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Easy Rider, O.C. Style

Santa Ana River Bikeway Opens Path to the Beach for Those Who Find Fun on 2 Wheels

November 09, 2000|TIM DERMODY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bicyclists in Orange County are doubly blessed: Known as a mountain bikers' paradise, the county also boasts a network of kinder, gentler paved trails. Not nearly so gnarly, they are as scenic as almost anything extreme biking can offer.

The crown jewel of the system is the Santa Ana River Bikeway, a 28-mile joy ride from the Riverside County line to the ocean--and back, if you've got the legs. More than half a million people each year travel its gently sloping route, set against a backdrop of mountains, parks, wetlands and nature preserves.

The two-lane path, wide enough to handle several riders abreast, was completed in 1990. As it makes its way from the mountains to the sea, the bikeway cuts through varied terrain and residential areas. Ramps, underpasses, bridges and detours take riders safely away from busy streets. An unpaved trail designed for walkers and equestrians parallels the bikeway for most of the route.

Although portions of the riverbed had a reputation as crime magnets in the early '90s, gang sweeps and increased police patrols have helped deter robberies and graffiti, police and cyclists say.

Beautiful and unintimidating, the bikeway accommodates families with children out for a little tour, dedicated speedy riders and even in-line skaters.

"Can't talk right now," one man said, tooling along at a fast clip. "Got to make it to the ocean and back while it's still light."

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The trail begins just east of Featherly Regional Park in Yorba Linda and largely bisects the county from north to south, ending at Pacific Coast Highway between Newport and Huntington Beach.

The initial portion of the bikeway enters Featherly and Yorba regional parks, inviting stops for a rest or shady picnic.

About three miles into the trip, the landscape changes from open, grassy acres to a wilderness-like marsh with trees, brush, reeds and other vegetation. Some riders make this spot their first stop, gazing upon feeding white herons, hummingbirds, hawks and crows.

Between here and the 10-mile mark at Edison International Field and Arrowhead Pond, riders pass the Santa Ana River Lakes, where anglers try for stocked bass, trout and catfish. Before reaching the landmarks, riders encounter the Santa Ana River's holding basins. A nearby rest stop offers water, shade trees, picnic tables, restrooms and a far-off view of Disneyland.

With so many sights to see, it's a wonder any riders complete the trip, but many do. After departing Anaheim, the bikeway reverts to a more natural setting, and several parks along this leg, including tiny Moon Park in Costa Mesa, take advantage of the beauty.

"I can get on any part of the trail and enjoy it," said Matt Jacobson of Fullerton. "The best thing about this path is that you can go a mile, two miles, the whole trail, and it's just as wonderful at any of those points. I like to ride a lot, so I'll go early Saturday and make the whole trip; but there are days when I get off work and just hop on my bike and go."

From this point on, the Santa Ana River Bikeway takes a decidedly cooler turn, as the ocean breezes pick up and riders can practically smell the salt in the air. It's an energizing change and is often the pick-me-up riders need.

Heading toward the final frontier, cyclists traverse residential areas, hilly passes and seas of weaving grasses. They can stop at several places along the way, either at one of the numerous parks or the shady scenic spots that pop up around nearly every corner. With the ocean in sight, bikers pick up the pace . . . and finally, the payoff: the mouth of the Santa Ana River and the coast--a view marred only by a water-treatment plant.

Smart cyclists have vehicles waiting for them at this point. Conversely, energetic riders have choices. They can turn around and head back toward Yorba Linda, or merge onto other bike paths paralleling the shore.

Either way, they've accomplished something special: riding one of the finest stretches of paths the bicycling world has to offer.

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