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HIKING: ORANGE COUNTY

The Life of Riley Wilderness Park: Deer, Rabbits, Wildflowers and More

March 05, 2000|JOHN McKINNEY

When I arrived to hike Gen. Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park after a recent rainstorm, rangers advised me to step gently along park trails so my hiking boots would not erode pathways and hillsides. Good advice for all hikers, I thought, as I walked among the ancient oaks of Wagon Wheel Canyon.

As I soon discovered, the ecological integrity of the park faces a greater threat than hikers tramping muddy trails. Just 75 yards from the park's Sycamore Loop Trail, two giant earthmovers chewed into the wet earth, molding mountains into building pads for a new subdivision.

Witnessing a development like this on the park's southern boundary reminds hikers of the value of such nature preserves in ever-more-citified Southern California.

Riley Wilderness Park may be a wilderness in name only, but its 475 acres offer habitat for deer, raccoons, rabbits, coyotes and birds. The park maintains a remnant of what the land may have resembled in the 1840s in its days as a rancho: old oak groves and grassy hillsides sprinkled with wildflowers.

Wagon Wheel Park, as it was first known, was acquired by Orange County in 1983 and rededicated in 1994 as Gen. Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park, in honor of a former county supervisor for his conservation efforts in the area. About five miles of family-friendly trails weave through the park. Two vista points offer commanding views of what's developed and what's not and a panorama of the mile-high peaks of the neighboring Santa Ana Mountains. A tiny nature center and drought-resistant landscaping help visitors learn about the native plant life. Check out the old wagon parked by the small picnic area and learn how Wagon Wheel Canyon got its name.

Directions to trail head: From Interstate 5 in Mission Viejo, exit on Oso Parkway and travel a bit more than six miles east. Just before the parkway ends at a junction with Coto de Caza Drive, turn right at the signed entrance for Gen. Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park. Follow the park's gravel access road to a parking area and signed trails.

Park hours are 7 a.m. to sunset daily (closing times vary seasonally, as posted). The entry fee is $2.

The hike: For the full three-mile version of this walk in the park, join signed Wagon Wheel Canyon Trail and head north past some oaks. The path parallels Oso Parkway before it intersects Pheasant Run Trail; join this path, which reverses your direction and sends you back south. ("Pleasant Run" might be another name for this trail, popular with local joggers.) After a mellow ascent and descent, the path deposits you on Mule Deer Trail, not far from the trail head.

Mule Deer Trail winds past oaks and cactus patches into the heart of the park. A bit of wooden boardwalk helps hikers over a sometimes-soggy meadow. The path climbs gently into a coastal sage scrub area. An interpretive sign explains that less than 5% of this growth remains; the other 95% has been lost to development.

At a signed junction, detour north one-fifth of a mile to ascend the bald ridge capped by Skink Vista Point. Peer through a sighting tube at the crest of the Santa Ana Mountains, including Modjeska Peak (5,496 feet) and Santiago Peak (5,687 feet), as well as suburban developments at the foot of the range.

Return to the junction and descend briefly but steeply on Oak Canyon Trail. Seasonal rains fill an old cattle pond that today is a watering hole for animals.

Two short loops off Oak Canyon Trail add to the hiker's perspective. Horned Toad Trail leads to a vista point that overlooks southern Orange County, and Sycamore Loop Trail tours an old grove of Western sycamore and the subdivision-in-the-making on the park's southern boundary. A final quarter-mile of northward travel returns you to the trail head.

John McKinney is the author of "Day Hiker's Guide to California's State Parks" (Olympus Press, $14.95).

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wagon Wheel Canyon, Mule Deer, Oak Canyon Trails

WHERE: Gen. Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park.

DISTANCE: 2 to 3 miles round trip with 300-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Rolling hills dotted with oaks

HIGHLIGHTS: A rare nature preserve amid gated suburbs; excellent vistas.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy.

PRECAUTIONS: Park (and trails) subject to closure on rainy days.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Gen. Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park, 30952 Oso Parkway, Coto de Caza, CA 92679; tel. (949) 459-1295

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