The sign is clear and unequivocal: Private Property. No Photography. The area behind the sign is empty. There are no buildings, no livestock. What doesn’t the landowner want you to see? As you follow the chain link fence towards White House Ruin, stands of cottonwoods and green brush block the view. Glimpses through the trees reveal that there is something there — a house or a barn. You continue on to the ruin where you meet vendors selling jewelry and crafts. On the way back, you see other tourists photographing the sign.
Many national parks and monuments contain private land, some more than others; so Canyon de Chelly is not unique. Some overlooks (such as the one above) let you look down into the lives of the farmers and sheep herders who make the canyons their home. You might ask “What is the problem?”
One short spur trail makes all the difference in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. When I ascended the Wood Creek Trail to get a view of the canyon beyond, I saw that the trail climbed further and then cascaded down in a series of stairs that I thought would take me back to the main trail. Lynn would not be happy with this country, I realized, so I directed her to go back to the Wood Canyon Trail and wait for me at the first sign she found. The trail — marked “easy” on the maps — dropped into a live oak forest along the creek but where was the main route? The path jumped and swerved along the west bank of the creek — which was fed by water from adjacent housing tracts — over three or four bridges until it finally crossed back and rediscovered the road after about half a mile.
Orange County Parks rules by a strange definition of wilderness. There is no buffer between the suburban and the canyon landscapes. Houses encroach on the very fringes of its wilderness parks. The water on which the plants and wildlife depend comes from the runoff of residential irrigation systems. Concrete aprons permit easy fording of streams. Mountain bikers rocket by with the perennial cry of “On your left! On your left!” Rangers patrol in pickups. A dilapidated wooden corral holds the golden grass that the ranchers seeded to overwhelm the bunch grasses and sedges native to these fields.
Our midweek adventure — a scheduled event of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks conservancy — took us four and a half hours to finish, counting the short breaks at The Sinks and Box Spring. The trail began at a notorious local dead end. We followed the water lines up Agua Chinon (“wavy water”) Canyon with no real trouble until we hit a steep loma as hellish as the south slope of Whiting’s Dreaded Hill. The summit brought us face to face with the western section of The Sinks
An inland sea or lake deposited the layers that appear in The Sinks formation about 40 million years ago. A long period of wet weather — sometime in the last million years — super-saturated the hills and caused the looser soil to slide away. The badland that was left exposed layers of harder red and white sediments that draw hikers and bikers to special “open days” at the Limestone Canyon Wilderness Park.
The Sinks from the Observation Deck, June 11, 2014
I say this too often: “They call it the Harding Trail because it is hard.”
The fire road begins at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary where you find the only trees that shade the trail during midday in the first five miles. It winds up the foothills that lie between the Santiago Creek watershed and Harding Canyon, sometimes curling like a sidewinder and sometimes vaulting straight like a javelin. I don’t hike it much in the summer because I have already had my encounter with heat exhaustion and it wasn’t fun.
Shade wreaks a weird effect over the meadows along the Borrego Trail: Where the full sun yellows the grass, shadow keeps some patches green for a few more days.
I found few blossoms other than the last vestiges of the spring’s mustard, the gnarled blooms of incipient heartleaf penstemon, and the brash orange flowers of Bush Monkey Flower. The day was hot. The open sun at the end of the trail made me nauseous, but a deep draft from my Camelbak cured me.
The Red Rocks remain the Red Rocks, undulating down a cliff and through a canyon. My companions found it fit to discuss why some of the rocks were red and others were white. I did not take part in these as I did not answer questions about why I enjoyed learning about nature or defend the theory of evolution from a companion who was distressed by the fact that it wasn’t easy to understand. Perhaps I am meant for the silence of places like this, just as I choose to marvel mutely over stick insects that define the case for species change over time.