When we hear the word “mountain,” we immediately think of the San Bernardino range, and the Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake ski areas. However, you may not realize that we live about 20 minutes from a small peninsular range called the Santa Ana Mountains. Drive inland on Jamboree until the road dead-ends, and you find yourself in the foothills entering Irvine Regional Park. This park is a multi-use place that contains picnic areas, semi-rugged trails for hiking and even a zoo, complete with a train ride.
The park has a nice mix of sycamores and oaks, along with plenty of native plant and animal life, from oat titmice in the California coast live oak trees, glossy black phainopeplas in the sycamores eating mistletoe berries and cactus wrens up in the cactus patches on the cliffs. Coyotes and mountain lions can be found in the park, but it is the occasional peacock in the zoo area that can startle unsuspecting visitors.
This place is great for people wanting to spend an entire day doing a little bit of everything. You can go for a morning hike, have a barbeque and picnic under the oaks, take a tour around the zoo or spend the hottest part of the day on the pond racing paddle-boats back and forth across the length. Bring food, a football or frisbee and you’re set — and you only have to pay a small entrance fee.
If you make a right turn on to highway 241 rather than continuing to the end of Jamboree and into Irvine Regional, you would head toward Silverado Canyon, a residential area that burned in last October’s fires. At the end of Silverado Canyon, you hit a trailhead. This can be hiked or driven on and leads you through several habitats to the ridgeline, where you can see Orange County in one direction and Riverside out the other. The trip up the canyon is lovely. Initially you begin in the same sort of oak woodland habitat as Irvine Regional Park, a mix of sycamores and coast live oaks, with a few cottonwoods in the streams. Then you pass into higher elevation in which Douglass Fir and Coulter Pines, often nicknamed widow-makers due to their large and deadly cones, are found. Native thistles growing roadside are a favorite plant of our state butterfly, the California Dogface.
Finally, at the top, you pass into a sparser, chaparral habitat with hardy drought-tolerant species like California mahogany and chamise, plants particularly adapted to the wildfires that sweep through the area. The views from the ridge are spectacular on a clear day.
For birdwatchers, in the right season, this is a great drive to make at night since many owl species, like barn, long-eared and western-screech owls call the canyon home.
Continuing further along highway 241 toward Rancho Santa Margarita is another great canyon park to visit called Modjeska canyon. There is a great little nature center there called Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. It is tucked away under a leafy canopy and has water features and bird feeders set out to lure the local wildlife in to view. California quail make their bubbling call notes and their “Chi-ca-go” songs as they scurry around in groups on the paths, and hummingbirds “whirr” in and out of view as they feed on nectar.
To the left of the nature center is a trail leading up over a ridge and into Harding Canyon, part of Cleveland National Forest, which when open, is a great hike along a stream upward into the canyon. You can find two-striped garter snakes in the stream, California toads and plenty of local bird species like rufous-crowned sparrows and red-tailed hawks. Bobcats and mountain lions live in the area, so it’s safest not to hike these trails alone.
This is a narrow canyon, probably not suitable for biking, so it’s important to be careful and bring your own supplies. Also, because it’s a pretty isolated place, it doesn’t usually receive cell phone reception.
Poison oak is another obstacle, so it’s best to familiarize yourself with its appearance before heading out. You can prepare yourself by wearing long pants and boots.
Most people think you need to drive a few hours inland to hit some decent mountain hiking, yet in 20 short minutes, you can lose yourself in the rugged and beautiful canyons of the Santa Ana range.