The firestorm that destroyed 366 houses in Laguna Beach last fall also blackened much of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, which had opened just months before.
Whereas rebuilding the homes has been a sometimes-painful process that continues to be stalled for some, the park has quietly been healing itself. The public will get a chance to see for itself Saturday, when the Laguna Canyon Foundation sponsors a springtime open house.
"It's an opportunity to come out and see that Mother Nature has performed her miracles," said Sharen Heath, a foundation staff member and park docent. "There's some astonishing rebirth and regeneration going on."
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park comprises about 15,000 acres, spread out along each side of Laguna Canyon Road. Included are year-round streams, oak- and sycamore-shaded canyons and the only natural freshwater lakes in Orange County.
Since its debut in April of last year, the park has been open only on weekend, docent-led tours. Saturday's event will include guided walks for those who prefer, but will also provide visitors their first chance for some solo exploring.
"Anyone who wants to throw a backpack over his shoulder with a sandwich and some water and a pair of binoculars can get out there and hike," Heath said.
The open house will serve several purposes. It will provide an introduction to the park for those who haven't visited it yet, and it will show those who haven't been to the park since the fires that the park is recovering.
Grasses are coming back to the burn areas, and wildflowers are abundant, including several species called "fire-followers" that grow especially well in recently burned areas.
When Heath leads walks, she finds that people expect the worst after seeing images of burning brushland in newspapers and on TV. "They enter the park thinking they're going to be terribly disappointed," Heath said. "They leave with renewed confidence and faith in nature. . . . It really tickles me."
There is no public parking at any of the three unconnected park sites, but visitors are encouraged to park at Act V, on the western side of Laguna Canyon Road, across from the Canyon Club (signs will be posted for the event). Free shuttle buses will ferry visitors to the entrance of the park areas: Laurel Canyon, Big Laguna Lake and Little Sycamore Canyon-Little Laguna Lake. Shuttles begin at 8:30 a.m. and go until 3:30 p.m.
Pets, bicycles and horses will not be permitted for this event (for information on bicycle and equestrian tours, call (714) 832-7478). Visitors are encouraged to bring sturdy hiking shoes, drinking water, snacks, a hat and sunscreen; optional items include binoculars, field guide and camera.
The event is free, but organizers ask that anyone planning to attend call, so that an estimate of the number of participants can be made.
* What: Laguna Coast Wilderness Park open house.
* When: Saturday, May 21, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
* Where: Laguna Canyon Wilderness Park, Laguna Canyon Road.
* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Laguna Canyon Road (California 133) and drive south to Laguna Beach. Follow temporary signs to Act V, on the western side of the road across from the Canyon Club.
* Wherewithal: Free.
* Where to call: (714) 855-7275.