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The vast trail system in the City of Irvine is part of the permanently preserved land on The Irvine Ranch, which encompasses more than 50 percent of the ranch’s total 93,000 acres. 37,000 acres of this pristine land, extending from Crystal Cove to the foothills of Saddleback Mountain, is the nation’s newest National Natural Landmark.


Irvine Ranch trail system includes designated Natural Landmark area

In June, 2010, Orange County residents received an unprecedented gift: 20,000 acres of wild and natural open space to protect and enjoy for generations to come. This landscape, a donation from Irvine Company Chairman and Irvine Ranch Conservancy founder Donald Bren, was unanimously accepted by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

photo of group on wood bridge

IRC staff and volunteers completed a bridge on the Raptor Trail


State-of-the-art bridges, gates, single track trails, and wayfinding signage are all features of the world-class trail systems on the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks. The land has been designated a Natural Landmark by both the State of California and the U.S. Department of Interior in recognition of its exceptional biological and geological value and importance to California and the nation. The 37,000 acres of spectacular natural open space is home to hundreds of species of native plants and animals, with rugged mountains, rolling grasslands, shady oak woodlands and sandy beaches.

Beyond its natural beauty and abundance, the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks have been meticulously stewarded as a place for people to connect with nature through a variety of trails that accommodate many different user groups. The trail system includes everything from groomed nature trails that can accommodate wheelchairs to long, rugged back-country single-track trails with more than 4,000 feet of total elevation change.

The trails offer something for everyone wanting a quiet, intimate nature respite; a bonding experience for the entire family; an escape from the daily stresses of life; and even rugged treks for the outdoor adventurer. Whatever the activity guided, free programs are available for hikers, trail runners, equestrians, and mountain bikers. Many areas are open daily for multiple users through docent-led programs; see the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks website for details.

Creating an exemplary trail network takes much more than just hard work. The Irvine Ranch Conservancy (IRC) and its partner organizations, including Orange County Parks, California State Parks, and others design and build trails in ways that minimize their impact and work with the natural contours of the land, utilizing features and destinations that enhance the user’s experience.

Photo of bikes on trail through trees

Mountain biking in Limestone Canyon

Trail design is a specialized process that incorporates building with sustainable methods to keep erosion at a minimum, using the right materials, and incorporating trail elements such as steps, bridges, railings, viewing decks, etc.

The ultimate goal is to make the entire trail network simple, sustainable, and natural while requiring a minimum amount of maintenance. The trails on the Natural Landmarks are being designed and improved to give users a genuine wilderness experience with minimal impact on the rare natural resources and habitats found there.

Many people don’t realize it, but something as simple as signage is a vital part of an outstanding visitor experience. Trail signs on the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks are simple and easily visible, and help with direction and safety. Trailheads offer the most signage options, and include information such as maps, directions, interpretive information, education and trail rules so that users can plan their outdoor adventure.

When you’re dealing with roughly 300 miles of trails, keeping them maintained is a large but absolutely vital task. Trail networks require regular monitoring and maintenance for both changing weather conditions and impacts from use.

photo of kids on trail

Fun for the entire family on the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks

Maintenance includes everything from routine trimming to keep trails at a desired width; repairing ruts, steps, bridges, railings; and when necessary, redirecting or closing certain sections. Trail-beds also receive regular maintenance to keep erosion controls in place.

But a world-class trail system goes far beyond well-designed trails, regular maintenance and effective signage. It also must balance public participation and habitat preservation. For example, trails are often routed around areas of sensitive habitat, and access to some trails is restricted in either timing or volume of users. With this system in place, the public is encouraged to explore the Landmarks and connect with them, while also helping to preserve them and their special natural resources for generations to come.

Currently, the field operations team is working on a new viewing platform featuring stunning vistas of the Sinks at Limestone Canyon in the Natural Landmarks which will open this winter. This deck is approximately half-way along the Limestone/Loma loop trail, and will enhance visitors’ experiences by providing a safe platform with an elevated overlook to get the best views of the geological formations of the canyon. The deck also has bench seating for those needing a break while enjoying the surroundings.

Photo of deck with bench

Viewing deck also has bench seating

The viewing deck helps manage visitor impact by keeping people in a specific area rather than spread out on the rim of the Sinks, minimizing the impact on the native vegetation. It also keeps them safe by providing a railing that reduces the risk of falling. The deck is 6 feet wide by 24 feet long on a low raised platform. It is being constructed from rough-sawn lumber, recycled-composite foundations and carbon steel railing.

Visit and click on “Activities & Programs” for a listing of upcoming programs and Wilderness Access Days that visit this viewing deck.

In addition, the eagerly-anticipated Shoestring Trail will open during the winter of 2011, thanks to the hard work of volunteers and IRC’s field operations department led by senior field operations manager Adam Maywhort. This single-track trail is just less than 3/4 mile with a 200 foot elevation gain, and is an easy to moderate hike. Visitors who explore this trail will travel through hillside coastal sage and oak woodland habitat.

This area is frequented by coyotes, bobcats, mule deer and a variety of native birds. The trail offers panoramic views of the Santa Ana Mountains and Irvine Lake, and includes two bridges and a short boardwalk through an oak grove. Equally important, the Shoestring Trail connects Hicks Haul Road, Loma Ridge Trail and Shoestring Canyon Trail into a 3-mile loop that provides an alternative route for naturalist-led programs and Wilderness Access Days during times when Limestone Trail is closed due to nesting hawks and owls.

photo of orange flowers on green hillside

California poppies in Limestone Canyon

Many areas of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks contain sensitive habitat, and the land was set aside primarily to protect those resources while allowing compatible, low impact public access. Most important, it is imperative that people enjoying the land respect it too by staying on designated trails and following other posted directions and information.

Visit and click on “Activities & Programs” for a listing of upcoming programs.

More information on the trail system:

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