Take a Hike Under the Stars in Irvine’s Moonlit Trails

Over winter break, I went on a full moon hike in Bommer Canyon. Bommer Canyon is a remnant of the Irvine Company’s property, originally obtained by James Irvine in 1867. Sold to the city of Irvine in the 80s, it has been set aside to remain open space. The area is only a few minutes from UC Irvine’s campus, located next to gorgeous Shady Canyon.
Bommer is not open to the public and is only accessible by guided programs through Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Wildlands and Parks. This is done so that the area stays as preserved as possible, which allows native species that are particularly impacted by human presence to thrive.
You can sign up for the night hikes, as well as many other exciting outdoor programs under the “Let’s Go Outside” tab at IrvineRanchWildlands.org.
We met at 5:45 p.m. inside the park and got a little briefing on the route about what to expect. Then we headed out for our three-mile hike up the canyon, around the ridge and back down.
It was overcast initially, blocking the moon. Our guides informed us that it was the closest the moon had been to earth in about 15 years and when it came out from behind the clouds, it was like someone had switched on a light. We hiked without turning our flashlights on so that our night vision would have a chance to adjust. Besides, the moon was so brilliant that the flashlights wouldn’t have helped much.
A western toad leapt across the path in front of us, nearly landing right under my foot. This species is found throughout North America, but is currently listed as a “near threatened” species due to chemical contamination of their environment, as well as disease. We watched as it passed across the path, before continuing on our hike.
A motion-sensor camera went off halfway up a steep slope. These cameras are normally meant to catch the nocturnal wanderings of bobcats, coyotes and other animals, but it caught us instead.
Motion-sensor cameras help local biologists gain an understanding of the movement of larger mammal species at night, when direct monitoring is difficult. This provides valuable information for research and is one way to study large mammals, if that’s your interest.
There is a current research project going on involving the use of these cameras in Laguna Canyon, in which UCI students can get involved for research credit.
We made our way to the top of the ridge where almost all of Orange County was laid out below us in a shimmer of lights, except for the old El Toro Marine Base, which cut a large dark patch in the sea of brightness. We lingered there looking at the constellations that were visible despite the light pollution, but once we stood still too long, we began to feel the cold and it was time to head down the canyon.
We started down the hillside, doing a small switch-back pattern of walking to ease the pressure on our knees during our descent back into the canyon. On the way down we passed by native cholla and prickly pear cactus, important to the cactus wren and through some pristine coastal sage scrub.
This type of habitat, dominated by black sagebrush, California buckwheat, California encelia, bladderpod and coastal deer weed, is particularly important for species like the California gnatcatcher. Both the wren and gnatcatcher species found in these habitats have been of special concern to local scientists since the continuing development of Orange County is pushing them deeper into decline.
By the end of our descent, the temperature dropped noticeably and we were glad to be getting into our cars to turn the heat on. My car’s temperature gauge read 48 degrees, chilly for the OC.
It was a unique hike and is one of the few true night hikes I’ve ever done (except for owling), because the majority of my hikes are in the mornings, when most of the birds are out and about.
A few suggestions to keep in mind, though: There are no restrooms on the trail so you may want to wait to hit Starbucks after the hike, and definitely dress in light layers that can easily be carried or tied around your waist. During the winter, evenings in the canyon can get quite chilly, but walking will heat you up so it’s best to be able to strip and add as necessary.
If you’re interested in a different way to spend some time outdoors, or can’t attend interpretive programs during the day due to work or school, night hikes are a great way to enjoy some quality time outdoors.
The next night hike in Bommer Canyon will be Feb. 9, at 5:30 p.m., so save the date and sign up online to experience night hiking for yourself!