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Best Things Around Are Sometimes Free

The county has plenty of spots where you can get a wilderness experience without ponying up for the privilege.


Strolling--or jogging, or cycling--through Orange County's wild places can offer a great sense of freedom.

That freedom, alas, is not always free.

The regional parks offer some of the tastiest wilderness in the county--Caspers Wilderness Park is a particular gem--but entrance will cost you a couple bucks per carload--up to $4 on weekends, thanks to the bankruptcy.

State parks and beaches, also, come with a price tag. Crystal Cove State Park, whose El Moro Canyon is a mountain bike Mecca, charges $5 for parking.

Still, for nature lovers on a budget, there are plenty of local opportunities to feel real earth beneath your feet without having to pony up for the privilege. Here are a few personal favorites:

* Upper Newport Bay, with its abundance of winged critters, is a great spot for birding, strolling, cycling, jogging--you name it. Backbay Drive (accessed from Jamboree Road) curves gently around the eastern edge of the bay, with plenty of shoulder for walking and an ample paved bike path. And, in a similar vein:

* Bolsa Chica offers some of the salt-marsh charms of Newport in a slightly different package. The expanses of water aren't as great, but the variety of bird life is (the colonies of nesting terns can be a sight).

The walking here is entirely off the road, across a little wooden footbridge with splendid views of feeding birds. The free parking is about midway between Warner Avenue and Golden West Street, on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway.

* While I'm on the subject of birds, I'll mention a great place to spot migrating songbirds, which also doubles as arguably the finest urban park in all the county. Huntington Central Park is a great, tree-filled swath of green that is as enticing to human visitors as it is to the avian variety.

A nature center stands as rough-and-tumble counterpoint to the more manicured sections of the park, but all of it is ideal for weekend relaxation and more. The park is bisected by Golden West Street, south of Slater Avenue in Huntington Beach.

* Oak Canyon Nature Center, operated by the city of Anaheim, is a wonderful little oasis of oaks, sycamores and native plant communities, nestled almost out of sight between a golf course and the usual suburban crunch.

A small museum offers an introduction to the wildlife, but best are the many well-maintained trails which make this park seem bigger than it is. There's even a year-round stream (sure, it's fed by a nearby reservoir, but it looks natural as can be). It's at the end of Walnut Canyon Road, off Nohl Ranch Road in Anaheim Hills.

* Chino Hills State Park is a tremendous piece of real estate--12,000 acres in all, covering parts of four counties. In summer, it can be blistering, so it's best to go in early morning or just before dusk.

There are two Orange County entrances. One is on Rimcrest Drive, in a residential area of Yorba Linda (from Imperial Highway, head east on Yorba Linda Boulevard, turn left on Fairmont Boulevard and then left on Rimcrest). Park at the end of the road (after 8 a.m., by rule), and be respectful of the neighbors--parking privileges here are in danger. The street is a jumping-off point for hiking and mountain biking galore along the South Ridge Trail, which hooks up to a network of fire roads and trails.

The other entrance is through Carbon Canyon Regional Park. Some folks pay the park fee, others park along Carbon Canyon Road for free. This is the Telegraph Canyon entrance to the park. Do a bit of exploring, or purchase a local hiking or mountain biking guide before going.

* The Santa Ana Mountains. OK, I'll narrow it down a bit more: the Ortega Highway corridor. This is great driving country, although you'd best stay alert on this twisting two-lane highway. There are great hikes, even some backpacks, all through this country, but summer isn't the ideal time for the longer ones. Consult the hiking and biking guidebooks (some suggested authors: Kenneth S. Croker, Jerry Schad, Bill McKinney and Randy Vogel).

There is one nice hike short enough for summer, although it's still best to carry water and avoid midday. The San Juan Loop Trail is only 2.2 miles long, but traverses a diverse section of terrain. The trail head is 19.5 miles up Ortega Highway from Interstate 5, across from the Ortega Country Cottage general store. The trail is well-marked; just stay left when you meet the Chiquito Trail, and stay left again as the trail crosses behind the Upper San Juan Campground.

* If there's a great place to park free and enjoy a decent beach in Orange County, please let me know. But one can always enjoy a car's-eye view for just the cost of gas. Is there a better stretch of top-down driving anywhere than Pacific Coast Highway from Seal Beach to Newport Beach? Huntington Beach gets my vote for what a beach ought to look like.

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