Monday, June 6, 2011

Whiting Ranch; Red Rock, Blackened Oak.

The best way to appreciate nearby trails and countryside is to view it all as a tourist would. You’re likely to discover surprising new things and places about your local environs that you might’ve missed otherwise.

There are places in Orange County that, if you squinted and shielded your eyes, closely resemble the sandstone cliffs in southern Utah or parts of Arizona. Such is the case with Whiting Ranch in Orange County, California.
Okay, so they’re not quite as impressive, grand or awe inspiring as Zion, Sedona or Moab but if you live in southern California, there are places of exquisite geological beauty practically in your back yard. If you know where to look.

The Orange County Wilderness Park area known as Limestone Canyon/Whiting Ranch is comprised of over 4,000 acres of rugged hillsides, narrow canyons and unique rock formations in the foothills east of the OC suburban sprawl. Narrow tentacles of the park lay between housing developments and immediately adjacent to shopping centers and freeways creating an almost surreal experience for the hiker or mountain biker. Within 10 minutes of turning your back to a busy McDonald’s and Target, you’ll find yourself walking under the canopy of centuries old oaks and shady sycamores with only a hint of the city heard on the wind.

One of the more popular hikes is to visit the Red Rock Canyon. Beginning on the Borrego Trail, this 5-mile up and back hike allows you to experience a few of the rare sandstone cliffs that can be found in the county. The trailhead begins literally adjacent to a large shopping center and winds its way through a canyon between two ridges filled with expansive home sites. For the first ¾ mile, you’ll catch glimpses of those homes, many of which were damaged by the 2007 wildfire that nearly decimated large sections of the park.
 Evidence of the fire is clearly seen with the presence of blackened oaks and thick layers of hardened ash still found in the soil throughout this portion of the park. The canyon and its oaks are recovering in remarkable fashion and as many naturalists will attest, such events are beneficial to the long term health of this wilderness.

The hike to Red Rock Canyon is moderately easy and about half of it is in the shade. As you leave the Portola Parkway parking lot ($3.00 fee) the trail immediately leads you into a riparian environment that is surprisingly lush for what is generally considered a very dry wilderness. You'll immediately be struck with the sight of blackened oaks, now festooned with new, green leaves and fresh branches as the trees attempt to reclaim their former stateliness. Before a mile has been traveled, an oak flat welcomes you to take in the increasing canopy and the view of a cave on the east wall of the Borrego Canyon trail. Though inviting, I'd recommend skipping it since it is well protected by a thick, moist green moat of poison oak.

The trail continues northeasterly as it leaves the shady oaks through often dry sandy washes bordered by chaparral and low scrub. At about 2 miles, the Borrego Trail junctions with the Cattle Pond and Mustard Road trails. Watch the trail markers carefully to find the Red Rock trail that parallels Mustard Road. This single track trail is located just beyond a picnic table equipped rest area and easy to miss. If you come to the Billy Goat trail junction, you've gone too far.

Follow the narrow Red Rock trail as it continues north towards a number of sandstone cliffs found at the end of another shadeless sandy wash. Anticipate being a little wowed when the cliffs are encountered for the first time. It will be difficult to imagine that you're in the same county as the Real Housewives, Disneyland and vast expanses of bedroom communities, condos and strip malls.

Please be respectful of these fragile formations and don't climb the cliff walls. Take some photos, enjoy a handful of trailmix and pick up the trash left by the guy who visited an hour before you. This kind of hiking destination demands a little extra effort to protect and maintain. Once you've taken in the unique vibe of the place, return the way you came to your car or make a left at the Mustard Road trail junction to explore more of the wilderness park.

When I hike this fun trail, I'm reminded how fortunate I am to have such an interesting place right down the road a bit, just past the Walmart and Arco station. If you live in the area, don't miss it and if you've got visitors from out of town anxious to visit the land of the Mouse, convince them that Mickey will wait and bring them here first.

The links below will lead you to a trail map and to the OC Parks website relating to this park.  Also note the link to flickr pages of the album of my photos of the park.

Whiting Ranch Photo Album; Flickr

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