A trail used informally by hikers and cyclists for years in the 7,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park could be the first official route added to the park since it was dedicated in 1993.
The mile-long Lizard Trail has long been a popular, though unofficial, trail that cuts through the grassy hills in the coastal park near Laguna Beach. Now OC Parks is working to get state and federal approval to officially open it to the public.
Bicycle tire tracks, as well as action videos on YouTube, signal that visitors to the park know of the trail and are undeterred by a sign that says the route is closed.
The county has spent the last several years analyzing the park's entire trail system, assessing which trails are used by the public along with any potential environmental harm caused by visitors, said Barbara Norton, the supervising park ranger.
"After a decades-long review, we've come up with a rough template of what trails should be closed and what should be open," Norton said. Many of the trails were cut decades ago by cattle ranchers.
Opening the Lizard Trail would create a viable connection from Bommer Ridge to Laurel Canyon, and no realignment would be needed, minimizing environmental damage, Norton said.
"This is the first opportunity to see how opening a trail plays out," Norton said.
Current rules allow park rangers to ticket anyone setting foot on an unauthorized trail, with fines ranging from $50 to $500. Park officials, though, are well aware the unauthorized trails are used.
To prevent erosion, volunteers from the Laguna Canyon Foundation planted laurel sumac, lemonade berry and California sagebrush along the Lizard Trail's border while crews strategically embedded rocks in the dirt to funnel rainwater to either side.
"It's giving the trail stability so the dirt doesn't wash down the hill," said Hallie Jones, executive director of the nonprofit Laguna Canyon Foundation, which is supporting OC Parks on the project. Water allowed to flow straight down a trail can create deep gouges, Jones added.
The project continues a recent trend of the Laguna Canyon Foundation partnering with the county to improve trails in open spaces.
In June, the county reopened the Emerald Canyon Trail after it sustained extensive damage from heavy storms in 2010. Reconstruction included building a 60-foot bridge over an area hit by a landslide.
"It's important to do it properly to make sure we're setting the right precedent with attention paid to protecting the habitat," Jones said. "We need to keep people safe. It's balancing recreational opportunities with protecting plants and animals."
Norton said it would be premature to estimate when the Lizard Trail would officially open.