Irvine Regional Park’s lake was dug in 1913 and filled from underground spring waters. In this 1918 photograph, the boathouse that still stands today is visible in the background.

California’s first regional park

by Ellen Bell

Irvine Regional Park is a natural haven beloved by Orange County residents since 1897.

For years, residents have enjoyed its secluded trails, tranquil pond and magnificent stands of live oak. Yet even if you have visited often in the past, you may be surprised to know that it all started because James Irvine wanted to save the trees. James Harvey Irvine (1867-1947) was an avid outdoorsman who loved the vast open space on The Irvine Ranch. One of his favorite spots was in the northern portion of the property — a grove of old live oak trees at the mouth of Santiago Canyon. When his father first bought the land in 1864, the grove was already a popular recreation destination with members of the Anaheim Colony, who called the shady retreat “The Picnic Grounds.” In 1872, the Fourth of July celebration was attended by over 500 citizens who gathered for a reading of the Declaration of Independence and a luncheon under the trees.

Seven members of the Dittmer family pose on one of the park’s ancient live oak trees in 1907. The park is known for these majestic oaks that have stood for centuries.

The popularity of The Picnic Grounds brought challenges for the old oak grove. James Irvine, who ran Irvine Company, worried that the historic oaks and sycamores could become fuel for a campfire, and he decided to take action.

In 1897, Irvine Company gave what was described as a “Gift Munificent” (bountiful gift of service), setting aside 160 acres of oak groves for the County of Orange. The county treasury paid Irvine Company $1, and the Orange County Park was born.

Irvine Company had a few requirements for the new park. James Irvine insisted that a full-time caretaker be hired to monitor activities in the park. He also made sure that a fence was built around the perimeter to keep out sheepherders and woodcutters. There would be absolutely no harvesting of the trees, and the park was to be kept in a natural state as much as possible.

Originally named Orange County Park in 1897, the park was renamed Irvine Regional Park in 1926. It was the first regional park in California.

On June 1, 1926, Orange County supervisors changed the name to Irvine Regional Park, creating the first regional park in California.

Today, this spirit of natural preservation lives on. More than 57,500 acres of open space have been preserved on The Irvine Ranch, making it easy for residents to connect with nature.

In Irvine Regional Park, an 8-foot bronze statue of James Irvine stands guard near the ancient oak trees that he sought to protect over a century ago.

James Harvey Irvine (1867-1947) was an avid outdoorsman who loved the vast open space on The Irvine Ranch. One of his favorite spots was in the northern portion of the property — a grove of old live oak trees.