s the daylight hours wane, a new landscape takes form as the blackened silhouettes of our rolling hills give way to the velvety filter of a wilderness illuminated by a moonlit sky. With the changing visual landscape, so, too do the sounds and sights of a wilderness teeming with wildlife tell a different story of the evening hours. Though this scene may paint a beautifully mysterious picture, it is often more difficult for us to actually experience these nocturnal creatures and happenings. Luckily, the OC Parks have created two guided hiking tours to give us the opportunity to learn more about one of the most elusive, winged creatures of the night, bats.
In California alone, there are over twenty different species of bat that roam our skies at night. But the squeamish need not worry, most bats are not the vampiric monsters of horror movies; many feed on insects while others are strictly fruitarians. In fact, given the number of insects that just the Mexican free-tailed bats eat, including those of the pest variety, bats play a crucial role in the checks and balances of nature. Becoming educated on our local wildlife is vital when it comes to preservation, because, quite frankly, a loss in this single species of bat could result in serious environmental consequences.
Thankfully, learning about these creatures and experiencing a part of their world is easier than ever with OC Parks’ two guided hikes, one in Black Star Canyon Wilderness Park and the other in Limestone Canyon Nature Reserve. Both offer different, family-friendly encounters that will help you feel closer to nature.
Black Star Canyon Wilderness Park
Nestled between the backcountry of the Cleveland National Forest and the northern Santa Ana Mountains is the beautiful Black Star Canyon Wilderness Park. Though it may look like a land that is far, far away, don’t fret because this “getaway” destination is practically in our backyard, just inland from the city of Irvine. Not only is the park beautiful but it also has a storied history that goes back generations. It was named after The Black Star Coal Mining Company which opened in the canyon in 1877 and operated off and on until the early 1900s. Nowadays, visitors can wonder at the towering red rock cliffs and sweeping views of Irvine Lake and the Pacific Coast, however, until the late 1800s you would have had a hiking buddy in the form of the California grizzly bear as many inhabited the area.
While beautiful during the day, at night, Black Star becomes the perfect site to take in the sights and sounds of the nocturnal wildlife. During the “Bouncing Bats in Black Star Canyon” hike, you will be led by a trained and IRC (Irvine Ranch Conservancy) certified volunteer. On your hike, you will hear fascinating stories about the flying mammal of the hour, bats, which will be sure to pique you and your family’s interest as you continue on your evening excursion. The Black Star Canyon hike is also ideal to get the opportunity to hear the high-frequency chirps of the bats in flight, though there may also be an occasional spotting of the mammal flying in the night sky. Remember to dress warmly because while the sound of chirping bats may be chilling, we don’t want you to be.
For those of you who like a bit of a spook, an evening hike in Black Star may offer a bit of the unexpected. Many tales have been passed down about local residents including an infamous armed conflict in 1831 when California was still a part of Mexico. The conflict was between trappers and led by William Wolfskill and Native Americans and left many dead. As a consequence of this conflict, many believe the grounds to be haunted even to this day.
Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve
Just south of the Black Star Canyon Wilderness Park lies the beautifully lush, Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve, which is part of the approximately 50,000 acre Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks in Orange County. Limestone features thick oak woodlands, streamside habitats, and year-round springs, including “Dripping Springs” which is a site in which a natural spring seeps from an earthquake fault down a rock face. One of the most iconic spots in the preserve is a geological formation called, “The Sinks,” which is definitely a sight to see as it is often referred to as a mini-Grand Canyon. The wide variety of natural habitats in Limestone makes it a must-see for all nature lovers.
While on the IRC certified Volunteer-led “Bouncing Bats in Limestone Canyon” hike you will also hear the fascinating tales about bats. However, while our first program is more suited to hearing the high-frequency calls, this program is ideal to visually observe the bats in flight, though bat detectors are available to listen as well. Bat detectors, interestingly enough, can detect the presence of bats even when their calls are inaudible to our ears by converting their echolocation ultrasound signals as they are emitted. In order to get the best view, the guide will take you to a popular roosting location to watch as the bats begin their nighttime adventures, soaring through the night sky. For this hike, you are welcome to bring a camping chair as you will spend an extended period of time marveling at the flying wonders.
Both hikes feature a moderate two-mile excursion over the course of two hours in the evening. However, while both hikes qualify as a level two difficulty rating, the Limestone Hike comes in lower in the elevation change at 150 feet while the Black Star hike reaches its peak at a 200 feet elevation change.
The Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks provides a difficulty rating for all of their guided hikes based on the following criteria:
- Average Pace
- Estimated Stops
- Accumulated Elevation
- Steepness of Ascents and Descents
- Trail Surface Type
For the Level two rating, it means that the hike has minimal elevation gain and low grades, is done at a slow pace with numerous stops for resting, regrouping, and/or interpretation, and a high likelihood of shaded areas along the trail. It is also mainly traveled on wide, paved or fire road surfaces, which are mostly flat or gently rolling terrain.
These hikes are the perfect opportunity to get your family moving and to expose your children to the wonders of learning about their natural surroundings. However, the minimum age for both bat excursions is six, so this is one for the older adventurers.
How to Get Started
In order to take part on these hikes, you need to register an account with the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks website. This will allow you to register for any of their hosted activities. All of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks activities are free, though, they do require a pre-registration to attend. To learn more about these activities and programs, visit letsgooutside.org.