Check out some of these family-friendly docent-led hikes in time for the Orange County hiking season.
In most areas of the country, this is the dead of winter. In Orange County, it’s prime hiking season. Depending on when and how much rain arrives, this is often the time when the first wildflowers show up, water flows in previously dry creek beds and the weather is cool enough for everyone to be comfortable building up a little body heat on an uphill climb.
If you know the signs along the trail, there are all kinds of extraordinary sights and stories. Fossils jut out from stone or are imprinted in it. An uneven step in rock provides evidence that it’s an earthquake fault. Clusters of small white flowers grow along the stems of the wild cucumber, and if you know what to look for, you can tell the difference between the male and female flowers. Despite its name, nothing about the plant is edible and one of its other names, manroot, is probably much more descriptive because the root of this climbing vine is about the size and shape of a human torso.
The white patches on the cactus? They protect a parasite known as the cochineal bug that when crushed gives a bright fuchsia color, also called cochineal. In its heyday, that dye was worth as much as silver, and it continues to be used today as a natural coloring.
Overhead, a hawk gives a long, piercing cry – the call is so wild and haunting that it’s been used as the “voice” of mighty golden and bald eagles in movies, even though they don’t produce nearly as impressive a sound. Do you know which hawk that is?
Hiking is, in ways, the perfect activity. Stimulating and relaxing at the same time. Good for your body because even though you think you’re just walking – healthy exercise all its own – the work of keeping your balance on uneven terrain engages your core more than you might think. Studies have found that the combination of physical activity, exposure to nature and social engagement when hiking lifts our moods and eases stress. And it’s even more rewarding when we understand what we see and hear: what flowers those are, how Native Americans used them and how they’re used today, where grizzly bears and condors once lived in Orange County, where early prospectors searched for precious metals, and which bird’s call sounds like a ping-pong ball.
And for those who are new to hiking, just getting started can feel intimidating. It’s important to have a feel for how long the hike will be and where to turn on the trails to avoid getting lost. None of this is hard, but it’s smart to respect the backcountry and learn how to start off on the right foot.
Fortunately for Orange County residents, there’s a veritable throng of hikers and naturalists ready to lead you on the trail, show you the ropes and unveil the county’s nature secrets. Most of these are volunteers and the hikes are often free. Not all of them are suitable for children, but many do work for kids and some are actually designed for them. Meanwhile, during the times when the kids are at school, parents can make some time for themselves with a cardio hike or even a yoga hike.
Do yourself and the volunteers a favor: Read the directions and follow them carefully, especially when it comes to safety rules. That includes the right footwear, hats, sunscreen and adequate water.
Here are some of the most active groups offering docent-led hikes in the county:
Crystal Cove State Park
The state park encompasses a pristine stretch of beach, wonderful tide pools and backcountry trails. It also has the best schedule of family-friendly programming. There’s a family nature hike that teaches information about the local plant and animal life, as well as several beach walks and tide pool explorations with knowledgeable staff and volunteers. On Wednesdays, there’s even instruction on how to make jewelry out of sea glass. Activities are free but parking costs $15.
Laguna Canyon Foundation
Did you know that Orange County has just a couple of natural lakes? The Laguna Canyon Foundation offers a regular family hike to one of them. At about 2.5 miles roundtrip on gently rolling terrain, it’s an easy hike for most age groups. For families with older kids, the foundation offers birding walks and a fascinating (but much steeper) 2-mile hike with a naturalist who tells the stories of how Native Americans used the plants that surrounded them for food, shelter and medicine. The hikes are free but parking costs $3.
A Naturalist for You
This nonprofit docent organization offers many of its programs in the Santa Ana Mountains, including occasional evening owl walks as well as haunted evenings in Black Star Canyon. A regular monthly activity is described as “a foraging of wild edibles identification class, fiddle/mandolin music jam session and storytelling activity area for families” at the Orange Home Grown Farmer’s & Artisan’s Market in Orange. A donation is generally requested.
Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks
The landmarks include public parks that once were part of the vast Irvine Ranch, as well as land that the Irvine Company donated to the county but that remains off-limits except on docent-led activities. The minimum age requirements vary; most activities are for older teenagers and adults, but there are family full-moon hikes in Black Star Canyon, child craft activities and even animal tracking hikes open to young children.
By Karin Klein