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.
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.
I took a break from Whiting Ranch to explore the season at nearby O’Neill Regional Park, specifically the Live Oak, the Hoffmann Homestead, and the Vista Trails, a lariat that I began at the corner of Meadow Ridge and Chisolm Trail in Mission Viejo. Summer is the season of death here in Orange County. Memorial Day weekend marks the final demise of the foxtail and wild oat grasses. Gone are the Golden Stars, the mustard, and other competitors for the sun of the open range. The country turns resplendent yellow except for dusky patches of sage, toyon, and chamise creating a pattern on the hills.
Vedanta Wilderness, O’Neill Regional Park, California
Few things can be more frustrating that to aim your eye through your camera’s viewfinder and discover that its battery has died just as a brilliant vista comes into view. This happened to me as I surmounted the hill near the Vista Point and looked down on the Live Oak Trail as it plunged down one slope and crawled up the long ridge that rises after the junction with the Coyote Trail. I sighed and contained a tantrum by remembering that I had my Samsung S5 in my pocket. It couldn’t compete with my Nikon, but it was better than nothing.
So many rocks! They seem to have dropped from the sky and landed on the peaks of this narrow trail in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. Stones of rust and bruise settled in the depressed center of the trail, some loose, some fixed to the ground. I went down the hills slowly, finding footholds and soft soil where I could, grabbing dead brush where it offered itself. When I could feel steady enough to stand on the declivity, I threw the larger stones off the trail. They landed with a thud or, at one place, a click as they fell onto a rock pile that other hikers had hurled before me.
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.
I don’t think of myself as being all that old — I’m 56 — but it is only been in the last 15 years that I have made an effort to get outside and see where all the skunks and snakes that sneaked into my neighborhood were coming from. Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park lies a block from my home and I can almost throw rocks at the Cleveland National Forest. The land around here is turning brown: it was a splendid spring despite the widely advertised drought. Chaparral Yuccas shot off their flower stalks around April and species such as golden stars, various Mariposa lilies, mustard, black sage, white sage, and the rare fiddleneck sprang up around them.
Now the heat bears down on us — we’ve had a few days of torrid weather reaching 100° F — and all these wonderful blooms wither. I take heart that the hills will turn to golden and the live oaks and sycamores will hold on to their green. Soon I’ll hunt for lemonade berry to suck on.
I hope you will walk with me through these hills and some of the other places that I go. Lynn and I are looking to visit northern Arizona including the Navajo Reservation in the fall, so it won’t be all boring old Southern California back country. Lots of things remain to be seen and done.