Maureen Li, left, and Jane Go chat as they hike through the Quail Hill open space preserve during a docent-led tour.

Irvine’s best-kept secret: Quail Hill

Hikers say it’s like having a national park in your backyard

by TOMOYA SHIMURA

Approaching a gate near the Quail Hill trailhead, we found a roadrunner staring down at us atop a rock on a hill.

It was as though this native bird was trying to remind us we were stepping onto its land. Indeed, where we were headed was off limits most of the time for humans, even though it was just a few minutes away from the heart of Irvine.

On a recent Thursday morning, I joined about 20 other local residents on a docent-led tour of Quail Hill, an integral part of what’s called the Irvine Open Space Preserve.

About a third of Irvine — including Quail Hill, Bommer Canyon and Orchard Hills — is permanently preserved for parks, trails and open space. As a result, Irvine residents have unique opportunities to escape the daily grind and enjoy hiking, mountain biking and even horse riding at these preserves. Some say it’s like having a national park in their backyard.

“This is one of the best kept secrets because people don’t really know it’s here,” said Lee Eichenbaum, a hiker who volunteers for the Irvine Ranch Conservancy that hosted the tour.

The nonprofit conservancy is hired by landowners — like the county and the cities of Irvine and Newport Beach — to look after their open space while offering outdoor programs for residents.

“A lot of people, including myself thought this was a closed area,” Eichenbaum said.

Quail Trail Sign
Irvine residents have unique opportunities to enjoy hiking, mountain biking and even horse riding at some of the city’s permanently preserved open space.

Journey begins

By the time our group took off for the hike at 8 a.m., the clouds were beginning to clear. Our guide, Jeanne-Marie Alexander, told us water, Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses are must-haves on these hikes.

The first steep climb came soon after embarking on our 7.5-mile hike, but a gorgeous view of Irvine and the Santa Ana Mountains helped us get through.

By the time we reached Shady Canyon, there was no longer road noise from the 405 freeway. I could see all the way to Anaheim.

We then entered the Cattle Crest Trail, which is open only to scheduled programs like our hike. We descended a narrow trail adjacent to Shady Canyon villas and golf course. Hiking shoes are recommended as the trail is slippery with rocks.

I realized the only sounds I could hear by then were of birds chirping.

The other Orange County

Alexander, our guide, stopped and pointed at vast scrubland, accented by rough rock outcrops, in front of us.

“Folks, this is the other Orange County,” she said.

“We have a climate here that provides for incredible biodiversity,” she said. “We have more diversity among plants and animals than almost all other environments on the planet. There are only five places on earth that have this environment.” There are plants, frogs, lizards and other creatures that don’t live anywhere else, she said. Our group was lucky enough to see a rare California Gnatcatcher.

This diversity is part of the reason why the Irvine Open Space Preserve has been designated part of a National Natural Landmark.

Julie Willard said she goes on IRC hikes at least once a week. She also volunteers with her granddaughter at the IRC’s native seed farm. “There’s truly something for everyone,” Willard said.

Near the end of our hike, almost at the same location where we had encountered the roadrunner, a mockingbird flew above us as if to welcome us back to civilization.

“You can get ocean views, mountain views, views of Catalina,” Willard said about Irvine’s open space. “It’s really something to think that all this open land won’t ever be developed. That’s what’s comforting.”

To sign up for activities at the Irvine Open Space Preserve, visit letsgooutside.org.