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Park-Hopping in Orange County — Nature's Way

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Photo by David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A.
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By David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A. / Special to LAist

Hey, did you hear about that deal where you pay only $3 to get into an Orange County park and you can also visit the neighboring park for no additional charge?

Now, if you think we’re talking about Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure…well, we’re not. We’re talking about Santiago Oaks Regional Park and Irvine Regional Park, two units of Orange County’s park system. Located in the northeastern corner of the county, the two parks’ proximity makes it possible to visit both (for the price of one!) by way of a moderate five-mile hike. Scenery along the way includes views of the Santa Ana Mountains, some interesting geology, a marsh, open meadows, live oaks and more. You probably won’t see Mickey, Donald or Ariel at these parks (although you never know)—but you might see a deer, coyote or hawk.

There are several possible walking routes between the two parks. The easiest, if not the most interesting, is the Santiago Creek Trail. It leaves from the parking lot of Santiago Oaks Regoinal Park and heads southeast for almost three miles before reaching the picnic area at the western end of Irvine Regional Park. Except for a quick climb and descent past the Villa Park Dam, the route is primarily flat. It intersects with several other trails along the way, but if you follow the signs for the Santiago Creek Trail, you won’t get lost.

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There are several variations. You can visit the short Historic Dam trail which runs parallel to the Santiago Creek Trail before joining it. You can also shave off a short distance by taking the Pony Trail, which cuts through an equestrian staging area before rejoining the Santiago Creek Trail. After passing the dam, you can take a pleasant detour on the Egret Trail, which also leads to Irvine Regional Park, and you can loop back through some woodlands on the Willows Trail.

Hikers who want more of a challenge can take the Mountain Goat trail, which climbs to a lookout point on Barham Ridge, between the two parks. It descends to meet Irvine Regional Park’s Roadrunner trail, which leads to the parking lot.

If you have time and energy, you can explore Irvine Park’s other attractions, which include a zoo, a railroad, and more. Trivia buffs may be interested to know that Irvine is the oldest park in Orange County. Dedicated in 1897, it’s not only older than Disneyland, but older than Walt Disney himself.

Santiago Oaks Regional Park is located east of the city of Orange. From the 55 Freeway, take the Katella exit and head east for a total of three miles (during which time Katella becomes Villa Park and then Santiago Canyon.) Turn left on Windes Drive and follow it 0.8 miles to the park entrance. From the 91 Freeway, take the Imperial Highway exit and head south for a total of 3.4 miles. Imperial Highway becomes Cannon St. along the way. Turn left on Santiago Canyon, go a mile and turn left on to Windes and follow it into the park. Admission is $3 per vehicle on weekdays; $5 on weekends and $7 on holidays.

For more information, visit Santiago Oaks Regional Park’s home page here and Irvine Regional Park’s home page here.