The Few, the Wide Open Spaces

Hiker John McKinney puts a happy face on the remaining wild lands

If John McKinney wishes that the nature of Orange County were otherwise—that what passes for wilderness here had not been reduced to exaggerated cracks in the pavement—he doesn't let on. Much. In the face of rampant development, his tone in Orange County: A Day Hiker's Guide is determinedly positive about the joys of traipsing the all-too-beaten paths through our remaining slices of open space.

"The county's theme parks, not the county's nature parks, are Orange County's claims to fame," allows McKinney in a passage from the introduction that establishes the spirit of the book. "Still, for hikers in the know, the 'happiest place on earth' may not be Disneyland but along one of the happy trails in Orange County's back country."

McKinney is right, as far as he goes. There's plenty to love about strapping on a small pack and setting off into Orange County's sage-covered hills and lush little valleys. But he usually stops before he gets to the place on almost every happy trail in OC where a sudden turn reveals a view of a massive housing tract, a roaring toll road or a wide swath of freshly graded earth awaiting its fate—harsh reminders that these natural spots are ever-shrinking islands. As "hikers in the know" know all too well, there are few sensations sadder.

Even where McKinney acknowledges this, however, he is relentlessly upbeat—although sometimes his smiling prose sounds as though he's struggling to keep a stiff upper lip. "This geography, which in the decades since World War II has been almost unbelievably altered by the hand of man," he writes, "nevertheless retains much intrigue for lovers of wild places." Yeah, let's hear it for intrigue.

I would have preferred more entries like the one on the West Coyote Hills, which not only described the 130 species of plants and animals living amid the trails but also emphasized the drive to save them—including a photo of environmentalists carrying protest signs.

Then again, how many day-hiking books is McKinney going to sell if he dwells on the depressing aspects of the county's dwindling wild side? Beyond that, how are OC's surviving open spaces going to be defended if people don't get out there and realize they have a stake in them? Finally, who says everybody has to be as doomsday about everything as me? Isn't there something to be said about looking on the bright side of bad stuff? My mom says so.

McKinney says it, too, while suggesting more than 100 places to enjoy the often overlooked pleasures of walking in Orange County, from seaside to mountaintop, from wilderness to manicured parks—to residential neighborhoods. "While certain purists . . . will scoff at trails that might be all or partially paved, and don't get all that far away from it all," McKinney writes pointedly, while I try not to get defensive, "I believe in a broader definition of a hike in a place such as Orange County."

Thus, the recommendations in Orange County: A Day Hiker's Guide range from a climb to the top of 5,687-foot Santiago Peak to a stroll through the grounds of the $475-a-night Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel to a 1½-mile exploration of the fossil beds at Ralph B. Clark Regional Park on the Buena Park/Fullerton border. Each entry includes a detailed description of the hike, history of the area, directions to the trailhead, an excellent map and a little advice.

McKinney knows what he is talking about. He's been writing the Los AngelesTimes hiking column for years—significantly, he admits that the Times OCopted not to have a similar local column because editors doubted there were enough readers interested in hiking or enough places to explore—and he is also the author of a nationally acknowledged book, The Joy of Hiking. McKinney thinks so much of his expertise that he calls himself The Trailmaster. Despite all of his experience, however, he should have invested in a better copy editor; sentences in Orange County: A Day Hiker's Guide are sometimes awkwardly constructed and have too many typographical errors.

Whatever quibbles over tone or typography the book may deserve, it is nonetheless a valuable accessory for the local hiker—whether a veteran or a newcomer. Including contact information for parks and nature centers was a nice touch. Same with the tips for hiking with dogs and with kids. The most important contribution, however, is perhaps the list of organizations working to preserve Orange County's open space. That thing about hiking the grounds of the Crystal Cathedral was kinda weird, though.

ORANGE COUNTY: A DAY HIKER'S GUIDE BY JOHN MCKINNEY; OLYMPUS PRESS. PAPERBACK, 263 PAGES, $16.95.

 
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