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ORANGE COUNTY VOICES

Park Areas Display Rains' Mixed Blessing

Ecology: Wilderness regions are in bloom, but downpours and floods also took a toll through erosion.

April 19, 1998|DAVID KRIES | David Kries is a software developer who grew up hiking in the hills of Orange County. He writes from Mission Viejo

In Orange County wilderness parks, plant growth is booming. The wet winter has nourished the vegetation. Fat clumps of mistletoe hang high in the oak trees, and flowers are bursting open in yellows and purples across our parks. Those who take a weekend hike will be rewarded.

Despite a fresh coat of greenery, your favorite nature walk may have a 'closed" sign on it. In most parks, portions of trails are missing.

The rain responsible for the floral display has torn the terrain. O'Neill Park used to be a pleasant meander through the oaks. On Dec. 12, several inches of rain turned the stream bed of O'Neill into a raging torrent. When the river settled, some hiking trails were gone.

On Feb. 23, an equally heavy downpour brought more flood waters. Again, the stream bed shifted, flattening trees and rolling boulders.

Today, the trail in Trabuco valley is no easy stroll. Deep in the oak grove, Trabuco and Tijeras creeks have reclaimed the trails. A 10-foot-deep, rock-strewn gully gives no indication of the former trail.

Old stream crossings are gone. Bike riders will find that the water current may sweep out their feet, or grab their bike. The current status of many Orange County wilderness parks is:

* Crystal Cove State Park, (714) 497-7647, reopened recently, but every inch of new rain closes the park for at least another two days. This park, always a beauty because of its views of the Pacific, promises lush hikes through the sycamore-shaded canyons this spring.

* Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park, (714) 831-2790. The trails are restored, but further rain will temporarily close the park. This large park offers classic Orange County terrain and vegetation, and Native American wall art.

* Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, (714) 589-4729, is temporarily closed. Winter storms caused extensive damage. Earth-moving machinery is being used to fix trails.

* Peters Canyon Regional Park, (714) 538-4400, reopened in March. The trails here did not suffer as much as others. The 50-acre lake is full. The willows and black cottonwoods here will be a sight this spring.

* Santiago Oaks, (714) 637-0210, is open but you may have to blaze your own trail. For a look at Santa Ana Canyon and river, nature tours are offered on weekends.

* Gen. Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park, (714) 459-1687, is closed. The rangers barricaded damaged areas and allowed limited park use.

* O'Neill Regional Park, (714) 858-9365, is closed, except for the Nature Center and nearby trails. The main path is being rerouted.

Throughout the county, exposed hillsides beyond the angle of repose showed erosion. Streams and rivers are a river-rock-motif nightmare for hikers.

However, the parks are lovely and as green as they get. After ravenous urban development, Nature has taken back a little ground. As El Nino fades, we may see a mild and colorful spring. Our parks are being reborn. To see the new growth, we will have to learn to walk our trails again, before we can run and ride.

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