Oak Canyon offers an easy trail along a year-round stream, a cactus-covered ridge and a wide variety of flowers.
It seemed as though the rains were never going to come this past winter, didn’t it? The hills remained brown and wildflowers that usually show up in early January still hadn’t made an appearance two months later. But even though Orange County never got the real dousing it needed to cause the spectacular blooms we saw last year, there are still a few wildflowers to be found through the end of May, and the vibrant blossoms of the prickly pear cactus are just getting started. You can see these flowers now through June on a family hike. And one of the best places to do that is at Oak Canyon Nature Center in Anaheim Hills.
This little city-run retreat is a too often overlooked in favor of the county’s larger wilderness and state parks and Cleveland National Forest. Yet it packs a lot into an easy two-mile hike – a ledge on a sunny hillside with blowering cactus, and then a return walk in the woods along the canyon bottom next to a gurgling stream. There’s also a fun nature interpretive center at the entrance with crafts and live animals, and some child-centered interpretive structures during the first part of the hike.
The nature center is open from sunrise to sunset, and parking and entry are free, though a $2 donation is considered a nice gesture. Bring a family picnic lunch; there are benches in a couple of places along the way, and just outside the nature center, some picnic tables under the oaks (with a real restroom instead of an outhouse – always appreciated!).
Getting there: The center is located at 6700 E Walnut Canyon Road, Anaheim. Take the Imperial Highway exit off the Riverside Freeway (CA 91) and turn south. Travel a quarter of a mile and turn left on Nohl Ranch Road. Drive 1.8 miles, to just past the golf course, and turn left on Walnut Canyon Road. Take the road to its end and park either in the small dirt lot or on the street. The entrance to the nature center is directly across from the parking lot.
Hiking the trail: Once you’ve taken in the exhibits and activities at the interpretive center, go straight across from the exit and climb a couple of steps to begin your walk on the Heritage Trail, which has some nature-themed climbing and tunneling structures for children and a small butterfly garden. It will take you to Roadrunner Ridge.
During the short, gentle climb along the hillside, you’ll pass a native walnut tree and might be able to find walnuts. It’s the perfect moment to teach kids the rule of hiking: Take nothing and leave nothing: leave no trash and let the walnut, flowers and other delights stay where others can find them. You’ll then come to areas with scattered flowers – the bright fuschia color of wishbone, deep amethyst of Parry’s phacelia, blue chia, sticky monkey flower, wild mustard and an elderberry tree. Further along the trail, you’ll briefly climb some steps, then head downward to the canyon floor. This is often a good place to find acorn woodpeckers, with their red-topped heads and raucous calls. The telephone pole at this point is filled with woodpecker-created holes, many of them stuffed with acorns that were placed there by the birds.
Duck around to the other side of the chain-link fence to your left, and just about 20 feet further, on your right, you’ll see the start of the Bluebird Loop Trail. This will take you into a shady, woodsy area right along the year-round creek. Watch for poison oak here; if you don’t know what this plant with its “leaves of three” looks like, familiarize yourself beforehand.
After 0.4 miles on Bluebird Loop, you’ll reach the Main Road. Turn right and 100 feet ahead, find a small bridge over the creek. Cross it to find the Stream Trail, where you’ll turn left. Continue your walk in the woods and keep an eye peeled for large white egrets and the beautifully marked wood ducks that are almost always found somewhere along this area in the stream. You’ll also come across a little mining exhibit. The stream trail will take you back to the Main Road. The trail will take you back to the Main Road; turn right to return to where you started.
While you’re eating your picnic lunch in the parking lot, here’s a quick Native American craft you can make in honor of the oaks of Oak Canyon. Come prepared with a few acorns, some thin twigs or spent matchsticks, quick-drying craft glue and a multi-took pocket knife. (Remember not to take acorns from the nature center; they belong to the woodpeckers and other animals.) The adult can punch a tiny hole in the very center of the acorn’s top (not the pointy end) with the leather punch or corkscrew of the pocket knife (or you can drill the hole back at the house). Then let the kids fit their twigs into the holes and glue them into place. Once the glue is dry, the acorns are tops that can be spun on their pointy tips.
By Karin Klein
Five Safety Musts for Your Hike
The trails might be close, but most of them are nonetheless in the wilderness, and that means a few items are real necessities, especially when children come along.
1. Water, water, water. At least a liter per person for a shorter hike, more for longer hikes. You can add ice cubes to a double-walled reusable canteen and they’ll stay frozen all day. Or take a plastic bottle the night before a hike, fill it a third full and cap it, then place it at a tilt in the freezer overnight. Fill with water in the morning. The big chunk of ice in the bottom will keep your water chilled for hours.
2. Whistle. Each member of the family should have a loud whistle carried on a lanyard around the neck. Should anyone get lost or separated by the group, a whistle makes it easy to be found, even when a person is hoarse or weak. A veteran hiker who separated from her group and suffered a bad injury a few years ago was found by searchers only because she was smart enough to have a whistle.
3. Trail map. Some parks have trail maps at their entrances but not all of them, and often they run out. It’s easy to take a wrong turn, and the best way to find your way back is with a trail map. You can usually print a trail map from a park website in advance; another good option is purchasing a hiking guide that includes directions and maps. Several have been written about the county.
4. Cell phone. In case of emergencies, cell phones can be literal lifesavers. Keep track of where you are on the hike – which trail are you walking, and how far from the trailhead? – in case you need to describe your location to emergency personnel. Be aware that although cell phones get reception on most trails in the county, that isn’t true everywhere, especially in steep canyons or areas of the Santa Ana Mountains.
5. Sun protection. Hiking can mean a lot of exposure, especially on ridgelines and ledges. Make sure everyone is slathered with sunscreen beforehand, and bring some extra. Shade hats cool and protect you from glaring sunlight. That can be quite important; without sun protection on a very hot day, heat exhaustion and heatstroke can be real dangers. Sunglasses are a good idea, too.
By Karin Klein