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In 1991 Orange County opened the 1500-acre Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, which sprawls across the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains just east of the communities of Lake Forest and El Toro. One surprise can be found in the upper reaches of a narrow ravine through the park called Borrego Canyon. There you'll come upon strangely weathered outcrops of red-tinted sandstone, rising a sheer 100 feet or more. Some people optimistically refer to this natural amphitheater as Orange County's "Little Grand Canyon."

To get to Borrego Canyon's trailhead, exit the Foothill Transportation Corridor toll road (Highway 241) at Alton Parkway in Lake Forest. Go east on Alton 0.5 mile, turn right on Portola Parkway, and find the trailhead on the left, opposite Market Place.

From that trailhead, follow the well-traveled Borrego Trail going up Borrego Canyon. You immediately plunge into the densely shaded canyon bottom, right alongside a stream that happily trickles during winter and spring. For a while, suburbia rims the canyon on both sides, but soon enough it disappears without a trace. The trek up the canyon feels Tolkienesque as you pass under a crooked-limb canopy of live oaks and sycamores and sniff the damp odor of the streamside willows. Often in the late fall and winter, frigid air sinks into these shady recesses overnight, and by early morning frost mantles everything below eye level.

After no more than about 40 minutes of walking and 1.3 miles, you come to Mustard Road, a fire road that ascends both east and west to ridgetops offering long views of the ocean on clear days. Turn right on Mustard Road, pass a picnic site, and take the second trail to the left (the Red Rock Trail -- for hikers only), into an upper tributary of Borrego Canyon.

Out in the sunshine now, you meander up the bottom of a sunny ravine that becomes increasingly narrow and steep. Presently, you reach the base of the eroded "Red Rock" sandstone cliffs, formed of sediment deposited on a shallow sea bottom about 20 million years ago. This type of rock, which contains the fossilized remains of shellfish and marine mammals, underlies much of Orange County. Rarely is it as well exposed as here.

Like most trails in the Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, the Borrego Trail is open to mountain biking and horse riding, as well as hiking. Mountain bikers, however, are not allowed to ride all the way to the Red Rock cliffs. If they get as far as Mustard Road, they must return to the trailhead by a roundabout route looping east, because Borrego Trail is posted as one-way uphill for bicycles.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

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