Two miles from the bustling Laguna Hills Mall, a red-shouldered hawk glided effortlessly toward a thick grove of gnarly oaks, towering sycamores and brushy elderberry trees.
"Look at that. Isn't it beautiful?" county Park Ranger Bruce Buchman called out last week, pointing to the bird soaring above the dirt path that winds through the picturesque Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park.
In the two years since the county completed acquisition of the 3,400-acre park, only a handful of rangers have been able to enjoy it.
But that will end this week, when the public will get its first opportunity to visit the pristine canyons, creeks and crests tucked almost invisibly amid fast-developing Aliso Viejo, Laguna Niguel and Laguna Beach.
"It does seem that the park is one of the county's best-kept secrets," said Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who will dedicate the newly opened wildlife preserve in a ceremony on Friday.
The public will be able to enter the park the following day.
When open, Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park will be the second largest regional park in Orange County, surpassed only by the sprawling Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park in Cleveland National Forest.
At first, hikers, bicyclists and horse riders will be able to use the park only on weekends.
That's because the Aliso Water Management Agency will be completing a construction project and trucks will stream through the area. Once the project is completed in six months or so, the park will be open daily, Buchman said. Admission will be free.
With the exception of trucks belonging to the water agency and park rangers, motorized vehicles, including motorcycles, will not be allowed in the wilderness park, and, for now, overnight camping and fires will also be prohibited.
Even bicyclists will face restrictions in the rangers' effort to keep the park as undisturbed as possible. Mountain bikers, who have been known to careen down rocky slopes and frighten or injure hikers, will not be able to ride on trails narrower than eight feet, Buchman said.
Motorcyclists who have sneaked into the park in the past have left long gouges in the cliffs and canyons, and Buchman said it will take years for the scars to be completely healed.
"It's amazing what those guys can do in a half-hour," Buchman said as he conducted a tour of the park last week. "A motorcycle can cause a lot of damage."
As the park develops, project manager Kathie Matsuyama said a few improvements will be made, including an educational nature center, a ranger station and a limited number of campgrounds, but for the most the landscape will be left undisturbed.
"It is designed to be exceedingly passive, very natural," she said. "It is a very natural coastal canyon and has a nice population of flora and fauna."
Scientists are still working to categorize all the plant life that grows abundantly in the park's fields and marshes, and the Audubon Society has identified more than 90 species of birds living in the canyons.
The area also supports coyotes, mule deer, perhaps a mountain lion or two, and a wide variety of other indigenous wildlife that used to roam freely through South County.
In addition, the area holds a storehouse of artifacts, and archeologists have been locating prehistoric campsites and collecting samples from the semi-nomadic Indians who once used the hundreds of natural caves in the park for protection from the elements.
Archeologist Scott Crownover said that the canyon was once a natural border for the Juaneno and Gabrieleno Indians, two of the area's indigenous tribes. Several ancient campsites have been found in the area already, and there is the possibility that a village once thrived on the park's plains.
"There are some major sites," Crownover said as he spent the day digging for shards of flint, burnt rock and other clues to the lifestyles of the Indians.
Nor are the park's hidden treasures limited to Indian artifacts.
Over the years, scientists have found hundreds of fossilized bones of fish and water mammals, including whales, that date back millions of years at the site, called Pecten Reef, Varner said.
In fact, he added, the county owns the third largest collection of ancient marine artifacts in the country. To house those objects, county officials are considering building a 100,000-square-foot natural history and science museum at the Moulton Parkway entrance to the park, according to Dudley Varner, executive director of the Natural History and Science Foundation of Orange County.
Some of the artifacts already are on display at the museum's interim site in Newport Beach, a 7,000-square-foot facility. But, Varner said, a larger, permanent museum is needed because the bulk of the paleontological and archeological finds that have been turned up over the years are stored in a Santa Ana warehouse.
For now, officials are concentrating on the park, where work began in 1988 after the county received a large chunk of land from the Mission Viejo Co., which donated the property for the park as part of development agreements with the county.
But several delays have postponed the park's unveiling.
At one point, for instance, the parkland was the proposed site for a much-publicized national fitness center. Headed by former Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen, the center would have trained athletic instructors and housed fitness researchers.
But Allen couldn't raise the money to open the center, and the county was forced to revise the general plan for the area, Matsuyama said.
A general development plan, with a price tag of $1.8 million, is also being amended to reflect the county's inability to secure a right of way to build a bike path from the park to Aliso Beach.
Landowner Violet Brown, who owns a restaurant and a golf course near Aliso Beach, refused to allow the bike path to cross her property, and county officials were forced to cut the bike path short and look for alternative routes.
Another delay occurred when the county had to negotiate with the Aliso Water Management Agency, which owns an asphalt road that runs from Alicia Parkway to the agency's plant in Aliso Canyon.
The water agency has staunchly refused to allow bicycles or hikers on its road, and the county had to grade a new bike path parallel to the road, Buchman said.
Although the park's general development plan is still not complete, county officials took the unusual step of opening it anyway, Buchman said.
Buchman said that he expects the park to be even more popular than Caspers because of its proximity to populated areas and its rural nature.
"We are really in the heart of South County," Buchman said. "But when you are out here, you can really get away from it all. Other than a few power lines, there is nothing out here but nature."