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.


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