Changing Times at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is Orange County in the 19th century, a lovely, diverse landscape of woodlands, grasslands and scenic ridgelines with handsome sandstone outcroppings. The 5,000-acre park, which this week is celebrating expanded public access to its trails, also contains the county's only natural lakes--habitats for fish as well as geese, grebes, coots, cormorants and kingfishers.

James Irvine and his business partners purchased what was Rancho San Joaquin in 1865 and used the land for cattle grazing for more than a century. With the Irvine Co.'s cooperation, hundreds of additional acres in and around Laguna Canyon are becoming parkland under the stewardship of the county parks department.

The fact that these hills and canyons remain undeveloped is a tribute to years of work by local conservationists as well as state and local agencies. In 1989 more than 7,000 people marched along Laguna Canyon Road to protest proposed development. A year later the citizens of Laguna Beach voted overwhelmingly for a $20-million bond measure to buy land along Laguna Canyon Road and far into the hills. Throughout the '90s, government regulators continued to negotiate with private developers while the Laguna Canyon Foundation spearheaded preservation efforts.

Hikers will have more opportunities to appreciate conservation efforts starting July 1, when trails open to the public every Sunday. (For more than a decade, access has been so restricted that only the most knowledgeable locals have known when, where and how to hike the park.) This change is a cause for celebration, and one is planned. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Saturday and Sunday (June 16 and 17), guides will lead nature walks in the Laurel Canyon, Emerald Canyon, Jim Dilley Greenbelt Preserve and Little Sycamore Canyon parts of the park. That Sunday, visitors will be allowed to hike several trails unescorted.

That weekend, the park also will unveil trailside interpretive and orientation signs that incorporate regional artists' original paintings, attractive departures from the spare signage in other parks.

Besides free parking, there will be free shuttle buses from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Act V parking lot, 1900 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. The shuttles will deliver hikers to the park's three major trail heads.

One good hike is a Laurel Canyon and Willow Canyon trail loop.

Directions to trail head: From Interstate 405 or Interstate 5 in Irvine, exit onto Laguna Canyon Road (California 133) and drive south toward the coast. Look for the main entrance to the park (Laurel Canyon) on the right side of the road.

The hike: Walk along the path leading north, which parallels Laguna Canyon Road and then passes a sandstone boulder eroded into a small cave. Watch for more caves and rock formations crowning the park's ridges.

The trail traverses west across an open slope that, with cattle no longer grazing, is turning from grassland to coastal scrub. When the path enters quiet Laurel Canyon, begin a westward ascent among live oaks and sycamores. The vegetation in the canyon bottom has regenerated quickly from the terrible 1993 fire that blackened the canyon: A narrow, brush-crowded footpath was a fairly wide ranch road before the blaze.

The path leads by a seasonal creek (look for an ephemeral waterfall during the rainy season) and rises to meet a dirt road. Turn left on this road and begin an ascent to a saddle on Willow Ridge and another junction. Go left again and descend Willow Canyon Trail.

Most of the return route east overlooks parkland. Your journey ends at the park office, a short walk from the trail head and parking.

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For more of John McKinney's tips, visit http://www.thetrailmaster.com.

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