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Limestone-Whiting Wilderness Park: Get Back to Nature, Head for the Hills

All that post-holiday shopping leave you feeling like a puddle of wassail? There’s an easy antidote--close, low-cost and all-natural. At its best, nature dignifies us with its most serious gifts: tranquillity, beauty and a quiet sense of place in that immense design of things. So perhaps it’s time to recharge with a walk in the park--in this case, Limestone-Whiting Wilderness Park.

You can stroll into the park and back the same way, but tracing a loop is a more rewarding experience because it affords a constant change of scenery. As with lots of outdoor activities, this one is best approached as close to dawn or sunset as possible. The park opens at 7 a.m., closes at sunset. Earlier or later hours make for more dramatic lighting and better chances for seeing the local denizens. Plan for at least four hours of walking this approximately six-mile loop.

Leave your car at the parking lot on Portola Parkway. Walk south, down Portola and past Bake Parkway and Lake Forest Drive, for eighth-tenths of a mile. This entrance, such as it is, is on the right through a small rail fence. If you get to Glenn Ranch Road, you’ve gone too far. Though your line of sight is spoiled by the houses of Foothill Ranch and Portola Hills until you get a little deeper into the park, the simple pleasures provided by the patches of prickly pear cactus and gnarly coast live oaks almost immediately confer a different sense of place. This is a wilderness park, and some innate sense of direction is helpful. But trails are well-marked. Your entrance on Serrano leads to a sort of offhand uphill amble. After about a mile you’ll come to the first of several forks. Stay to the right; to the left is the accurately named Dreaded Hill Road. You’ll see enough steep later.

At the post marked “Serrano Cow Trail .5 Mi,” bear to the left. There is a trail that reverses course with a hook back to your right. Leave that mystery for another day. If you’re headed in the right direction, you will see the sign marked “Whiting Road 1.5 Mi.” after you’ve gone about 100 yards. Continuing up the trail for less than half a mile you will arrive at what is less a fork than a trident. Turn left for about 20 yards and then right. As you begin a slightly steeper uphill walk you’ll know you’re on the right track when, in about 50 yards, you get to the post proclaiming “Blow Off 24 Valve.”

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Just beyond the Sage Scrub Trail fork you find the entrance to Sleepy Hollow Trail. Step over the railroad ties, through the wood rail fence and into one of the loveliest spots in the park--a heavily wooded, sheltered little Eden. Stay on the trail, particularly here, to avoid the heavy growth of poison oak. Clear of that pest, hesitate, and reward yourself with the silence, disturbed only by wind playing through oaks. As you break out of the trees you’ll see another rail fence that marks Cactus Hill Trail, which will lead the highest point on your walk, Four Corners. Avoid it for the moment. At the huge stand of prickly pear cactus, turn left and back into the trees. The walking here will be a bit tougher because of the trail condition and plane, but worth it.

Leaving Sleepy Hollow you’ll merge on to Cactus Hill. At this point you can see the general area of Four Corners, marked most conspicuously by a huge reservoir. Cactus Hill ends at Whiting Road, and from there it’s only a few yards up to Four Corners and its generous views. One disconcerting aspect of Four Corners, at least for those of us who like a little more wild in our country, is the recently installed county call box. People certainly can get in trouble. And yes, an emergency call might save grief or even a life. But part of being in a wild place is that spirit.

Refresh your water supply from the fountain and head out of Four Corners on Mustard Road, which leaves steeply downhill in a more or less northwesterly direction. The trail dips into some of the deepest, most “forest primeval” spots in the park--low overhanging oaks in thick groves studded with Western sycamores that belie the belief there is no fall season here. The sycamores aren’t exactly a New England color riot, but they contrast wonderfully with the surrounding green. All this and no crowds of leaf-peepers.

Approximately half a mile from Four Corners, on the right, is Red Rock Trail. Step across the plank bridge and head north. Because much of the trail is in a boulder-strewn sandy wash, walking can be a bit more difficult. The result, though, is an up-close encounter with walls of red sandstone. Striated by centuries of rain and nature’s air brush, here is Orange County’s answer to Bryce Canyon without the more outre formations. Cliff swallows nest in the walls’ cavities during the mating season. Backtrack out of this box canyon and turn right to follow the trail to the parking lot (it will ultimately turn into Borrego Trail). Along the way there are more of those deep, dark glade. Back in the parking lot, take stock. Now doesn’t that feel better?

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Directions: To reach the park, take the San Diego Freeway to the Bake Parkway exit. Turn north, toward the mountains. Continue to Portola Parkway. Turn left on Portola to the first signal, Market Place. Turn right (look for the large American flag above the USA gas station). There’s a parking lot directly on the left--20 spaces, $2 for the day (cash only).

* A new Discover Orange County will run next Sunday in the Orange County Calendar.


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