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From Whiting Avenue to Whiting Ranch’s Red Rock Canyon

Many Fullerton residents may be familiar with Whiting Avenue, but many may may not know how the street got its name. Once the town of Fullerton had been christened, the Amerige Brothers “accepted the honor of naming the streets,” according to Bob Ziebell’s book, Fullerton: A Pictorial History. One of the streets was named “Whiting” for Dwight Whiting, a friend of the Ameriges and owner of El Toro Ranch. He furthered the development of El Toro by subdividing level land, bringing the railroad through, and by planting olive trees, grape vineyards and roughly 400 acres of eucalyptus trees. However, due to the arid climate and poor soil in the area, agricultural use was unsuccessful. Today, this area is known as Lake Forest. Located right next door to Lake Forest, in Foothill Ranch, is Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, which is maintained by OC Parks and is best known for its beautiful Red Rock Canyon.

Red Rock Canyon at Whiting Ranch Park.

According to Jim Sleeper’s Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities, Dwight Whiting was one of several investors in the California Ostrich Farming Company. At the time, people wanted to capitalize on the State’s growing tourist trade by “displaying ostriches for a fee, raising young ones for resale, and cashing in” on the fashionable trend of plumes for women’s hats. Most of us who had to study local history in our third-grade classes may remember from historian Dora May Sim’s wonderful book, Ostrich Eggs for Breakfast (A History of Fullerton for Boys and Girls), that ostriches played a significant role in Fullerton’s past.

Edward Atherton, “a former Capetown resident who knew something about the care and feeding” of the feathered, long-necked bipeds, arrived in the Fullerton area in about 1886 and bought land for the ostrich farm along a dirt path named Dorothy Lane. The ostriches also attracted visitors, both local and from out of town, to Fullerton, who came to watch the feeding of the feathered friends at the Fullerton Ostrich Farm. The ostrich eggs were oftentimes eaten by local residents, especially when breakfast time arrived. In fact, according to Jim Sleeper, “Fullerton was hailed as ‘the ostrich capital of the continent.’”

Edward Atherton’s ostrich farm. Dwight Whiting sought to purchase Atherton’s ostriches. Photo courtesy of the Fullerton Public Library Local History Room.

The demand for ostrich feathers became so great that “the hapless Fullerton birds were being denuded three times a year.” But, demand began to decline at the turn of the century. By 1891, according to historian Jim Sleeper, “the whole farm took on such a dispirited, bare-bottomed look that in April a sale was held to dispose of its assets.” Strangely enough, an ostrich with a full set of feathers, which cost $1,000 to acquire, was sold for $37 undressed. The entire flock of 162 went for $6,000 to a bidder by the name of Dwight Whiting, who Sleeper describes as a 380-lb. “remittance man from Boston.” Whiting immediately announced to the press that the ostriches would be transported to a little settlement he was developing in south Orange County. Insisting that the ostriches “were worth ‘at least $30,000,’” Atherton “quit in a huff.” It was then that the operation’s supervisor, referred to as Diamond Bob, “slapped a lien on the place for $2300 and the bid fell through.”

After learning about Dwight Whiting’s connections to Fullerton, I decided to take a trip to Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park with my family and a friend’s family. According to a pamphlet published by OC Parks, “The land comprising Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park was part of two adjacent Mexican landgrants from the 1840s, Rancho Canada de Los Alisos and Rancho Lomas de Santiago.” In 1842, Jose Serrano was granted 10,664 acres of Rancho Canada. He and his sons raised crops to sell, including corn, beans, and watermelons. But their main industry was cattle, from which hides and tallow were sold. Unfortunately, the drought of 1863 and 1864 caused the death of Serrano’s herds forcing foreclosure on the ranch. The ranch was divided by Los Angeles banker J.S. Slauson and Associates into 10 parcels with the largest being 10,000 acres, and the land was later acquired by Dwight Whiting in 1885. According to a 1991 LA Times article and county documents, “Whiting anticipated the construction of links to the San Diego-Los Angeles railway, and around those tracks grew the community of El Toro.”

According to a pamphlet on the park’s website, “The Whiting Ranch encompassed the community of El Toro and lands adjacent to Aliso Creek. In 1959, with the post-WWII housing boom continuing in Orange County, most of the ranch was sold for residential development.” It passed through several owners before Hon Development Inc. bought it in 1987. In 1989, the development company granted the ranch to the County for the establishment of a wilderness park in exchange for approval of a 1,500-unit housing project. The dedicated property included the McFadden House, which was built in 1915 for the ranch foreman and his family. Today it serves as the Park Ranger office. Additional acquisitions by the County have resulted in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park growing to the size it is today.

The park covers 2,500 acres of forested canyons, scenic rock formations, and grassy rolling hills with an environment rich in plant and animal life. It has natural features that are completely different than any other park in Orange County and offers a variety of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. There are three intermittent streams, Borrego, Serrano, and Aliso Creek, each of which hosts an abundance of wildlife. However, the best part of the park is the hike to the Red Rock Canyon, which may remind visitors of the sandstone canyons spotted in the Four Corner states. Over thousands of years, wind and rain have sculpted the cliffs of the canyon, carving out bizarre, but incredibly interesting rock formations. It’s a peaceful, age-old canyon that still exists right in the middle of urbanized Orange County.

Red Rock Canyon.

My parents and I arrived at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in the early morning. After pulling into a space, paying the $3 daily parking fee at a small machine, and placing the ticket on our dashboard, we walked into a circular concrete area with a modern, triangular sculpture in the center. There was a pair of portable restrooms, as well as a pair of benches and a brown board with various signs posted behind glass. It was at this entry point that we were able to find a map of the park. There was also a box of bells for bikers to use as they started their ride so that they could warn hikers of their presence.

Before embarking on our hike to the Red Rock Canyon, my family made sure that we had plenty of water. We carried masks just in case we encountered people along the way, especially along narrow sections of the trail, and made sure we had applied enough sunscreen and had hats with us for skin protection. I had done some research before arriving and found that there were several mountain lion warnings. Therefore, we made sure we had hiking sticks just in case we encountered any predatory animals along the path.

We started on the Borrego Canyon Trail, which also happened to be a one-way trail for cyclists. We made sure to keep our ears open in case we heard the sound of bells approaching. When we did encounter a cyclist or pair of cyclists, we made sure to move to the side of the trail to let them pass. Our hike began with a view of houses up on the surrounding hills. We started on the trail, which wound its way under a canopy of sycamore and oak branches, taking us through a canyon that was once under water, as evidenced by sunken, flat beds of white sand and pebbles that could quickly turn into pathways for water during a flash flood. There were even rocky sections of dried-up creek beds that we had to walk over at certain points. We encountered two running streams that we were able to easily step over. Some areas off the sides of the main trail were strikingly green, while others were dry or starting to turn fall colors. At one point, we walked underneath a fallen tree that extended over the trail.

Borrego Canyon Trail at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.

It was a rather peaceful walk through the shaded woods before climbing up a hill and into a flat desert area, with the sun shining directly overhead. (It would be wise to start hiking early if you wish to beat the heat.)  Brown signs posted on the side of the path warned of closed off areas due to “ecological recovery in progress.” We spotted quite a few cacti, one even had a yellow flower blooming. Every now and then, we would find sporadic sections of shade to stop and take a drink. It’s also important to stay on the main trail and not wander off on weird side pathways.

Rounding a bend in the trail, I was able to spot the red rocks in the distance. My friend and I had no trouble walking through a dried-up creek bed and up a short hill to the end of the trail to spectacular views of the rocks. However, our parents had a bit of a tough time. Please make sure to observe the signs warning visitors to not climb on the red rocks as OC Parks is looking to protect this portion of the park. I was able to capture plenty of excellent photographs without having to step off the trail.

Red Rock Canyon in the distance at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.

According to a sign along the path, these red rocks are part of the Sespe Formation. They date back 40 – 20 million years, when braided streams deposited gravel, sand, and mud widely across Southern California. Over time, these layers hardened into layers of siltstone, sandstone, and mudstone. Uplifted by earthquakes and then sculpted by water and wind, they became the red rock buttes we see today. The beautifully banded sandstone canyon walls projected a reddish tint in the warm afternoon sunlight. Altogether, it was a 4-mile round-trip hike to the ancient Red Rock Canyon.

Stay on Trail sign at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park Red Rock Canyon.

On our return hike, we spotted a pair of snakes off the side of the path twisted around each other and hissing at a passing squirrel. It might be helpful to bring along a pair of binoculars. Visitors have spotted red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, as well as great-horned and barn owls in the past. The park also happens to be home to the protected cactus wren and endangered gnat-catcher birds.

Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park is the perfect place for a family day trip. From highly-elevated trails where you may be able to see the ocean on a clear day, to the Red Rock Canyon, this park offers unique views that you couldn’t find elsewhere in Orange County. It’s open from 7am until sunset, year-round, except after rain. The park has 23 trails totaling approximately 17 miles of graded roads and single-track trails, providing fantastic opportunities for hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians, photographers, bird watchers, and nature-lovers. The Red Rock Canyon and Billy Goat trails are for hikers only. All park trails may be closed for up to three days following rain. For further information on park rules and directions on how to get to the park, please visit www.ocparks.com/parks-trails/whiting-ranch-wilderness-park for more information or call the park office at (949) 923-2245 for current trail closures.

Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.

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