Wild and Tame: The Two Sides of Carbon Canyon


Carbon Canyon Regional Park offers some much-needed “breathing room” for fast-growing northeastern Orange County. The park has both a natural area, with trails that connect to nearby Chino Hills State Park, and a more developed part with wide lawns, tennis courts, ball fields, picnic grounds and a lake.

The park spreads up-canyon behind Carbon Canyon Dam. As Orange County grew, so did the need for flood control, and in 1959 a dam was built at the mouth of the canyon. If, as a result of winter storms, the Santa Ana River rises too high, the dam’s flood gates will be closed, thus sparing communities downstream of the dam but flooding the park.

A century ago, the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad precipitated a minor land boom. Farmers and ranchers rushed to the area. Cattle and sheep were pastured in the canyon now called Carbon.


An Oil Boom

But it was another boom--an oil boom--that put Carbon Canyon on the map. E. L. Doheny, soon to become one of Los Angeles’ leading boosters, discovered oil in the area in 1896. His company and several others drilled the foothills of Orange County. The name Carbon was applied to the canyon because of the many dried-up oil seeps in evidence.

Santa Fe Railroad tracks were extended to the mouth of Carbon Canyon to haul out the oil. At the end of the tracks was the oil town of Olinda (incidentally, the boyhood home of baseball pitcher Walter Johnson. “Big Train,” as the hurler was known, pitched for the Washington Senators and led the American League in strikeouts each year from 1912 to 1919. Olinda boomed until the 1940s when the oil fields began to play out.

The undeveloped part of Carbon Canyon Regional Park is a narrow corridor along Carbon Canyon Creek. A 1-mile nature trail leads creek-side through an interesting mixture of native and foreign flora. At the park entrance station, you can pick up an interpretive pamphlet, which is keyed to numbered posts along the nature trail and details points and plants of interest.

During the summer months, early morning and late afternoon are the most comfortable times to hit the Carbon Canyon Nature Trail. Rewarding the hiker at trail’s end is a small, shady redwood grove.

For more information about Carbon Canyon Regional Park, call (714) 996-5252.

Directions to trail head: From California 57 in Brea, exit on Lambert Road. Drive 4 miles east on Lambert (which changes to Carbon Canyon Road east of Valencia Avenue) to the park entrance. There’s a $1.50-per-vehicle entry fee.

The Hike: From the parking area, walk back to the entrance station, and you’ll spot the signed trail in a stand of pine just east of the park entrance. On closer inspection, you’ll discover that the trees are Monterey pines, native to California but not to this area. This stand is a holdover from a Christmas-tree farm that was operated before the park opened in 1975.


Less celebrated than the Monterey cypress but almost as rare, the Monterey pine is found growing naturally within Point Lobos State Reserve and at only two other areas along the California coast. This fog-loving, three-needled pine has a very restricted natural range; however, it is cultivated for timber all over the world, particularly in the South Pacific.

Cross the Creek

From the pines, the nature trail descends to the Carbon Canyon creek bed. After crossing the creek, the trail forks. (The path to the left leads toward Telegraph Canyon and to a network of hiking trails that crisscross Chino Hills State Park. The 8-mile length of Telegraph Canyon, home of native walnut groves, is well worth exploring.) Carbon Canyon Nature Trail heads right with the creek bed.

Creek-side vegetation is dominated by mustard, castor bean and hemlock. You’ll also find two exotic imports--the California pepper tree, actually a native of Peru, and some giant reeds, bamboo-like plants that harm the native plant community because they hog a great deal of the scarce water supply.

At the trail’s midpoint, there’s a distinct but unmarked side trail that angles across the creek bed to the developed part of the park. If for some reason you want to call it a day, here’s your exit point.

As you near trail’s end, you’ll get brush-framed glimpses of Carbon Canyon Dam. The trail ascends out of the creek bed to the park’s redwood grove. The redwoods, planted in 1975, have a lot of growing to do before they rival their majestic cousins to the north.