Mother Nature reclaimed the hilly area not far from Irvine Lake that was once a popular motocross course, and now that the natural habitat has been preserved, it is once again opening to people.
This time visitors will be able to hike or mountain bike the 3.3 miles of trails that will be open in the newly debuted Saddleback Wilderness during special access events hosted by the OC Parks system.
The moment officials cut the ribbon on the new Saddleback Wilderness on Monday, March 27, 70-year-old Janice Bora took off running up the dirt path.
Bora ran past OC Third District Supervisor Don Wagner, headed up a steep path and disappeared behind a curve as the rest of the dignitaries and invited volunteers started hiking up the trail to explore along behind her.
The new trail system is part of OC Park’s Irvine Ranch Open Space and was donated in 2014 to the county by the Irvine Company.
Upon receiving the land donation, the county “went through a robust environmental evaluation process,” said OC Parks Operations Manager John Gump in an email. “Once complete, we were able to design a trail system that avoided locations with sensitive resources, while also doing our best to have trails reach points of interest and scenic viewpoints for the public to enjoy.”
From the late 1960s to 1984, Saddleback Park used much of the land for a “motor playground” enjoyed by motocross riders, off-road trucks and buggies. It was one of the largest motocross tracks on the West Coast. But liability concerns and other pressures ultimately closed it, according to online histories.
In the years that followed, it was left to return to its natural state.
Gump said you can still see remnants of the former track in the trails. They follow parts of the race track and roads that visitors used to watch the competitors.
Saddleback Wilderness is being advertised as offering 360-degree views from the ocean to the mountains.
Volunteer Roxanne Bradley said, “the scenery is great and you get a good view,” but she especially like the blossoming flowers.
The Irvine Ranch Open Space it is part of includes about 25,000 acres in the eastern foothills of Orange County that stretch from the natural areas near the 91 Freeway and 241 Toll Road connection and Santiago Oaks Regional Park down to where the 133 Toll Road branches from the 241 and near Limestone Canyon.
Much of it is strictly protected because of the rare and sensitive nature of its habitats and areas are only open to the public during special access days and events.
“Many OC Parks facilities are encumbered by conservation plans that prioritize habitat protection while also securing public access and establishing approved trail systems,” Gump said. “When OC Parks received the land donation from the Irvine Company in 2014, it presented a unique opportunity to offer additional trail options for local hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.”
Developing the parking lot and trail amenities, as well as performing the required environmental studies, cost about $514,000, about half of which was funded by an endowment that came with the land. The rest was funded by OC Parks.
Staff Photographer Jeff Gritchen contributed to this story.
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