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RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA : New Parkland Area to Open for Visitors

For years, Wendy Couture gazed out her back window in Rancho Santa Margarita at a wilderness vista filled with sprawling heritage oak trees and giant sycamores.

But as much as she longed to walk the shady trails of Tijeras Creek, the developer-owned ridges and canyons were closed to her and the rest of the outdoors-minded public.

“I’d look down on these beautiful woods and really want to go there. Badly,” Couture said. “But I was always told we couldn’t.”

On Friday, the long wait for Couture and other outdoors enthusiasts will end when some of the most picturesque hiking and horse-riding trails in the county will be opened to the public.

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About 1,100 acres of wilderness preserve will be added to O’Neill Regional Park. The land is filled with oak trees, towering up to 60 feet, that have seen the passing of hundreds of years in Orange County.

“And we’ve got one of the largest forests of sycamores in California,” county parks manager Tim Miller said. “It’s really spectacular.”

Known as the Chiquita Ridge/Tijera Creek open space, the park seemed destined to remain closed. Though real estate developer Santa Margarita Co. had offered the parkland at no cost in exchange for development rights, Orange County officials said they could not afford the $40,000 a year needed to maintain its six miles of trails.

Riding to the rescue was a local equestrian group. Saddleback Riders, a Trabuco Canyon group, volunteered to adopt the park and signed a contract to patrol the trails on weekends.

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“Our motivation has always been selfish,” club spokesman Don Carr said. “This park is so nice.”

With Tijeras Creek flowing year-round, the new park addition is a full-blown wildlife corridor with deer, mountain lions and red-tailed hawks.

Miller said the park will remain in its natural state, which means no ball fields, picnic benches or water fountains.

“There will be no restrooms, no picnic facilities, this is it,” Miller said as he stood beneath a stand of tall oaks that form a canopy over the hiking trail.

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The park addition also is a critical link to what hikers and equestrians hope will eventually be a 20-mile trail winding from O’Neill Regional Park to Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park.

“This is a significant piece of the regional trail system,” Jeff Dickman, a county environmental manager, said.


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