Mines, Mountain Lions and More at Fremont Canyon

This week I went on a 10.5-mile hike with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy to the Tecate Cypress forest in Fremont Canyon, which is located behind Irvine Regional Park and runs along the border of Chino Hills State Park. The canyon can be accessed through Irvine Regional Park, but is only open through programs with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy.

As we headed out, we were warned that a 115-pound mountain lion had been seen in the canyon, and that its tracks and scat (animal excrement) indicated that it had been around recently. Most of us found this an exciting prospect, so long as it didn’t walk right up to us along the trail, although a view from the opposite ridge would be excellent. We began at the staging area at 7:30 a.m., and the first few miles were uphill.

After finally getting into our stride we came to the abandoned coal mine. Although the coal there was poor quality, which resulted in the failure and abandonment of the mine, it’s a pretty cool example of a strip mine. Strip mining, also called surface mining, is more common out here in the West, as opposed to the subsurface mining method we usually think of.

Coal is made of layers of plant matter, which are protected by mud and therefore do not degrade and oxidize; instead, the pressure slowly turns them into sedimentary rock. There are levels of quality of coal. The Fremont coal mine contained lignite, which is only the second level of coal, and not very good quality for most uses of coal.

We continued on to the Fremont Weather Station, where some of the strongest winds in Orange County are routinely recorded. The O.C. Fire Authority relies on the information from this weather station to monitor fire danger levels in the county. The station records not only wind speed but temperature, humidity and even the level of dryness of the fuel, or in other words, how much moisture remains in the plants on the ground.

My companions and I were thrilled to spot some black-chinned sparrows up and about on the hillside, definitely a year bird for me. These sparrows can be truly gorgeous, with dark black faces, despite the fact that they are often an overlooked group of birds. People generally dismiss them as small, brown and boring, but I feel they have a truly subtle beauty that you have to stop and study to appreciate.

Another excellent sighting was a coast spiny lizard. These small reptiles are truly unique, eating colonies of native harvester ants. They are a slow-moving species that unfortunately finds themselves under tires all too often. Their forms of self-defense, including freezing in place and squeezing blood from their eyes, are not very helpful against trucks.

We then descended down into a little valley for a bit before heading back upward toward the Tecate grove. As we neared the grove and the halfway point of our hike we were finding plenty of wildflowers, including bedstraw – named because of the way the native Indians (the Chumash) as well as ranchers would use it to line their beds, since it smells nice and repels insects. Also present were mariposa lilies, California poppies and a few lingering lupins.

The Tecate cypress suffered huge casualties in the 2007 fires. There were a few remaining trees, but the population was greatly reduced from their pre-fire numbers. Tecate cypress, which sort of look like stunted Christmas trees, are very rare, and only grow in three places in the world: this stand in Orange County, the Otay Mountains and Tecate, Mexico.

We finished our hike around 12:30 p.m., and not a moment too soon as the heat began to really make its presence known. If you’re interested in visiting Fremont Canyon, the Irvine Ranch Conservancy routinely offers various programs in the canyon, including trail runs and cardio hikes. I hear the mountain bike rides are particularly good, though strenuous.

Another thing to be aware of is the Firewatch program. The Fremont Canyon burned, and the already rare Tecate Cypress was nearly wiped out of O.C. To help protect homes and precious wild lands, consider becoming a Firewatch volunteer. Both the hikes and the Firewatch program can be found by visiting the Web site, IrvineRanchWildlands.org and clicking, “Let’s Go Outside.”