Reprinted from OC Trails
Once a month, OC Parks and the Irvine Ranch Land Conservancy open Limestone Canyon Wilderness Park up for a Wilderness Access Day. Most of the time, Limestone Canyon is only open for limited guided tours, which anyone can sign up for through the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks Activities page. However, during the Wilderness Access Day, you’ll have free reign around any of the trails in Limestone Canyon.
The main draw of Limestone Canyon is a geological feature called The Sinks. The Sinks is a large canyon carved into the soft limestone hills that has been called The Grand Canyon of Orange County. Unfortunately, people are not allowed to climb down into The Sinks, but are only allowed to look at it from above due to their delicate nature.
The hike out to the sinks starts from the Augustine Staging Area, located just off Santiago Canyon Road north of Silverado Canyon Road on the west side of the road. During Wilderness Access Days, there will be public parking and check-in located at the Augustine Staging Area. There are normally a few hundred people who visit Limestone Canyon on these days, so expect a much larger production that you would normally find at a regional park.
The trailhead is at the southeast corner of the parking area from which a fire road heads south. The entire length of the trail is actually this fire road that circumnavigates the park. On the one hand, this is nice because it means the trail is wide and easy to navigate but it also feels less intimate with the surrounding nature. Also, the first mile or so of this fire road is covered with gravel which is somewhat uncomfortable to walk on, especially on the way back to the trailhead.
The trail winds its way through hills that were surprisingly green even late into the Southern California winter. It starts out generally paralleling Santiago Canyon Road but quickly turns further south and soon a row of hills separates the road from the trail. As it does so, the trail crosses large meadows situated in the shallow valleys between the hills.
In one such valley there is a farm where native plants are grow for transplant throughout the park. One of the main plants that is grown are the slow growing oaks that are found throughout the Santa Ana Mountains. Because these trees grow so slowly and the farm is fairly new, the farm doesn’t look much like a traditional tree farm. At this point, you’ll see a number of rows of PVC pipe sticking out of the ground that protect the young trees and help with the irrigation.
Upon reaching The Sinks, you’ll find an observation platform off to the left side of the trail. This observation platform provides the best view possible of The Sinks and can be fairly crowded. You can normally find a park ranger stationed here at the the platform if you need any help or just have questions about the park. The rangers are not naturalists and often can’t answer any detailed questions about the formation of The Sinks or the plants, animals or other geological features of the park. However, they are normally willing to take take pictures of people standing in front of The Sinks.
The Sinks themselves are quite a dramatic striated cliff face. You can clearly see the rivulets carved by the wind and rain running down the face of the cliff. While it’s understandable why people would call this the Grand Canyon of Orange County, if you’ve been to the Grand Canyon you’ll be underwhelmed by The Sinks if you expect to see the Grand Canyon. However, if you visit The Sinks without that expectation and see it for what it is, you’ll see that The Sinks are beautiful and magnificent in their own, unique way.
The Limestone Canyon Wilderness Park Wilderness Access Days are a great opportunity to visit one of the most pristine natural areas in Orange County. The hike itself is very easy and feels almost flat throughout its entire length. The only thing that makes the hike slightly difficult its length at nearly eight miles. If you want to do this hike, I highly recommend starting as soon as the park opens at 9AM so you can be off the trail no later than 3PM when the park closes. This is especially true if you’re a novice or slow hiker.
This coming weekend, February 4th, 2012 is the next Wilderness Access Day at Limestone Canyon Wilderness Park. If you would like to visit this magnificent park you can sign up through the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks.