lakes.

Opened in 1898 after the land was donated by James Irvine, the park is the oldest regional park in California and it bears that distinction well. Nestled in a grove of sycamore and oak trees, some of which date back 400 years, its 1930s-era buildings and light posts as well as its famous, roaming herd of peacocks give it a sense of history.

"What is special about this park is it has family tradition," said Tim Miller, manager of regional parks operations for Orange County. "Year after year, decade after decade, they come to use this park."

Miller said he remembers coming to Irvine Regional Park with his grandparents in the 1940s before he became the supervising ranger at the park in 1983.

One of the park's main attractions is the three-acre Orange County Zoo, where Simba's new habitat is just yards away from Samson, the famous hot-tubbing black bear.

Samson became a celebrity in 1994 after a Monrovia couple videotaped him lounging in their hot tub pulling fruit from neighborhood trees. Gov. Pete Wilson officially welcomed Samson to the Orange County Zoo in February.

Simba, who shares his name with the title character in "The Lion King", was brought to the zoo after he was found near Lake Tahoe in 1994, apparently abandoned by his mother. About 900 visitors participated in a naming contest and "Simba" was the winner by popular demand. Disney officials promptly "adopted" Simba, agreeing to help pay for his keep.

"He's one of the healthiest cats that I've seen that has been this long in captivity," said Richard Evans, chief veterinarian for the county who was in charge of Simba's recent move.

For those more interested in saber-toothed cats than modern-day Simbas and Samsons, Ralph B. Clark Park is the place to go. Clark Park, located in Buena Park, is like the La Brea Tar Pits of Orange County--featuring rich fossil beds and a museum surrounded by picnic areas and play grounds.

The park's fossil beds were discovered when CalTrans was building the Santa Ana and Riverside freeways from 1956-70. The county acquired the property in 1974 and opened it to the public as a park in 1981.

The park's most popular program for children, "Fun with Fossils" requires advance reservation and typically is booked by October for the remainder of the school year. It features a tour of the park's museum, called an "interpretive center", and a chance to excavate a marine fossil bed formed about 1 1/2 million years ago, when Buena Park was beach-front property.

A different fossil bed in the park, one formed about 400,000 years ago, produced one of the park's most significant fossil discoveries--part of a skull from a llama of the Paleozoic period that differed from other llama fossils found around the United States from that period.

"It just filled in some gaps on the llama family tree," said park ranger and paleontologist Lisa Babilonia-Jones.

For those who would rather exercise their own limbs than study the limbs of ancient creatures, Crystal Cove State Park offers an astonishing variety of outdoor activities.

Located between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach on Pacific Coast Highway, Crystal Cove offers 3 1/2 miles of coastline for fishing, swimming, surfing and scuba diving.

Its unique, 1,150-acre underwater park extends to a depth of 120-feet, up to a half-mile off-shore. Part of the underwater park is a marine refuge in which invertebrates are protected by law. This summer, the underwater park's two underwater trails are expected to be ready for use by scuba divers.

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