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.


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