OC’s Gem Turns 125 This Year – Orange County Register

Irvine Regional Park’s century-old oak trees tell the story of what was, what is, and even what the future holds for the state’s first regional park.

A defining feature of the park, the oaks were rooted in the land long before James Irvine Jr. offered – for the price of $1 – 160 acres of his ranch in Orange County on October 5, 1897.

The sprawling branches of one of the great ancient oak trees at Irvine Regional Park in Orange. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Described by a board member at the time as the “magnificent gift,” the acreage in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains became Orange County Park, then Irvine Regional Park 28 years later. late.

Now 477 acres, just under the size of Disneyland, Irvine Regional Park celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

“I feel like they tell a lot about what happened, what’s happening today, and represent what our great-grandchildren are going to see,” said Kelley Burgmann, specialist resources from OC Parks, about oak stands that provide shade for playing families and secluded trails for hikers.

OC Parks celebrates the park’s anniversary this year with monthly guided hikes featuring all the Irvine area has to offer – next is June 12, get info on ocparks.com/irvinepark.

Irvine Regional clearly has its fans, who fill its weekend acres with parties and picnics, stretch their legs on its miles of trails, visit its zoo and ride its beloved railroad. But there are still those who don’t know the gem of their own backyard that offers a full day of activities at minimal cost.

RELATED: 10 Fun Things To Do At Irvine Regional Park

The Irvine Park Railroad, OC Zoo, boat rentals, and an equestrian center offering horse rentals and pony rides are some of the popular amenities added over the decades.

Young visitors get a close-up view of Ziggy, a black jaguar, at OC Zoo's new large mammal exhibit at Irvine Regional Park in Orange on Friday, May 13, 2022. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register /SCNG)
Young visitors get a close-up view of Ziggy, a black jaguar, at OC Zoo’s new large mammal exhibit at Irvine Regional Park in Orange on Friday, May 13, 2022. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register /SCNG)

“People can come for one thing and find out how much there is to do,” said Arturo Castillo, OC Parks Park Ranger Manager. “We want to try to connect the public to what this park, and Orange County parks in general, have to offer.”

A sunny afternoon at Orange County Park.  The park was later named Irvine Regional Park.  (Courtesy of The Irvine Company)
A sunny afternoon at Orange County Park. The park was later named Irvine Regional Park. (Courtesy of The Irvine Company)

During the pandemic, the park saw a spike in attendance and “a lot of them kept coming,” Castillo said. “They came and discovered the richness of the activities.”

Being so close to the county’s urban centers, the park’s wilderness setting combined with a sprinkling of modern amenities make it a popular destination, Brugmann said.

“I think it’s this juxtaposition between these two opportunities, where you can hike and be in the desert and then come back and have a soda and watch a movie in the nature center and go home 20 minutes later. “, she says.

In 1983, Irvine Regional Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an “area of ​​significance” for recreation and architecture. Prior to becoming part of James Irvine’s sprawling ranch, the area was part of Rancho Lomas de Santiago, a Mexican land grant to Don Teodesio Yorba.

A statue of James Irvine II with his hunting dogs, titled The Winds of Change, stands at Irvine Regional Park in Orange.  In October 1897, Irvine donated his private picnic ground to Orange County.  The statue was made by Deborah Copenhaver Fellows in Bigfork, Montana in 1997 and was donated to the park by her descendants in celebration of the park's centennial.  The park turns 125 in 2022. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A statue of James Irvine II with his hunting dogs, titled The Winds of Change, stands at Irvine Regional Park in Orange. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

As early as 1857, the park was referred to as a “picnic ground” by German settlers living in Anaheim, who would be the first group to use the park for recreational purposes.

In 1860, the land was sold to William Wolfskill, one of California’s first commercial orange growers. Five years later, a Monterey Sheep Breeders’ Association purchased the land.

In 1868 sole ownership passed to Irvine and the land became part of his 100,000+ acre tract, The Irvine Ranch.

James Irvine Jr. acquired the property after his father’s death and recognized the land’s popularity as a picnic ground.

Irvine donated the land to the county, with the stipulation that the oak trees be tended and preserved, and that a warden be appointed to ward off shepherds and prevent wood chippers from felling the trees.

“At a time long before other counties in California took on the responsibility of providing public parks, Orange County took responsibility for this great park and began to care for it and preserve it intact for future generations”, announces the appointment to the historical register.

In 1913, the first park concession was built, followed the same year by the construction of the lake.

In 1919, the park attracted 30,000 visitors for an event honoring the return of World War I troops to Orange County. The population of the county at the time was 57,000.

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the park was closed to the public and used by the US military for training.

In 1978, county leaders approved plans to restore the park and modernize its buildings and grounds for recreational use.

Today, the park’s funding comes from leases with the operators of many of its attractions, such as the railroad, equestrian center and bicycle rentals. There is also a small zoo entry fee and a $5 parking fee.

RELATED: 30 Amazing Images Of Wildlife Photographed At Irvine Regional Park

OC Parks also has a grants manager who asks state and federal to help pay for projects.

Just as they did in its early years, many of the park’s more than one million annual visitors enter under its iconic white wooden archway with IRVINE REGIONAL PARK etched atop.

But the park continues to evolve. In April, a 2-acre extension to the zoo was unveiled with several new residents.

Officials also said they would like to build on the current lineup with more movie nights and concerts.

“Things like this are a new way for people to interact and experience our parks,” Brugmann said.

Yet visitors today find the same respite in the park as those who picnicked there more than 125 years ago.

“People can relax and get to know each other when they have the opportunity to escape and reconnect with nature,” Brugmann said. “As a county park, we provide this service to allow people to find a new interest or rejuvenate or share a story with family and friends.”

On a cool January morning, two women are walking along the Irvine Park Trail adjacent to Santiago Creek in Irvine Regional Park in Orange.  (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
On a cool January morning, two women are walking along the Irvine Park Trail adjacent to Santiago Creek in Irvine Regional Park in Orange. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)


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