Hunting for wild places in the OC – Peters Canyon

This was a completely accidental couple of hours of fairly easy hiking.  Given I was so delayed leaving Newport Back Bay and had no chance of making it up to LA in time to get to the Dodgers game, I decided to hang around a bit in the area.  Betsy the paddling guide suggested that I might be interested in the environmental centre on the other side of the bay.  And I was, but they’re not actually open for random strangers to wander through.

However the Centre does mark the start of the Sea to Mountains trail, which goes from Newport Beach up through Peters Canyon to the hills.  The last part of the trail that you’re allowed to walk without a guide is Peters Canyon.

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Pic of Tustin Sports Park's list of DO NOTs

There were tiny children playing baseball here. It’s really a miracle that I was able to move on at all. Tiny children playing sport in uniforms is one of my biggest weaknesses. And it was BASEBALL.

After faffing a bit and deciding that the San Diego Creek section was probably a bit too small for fun times, I jumped in the car and headed off to try and find the trail sections.  This involved parking in the Tustin Sports Park and missing the trail – which at that point is probably a bike lane marked on Jamboree Road – and then lurking around the exceptionally well-maintained streets of West Irvine feeling like a creep.  This was not because I was being creepy, but because West Irvine is so ridiculously well-maintained that I felt like I was staining its very character by being hot, sweaty and a little confused about my location. After not too long, I decided that the official website was too useless, went to a hikers/cyclists website instead and got some solid directions on where to park and how to get to the trail.  Have I mentioned how wonderful it is to travel with the internet always to hand? It really, really is.

I parked about a kilometre away from the section I was looking to walk in Cedar Grove Park, used the facilities and filled up my water-bottle (as two separate things. I enjoy Bear Grylls, I don’t wish to emulate him). And headed off to stroll into Peter’s Canyon.


What’s this, Lydia? A Mountain Lion.

The walk was listed as Level 4 on the trail guide.  For reference, the last time I walked a Level  4 track was on the way up to Liverpool Hut, so I was planning to just walk up to the first scramble, admire it for a bit and then head back.  Level 4 does not mean the same thing here.  Going the signposted way would have left you on tracks that are fine for a running pram.

A wide, straight, pale shadow heads into the distance

Hot. Bare. No shade. But surprisingly full of attractive walkers.

As you can probably guess from that sentence, I found a slightly more interesting way to go.  I took the first smallish looking branch off the main trail and headed up the canyon wall to the Eastern Ridge track.

It was a really hot day, but there were still some people out running in it and a few families going for walks. This also proved to me that California’s forcefield repulsion effect on unattractive people is still strong, even this far from the beach.

A park bench on the highest point of the Eastern Ridge Trail

Yeah, I stopped for a rest. And made interrogative noises about exactly what I was seeing, just in case someone came up the trail behind me and thought I was just having a rest because I was hot and unfit. /crazyperson

The ridge trail had very little to recommend it, beyond being able to see a decent chunk of the plains. It was hot. Wildlife was minimal (spotted some crows, a hummingbird and a butterfly) and there were some really strange settlement patterns that made one side of the ridge look like a Stepford Village had been plopped in there from space.

Concreted drainage ditches dug into the hillside

Reticulation AND drainage? If you’re landscaping, why not swales? I guess there’s something about the rainfall pattern and/or the soil that makes it not practical?

I also noticed that they had landscaped the side of the ridge that the Stepford Village would be looking at.  Not only had the removed a large chunk of the natural bush and put retic in, they’d also put in drainage ditches.  Not swales.  I guess when it rains it rains really, really hard?

Came down off the ridge out of water and knowing that the car was at least 6km away with no shade on the main trail, decided to do the shorter loop around the top of the park to the ranger station and cross my fingers for water or a shop or something useful like that. (Spoilers: there was a drinking fountain).

Peter's Canyon Weir

Top of a steep (Gus said 14%) grade. Lots of people up here talking about the scenery and pretending to not be hot and unfit.

The loop around the weir was far more interesting, in terms of there being some shade and therefore some critters hiding in it.

The best part of the trip for me though, was seeing a roadrunner and watching it hunt and eat a couple of lizards.  Roadrunners are really nifty looking and walk far more comfortably than magpies do.  This one was walking up logs, peering in, grabbing critters in its beak, whacking them against the ground left-right-left and then chilling out and eating them rather daintily.  I must have lost an hour or so watching the roadrunner and chatting to a random (who turned out to be an engineer making and selling bits to SpaceX, which may have made me a little starry-eyed due to the coolness factor. Note to self – middle-aged engineers REALLY LIKE starry eyes.  Don’t do it again.)

Eventually got back to the car and the blessed, blessed airconditioning, deeply disappointed in the lack of mountain lions and well aware that over the course of a few days I had kind of fallen in love a little bit with the Californian mountains.

Overall, this trip to California was much like my other two trips.  I don’t fit in there at all, yet there are so many things to like about the place.  I think that if I make it to California again, I’d very much like it to be a winter/spring trip and I would like to get away from the beach and LA and see what’s behind the mountains.

Strangely perfect community nestled into one of the last folds in the hills

Sage-brush or fence-post lizard?

I took the photo so the people with me at that point in time could see the photo, find the lizard and then try and spot him in real life.

Me. Admiring the view. Not hot and unfit. Not at all.

Me. Admiring the view. Not hot and unfit. Not at all.


Hunting for wild places in the OC – Santa Ana Mountains and Newport Back Bay

I found two ‘nature’ activities online before I left home – one was part of a series of hikes exploring the Santa Ana Mountains and one was a guided paddle tour on Newport BackBay.

The hike was part of the Santiago Canyon College’s Community Education program and one of set where they were going into different canyons in the Santa Ana Mountains every week and focussing on a different set of attributes of the land/ecology.  I lucked into the day where we got to have a look at a summer pool.


The kid in the group standing in a dry river bed. Size and morphology of the trees and the ordinary mint growing in the middle of the riverbed say that there’s still a heap of water here. I hope they survive the summer, given the lack of real rain over winter this year.

The hike was run by Naturalist for You on behalf of the College.  It was enormously interesting and pretty much doubled as the sniff-test tour of Californian plants. Pro-tip, they smell pretty good, and if not good exactly (like the white sage) they smell really interesting. I scratch-and-sniffed-and-nommed a lot of things out of the mint family (and have now both recognised things in the mint family and sniffed them since arriving in Boston).


Yucca spear, broken by humans at some point in the last couple of days.

We also saw a Newt, which was bright orange, slow-swimming and OK to be held if you were clean enough.  I was happy enough to have a look and want it to be put back in the water before it dried out too much.

I learned how to say ‘chaparral’ as well as where the word comes from (based on the Spanish word for ‘little oak’ – chaparro).  I’ve always said chap-a-RALL, but it’s apparently CHAP-ar-al.  I’ve also always said ‘high chaparral’ and had the shoot-out music from ‘The Good, the Bad and The Ugly’ play in my brain whenever I’ve said it.  Because all of my education about Californian wild-country comes from Hollywood Westerns watched before the age of 10.

Chaparral turns out to be trees!  Higher than your head, exceptionally dense trees!  I never even had a hint that this was the case.  I had always thought that chaparral was exceptionally hard country because of no vegetation or water, but it turns out that it is exceptionally hard country because it is crazy steep and dense.  You can crawl through it or try and crawl over it, but you’re not going to get far.  Luckily, it needs a bunch of protection from the sun to grow, so tends to be on the north and east facing sides of steep hills only.  It is slow growing and needs a long time between fires to re-establish – which it is not getting.


The tour group, led by Joel, walking up Maple Springs Road in Silverado Canyon. I knew I was over-prepped when I saw what Joel was wearing.

I came prepped for a half-day hike by the standards of my friends-group in Perth, so I was kind of ridiculously over-supplied with food, water and first-aid for what we ended up doing, which was a very short walk, with lots of stops to talk about what we were seeing.  I really, really enjoyed this morning, but would have liked to have gone a lot further afield than we did and was very sad that the one kid in the group clearly had no experience in rock-hopping, log-walking or generally just making his way through bush and seemed pretty damn anxious about it.   And this was a kid whose family cared enough to at least try and get him out in nature occasionally.

Joel had a pretty much endless pile of knowledge about plants and animals we were seeing, how they got there and how they fit together as ecological systems.  He also had a pretty deep love of the Santa Ana Mountains, which made me very happy.  I love to be around people who are doing things that they love.

I finished off the afternoon by curling around the mountains to Corona, because it looked old-shaped on the map, though it turned out to not be so.  The town incorporated in the late 1800s and most of the older public architecture was kind of two-story Art Deco.


Corona municipal buildings and gardens. Note that you are not allowed to ‘loiter’ in the gardens.

The historical residential area is probably a little bit earlier and it’s gorgeous old wooden mansions.  So Corona was a pretty boring town in lots of ways, but oh it has the best setting.  It is a little elevated (Wiki says 200-ish metres) and nestles into the Santa Ana Mountains behind and looks out over the Santa Ana Valley to the San Antonio Mountains.  On a clear day with no smog, it would have the most amazing views.   I wandered away thinking that if you’d grown up there – or really anywhere in/around the Californian Mountains it would be heartbreakingly difficult to move away.  Even in the middle of a stonking heatwave and with the valley full of dirty air and a town pretty much drowning in churches I fell a little bit in love.

Really not my photo. Pinched from a real estate listing for the fancy part of Corona.

The guided tour of the Newport Back Bay with the Newport Conservancy group was far harder to arrange than I really thought it should be.  You have to call to book; no other option.  So I started calling six weeks out from travel date.  At any and all potential times that they might be open.  They’re still my leading expenditure on skype.  No-one ever answered the phone or emailed me or called me back.  And then when I got to California, another two calls went unanswered.  So I turned up and hoped for the best and was lucky enough that the guide decided to take me.


Newport Back Bay – an estuary surrounded by cliffs.

The tour itself was just fine, with plenty to look at and talk about.  I was in a double with the main guide, so I didn’t miss a thing. I saw rays and jumping fish, hawks and buzzards and heaps of fiddler crabs and some other kinds of crabs.  The shape of the estuary is fascinating, with high, steep walls and a big canyon back into San Diego Creek.  I had a bunch of questions about water quality and about whether the Conservancy had a position on Clean Water, Clean Beaches and whether they were advocating for something similar in Orange County, or whether something similar already existed.  (Answers were – ???    ???)

The most fun part for me ended up being the ever-increasing strength of the wind over the course of the morning.  I really enjoyed being one of, if not the strongest paddler in the group.  That never happens!  The wind was gusting hard enough to make spume and set pretty solidly on whitecaps.  About half the group got stuck in the upper bay, though the kids eventually made it out.  The rearguard guide took an older couple who simply couldn’t make it back through a ‘do not use’ back channel, but the final section against the wind and the incoming tide defeated them and we had to call for a rescue for them.  The wind was certainly strong enough that couldn’t have towed them out.  Keeping our boat in one place out of the current was taxing enough.

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We came off late enough that there was no way I was going to make it up to LA in time to see the Dodgers game, so I stuck around at the aquatic centre helping tie things down so they didn’t blow away.  At that point, there were 3 rescue craft out in the Back Bay picking up all the kayakers and SUPs who’d gotten trapped in the wind.  Really fun morning!

Was complimented by the guides on how calm I was and I was like – no one is sick or injured or having a medical emergency of any kind, we just have two very tired paddlers and some kids on shore who are waiting for them.  We have radio contact with a rescue boat who will be here in like 15 minutes.  I don’t even understand what there is to be stressed about –  But given the crazy levels of panic expressed by people in the presence of bees the day before in the Santa Ana mountains, I suppose a higher level of freaking out is generally expected.


Hunting for wild places in the OC – Santa Ana River Trail

I knew, going into California, that it is heavily developed. I’ve been to some of the area around LA before – I’ve even been to Anaheim before, but this was the first time that I’ve had my own transport while in California. (Aside – driving on the right nowhere near as traumatic as some accounts would have you believe, but it’s much harder when tired and my reflexive driving behaviour under stress is 100% wrong. Account for these problems by planning in advance and it’s just dandy.)

Orange County and Southern California have a clean, green image and are filled with sporty, outdoorsy people – right? That was certainly my impression and as mentioned, everyone is in amazing shape, with amazing skin/hair/nails, clear eyes, etc. But it turns out that I couldn’t find any basis for my impression of ‘outdoorsy’ at all. The OC is wall-to-wall roads and malls. There are almost no wild places and where there are wild places, you’re mostly not allowed to go in them.

I tried out the Santa Ana River Trail, the Santa Ana Mountains, Newport Back Bay, Peter’s Canyon (part of the Sea to Mountains trail) and the Pacific Ocean at Huntington Beach.

The Santa Ana River is a really interesting example. I find the ‘concrete canyon’ aesthetic that has been wrought upon SoCal rivers to be pretty bloody upsetting. I was absolutely horrified when I understood that the awesome truck chase scene from Terminator 2 actually took place in a river.

(This is actually Bull Creek, in North Hills, but they’ve done this to every river I’ve seen).

So the Santa Ana River is mostly a concrete canyon, but there is some really interesting stuff going on. The River itself is largely(?) being diverted into the aquifer recharge project (also really interesting – and I would have loved to have had a good sticky beak at the numbers for this and for the recycled water recharge program – and a chat about how the whole thing is managed. The Water Department had to BUY some of the river channel to implement this project, which… wow.), so I assume that even if California had seen any rain over winter, I would have had much the same experience of the section of the River Trail I saw. There are lakes in the recharge basins higher up, but it looked like a very long boring slog to get there.

The River trail (as I rode it, on a beach cruiser) starts at the river mouth and heads East towards the hills. The mouth of the river looks much like any river mouth over summer. Some minimal flow, a bit of a sandbank effect, but not enough at this point in the year to seal the river mouth.


Santa Ana River Mouth from the pedestrian bridge alongside Pacific Coast Highway. The River marks the border between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach

The first part of the ride has rehabilitated marsh on one side and the river to the left.  At this point the river fills the entire canyon and it’s full of these jumping yellow-tailed fish which are apparently a silvery mullet.  Gulls, plovers, pelicans were the things I saw around here.


Army Corp rehab marshland


Yep, that’s more heavy industry right on the banks of the river. Also, the official river trail is on the other side of the channel, but they were doing some kind of repair work, so all traffic was funnelled over to this side.

This petered into marshland, then into some fairly interesting shrubland.  By the time we’d gotten to this point, the water in the bottom reaches of the river must have been coming in through stormwater drainage, as it was in a separate channel. I took video for you, but Movie Maker can’t do any of the visuals, so I’ll spare you me dropping the phone and swearing and being unable to find the buttons to turn it off.   The shrubland is full of small twittery birds.  I’m guessing tits and finches by the sounds, but I couldn’t see anything other than redtailed hawks from where I was.


Essentially a contained evergreen shrubland at this point – the air is FULL of birdnoise.

The channel containing the water also had an inflatable weir in it and was pumping water downstream.  The difference between the upstream and downstream side of the weir was about two foot.  And I cannot figure out why they’ve done that as all of the upstream was still entirely concrete channel with nothing appearing to be living in it except slime.  My best guess is that it might be about water quality.  How I wish they’d had some decent interpretive signage along this route! I had so many questions and no-one I asked (even in the Newport Bay Conservancy Group) knew any of the answers – or even understood why I was interested.

After the intersection with the 405 Freeway, the river reverts back to total concrete.  Interestingly, the profile changes from sheer walls, to something that looks much more like a ‘natural’ river profile, with a channel, a bed, and differing levels of flood plains.  Not only does it look like it probably makes it easier to manage the river in dry and normal flow, it had a siren song shape for riding bikes down.  Only the thought of having to push a monster-heavy beach cruiser back up again stopped me – but I imagine kids on BMX’s go flying down those sides all the time.  Or I hope so anyway. The kids I saw in the OC seemed bizarrely risk-averse.


It’s a river! Well. Sort of.

I know there have been some rehab projects undertaken in the upper reaches of the LA River and in the Tujunga Wash.  I’m hopeful that next time I’m in the area I’ll have a day to go sticky-beak in them and really appreciate how much better off the Swan River is and how amazingly lucky have been to have even such a bodged-up river plan, even if the funding has been for shit.

ETA – found this on a blog I follow. Links through to Santa Ana program, amongst other Cal groundwater storage programs. Will read when I can use a computer again.


Me and the beach cruiser, up around the McFadden Ave flyover.


Some thoughts on California (Orange County)

I have found my week in Orange County to be really interesting and really enjoyable.

I think there are 3 or 4 strands that have really stood out to me.  Religion, personal health vs environmental wreckage, purblic amenity vs public safety and the bizarre and scary absence of unattractive people.

I don’t think I have ever seen so many churches in one place. I understand that the density of churches is higher in other parts of the States, but it has been a real eye-opener for me. I was visiting Corona after spending a morning in the Santa Ana Mountains and was entertaining myself trying to guess the population per church in the city.  It seemed to me as I wandered the suburbs that it was at a similar level to pubs per head of population in the old gold mining towns.

Two men walk away from camera down Huntington Beach Pier. One carries a cross like a union sign, the other carries a sign with the standard "I am the WAY" etc motto.

Did they need a permit for amplified public speaking?

I have not seen a mosque or a temple or anything other than a church, but churches I have seen in all flavours of architecture, even if I haven’t gotten close enough to ascertain the flavours of Christianity represented.  I have seen no-one wearing anything that would identify them as Islamic or Sikh. The quiet diversity of religious and cultural expression that I am familiar with does not seem to exist here.  Though there is quite a lot of new-age-y surfing spiritualism, mostly from older guys who look like they have been surfing their whole lives.

I haven’t managed to collect any photos of super-natural-awesome-wholegrain-canesugar-only food – mostly because I shoved it in my mouth immediately, but I did note that I wasn’t able to buy plain rolled oats or plain full-fat yoghurt in Walmart.  Trader Joe’s at minimum for yoghurt and Whole Foods for oats. And they’re still not plain oats, they’re organic, hand-picked, steel-milled WTF oats. Oatmeal in abundance.  Oats, not so much.

Oil derrick off Huntington Beach

The guys I’m staying with say it’s close enough to paddle, but I reckon Liz and Russell could swim it, easily.

Big infrastructure, right on the beach

Big-ass, ass-ugly infrastructure, right on the beach.

derricks in the marshland

Not yet clear to me who has legal responsibility to monitor and maintain the old oil infrastructure throughout this marshland.

However, I have got a collection of photos of the way things have industrialised.

Huntington Beach sits above a fault (of course) that has collected oil.  I believe that it is mostly played out now, but some infrastructure is clearly still live.  There are derricks bobbing right beside the Pacific Coast Highway, just behind a fence, right next to houses and restaurants and hotels.  It is pretty confronting.  There is prime beachside realestate taken up with condensing towers and the marshlands are littered with old oil machinery that will never be removed.  I spoke with one of the volunteers involved with rehabbing the marshland near the Santa Ana River mouth and she had no idea who was responsible for ensuring that the well-casings remained intact or who would be held accountable for fixing and remediating any leaks.  I haven’t followed it up any further, but the assumption that “the polluter pays” doesn’t seem to be in place here.  The focus on individual health just doesn’t seem to be supported by the approach to public environmental health.

City of Corona sign prohibits just about everything you can think of to do in a park.

City of Corona sign prohibits just about everything you can think of to do in a park.

The same difference in emphasis is obvious in the kinds of by-laws that have been passed.  All the bars and nighclubs shut by 2am.  The beach is closed – as in, you are not permitted to walk on the sand – from 10pm. They actually patrol this. Parkland is also closed at night, from varying times depending on the park, but 10pm is again the latest I have seen.  I have been running a kind of joke-contest to see which city in the OC contains the most number of explicitly prohibited activities on a sign.  Thus far the winner is Corona, which needed 3 columns to list all the things one is not allowed to do in a park.   By contrast, you are under no obligation to put up a balcony around your verandah (which you step out onto via the kitchen window).  So you’re perfectly welcome to break a neck, not welcome to make noise that may disturb your neighbours.  Hopefully the shrieking you make when you break your bones won’t disturb anyone too much.  Another thing of note is that there is no public green space at all.  If you want to have your lunch on a lawn, you better be the kind of person that grows and maintains your own lawn, because there aren’t any others.

Above-garage balconies with no safety features whatsoever.

Don’t get stoned and fall off the balcony. This is a genuine concern of mine for the residents.

More tk regarding my various travels though some of the natural-ish areas of the OC, but my final point is that everyone here is creepily beautiful, or if not, they are in exceptionally fine physical shape.  I have not seen a fat Californian adult.  My current theory is that they are taking people away to the far side of the San Gabriel Mountains and putting them through fat-camp and hair and training make-up before they are allowed near the sea again.  Perhaps I should move here and allow myself to be reinvented for Californian public consumption.