Investigating the History of Featherly Regional Park

When my dad was an elementary school student in the early 1970s, he remembers going with a friend to Featherly Regional Park in Anaheim as part of Fullerton’s Youth Science Center. It was there that they learned about edible plants native to Orange County. Located roughly 30 minutes away from Fullerton on Santa Ana Canyon Road in Anaheim Hills, Featherly Regional Park has always been a natural riparian wilderness area. However, access to most of the park is now restricted, and the finest viewing opportunities are available from the Santa Ana River Bikeway which runs adjacent to the park.

A view of Featherly Regional Park in Anaheim from the road.

According to Marisa O’Neil, Public Information Officer for OC Parks, Canyon R.V. Park currently manages the land on behalf of the County. This wasn’t always the case. Looking back in early Orange County history, the property on which Featherly Park currently resides was initially signed over to Jose Antonio Yorba by the King of Spain. According to the OC Parks website, Don Bernardo, Jose’s son, “expanded the Rancho and it became the greatest ranchero of early California.” Many years later, a part of the property was bought by the Irvine family, and their company used the land for cattle ranching. Due to the increase in population that was happening in Orange County, the “area was closed for the protection of the herd.”

At the time, the area along the Santa Ana River had become a popular recreational spot for local people in the community to picnic and swim. When Orange County officials noticed the area’s popularity, they became interested in procuring the Santa Ana Canyon property for use as a public park. County Supervisor Cye Featherly opened talks with the Irvine Company to start the process. According to the OC Parks website, a master plan for the park was developed and drafted near the end of the sixties, and federal and state funds were attained for construction.

Opening in 1970, Featherly Regional Park was the third county-controlled nature reserve to open. Picnic and camping areas as well as natural woodlands were available to the public until the late 1970s. In December 1976, the nearby Yorba Regional Park opened up, and Featherly Park was limited to camping areas only.

By the 1990s, the place had become “a haven for the homeless” and was “often cited as an example of the failure of both public and private management,” according to a 2003 Los Angeles Times article written by David Haldane. It also didn’t help when a management company the County had hired decided to raise admission prices and downsize maintenance staff. These and other factors infuriated both environmentalists and County employees at the time, according to the LA Times.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Orange County leased Featherly Park to Canyon R.V., according to the OC Parks website. Canyon RV improved conditions at the park through forceful cleanup and maintenance efforts. It also helped that they added connections to public electrical lines, hired more security/patrol officers, added cabins and created specified areas for camping. However, only a small portion of Featherly Park is actually open to the public; the rest of the park is closed for preservation purposes. When I visited Featherly Park this September, I parked at a shopping center off La Palma Avenue, and walked over to an access point that opened onto the Santa Ana River Trail. The pathway was painted to look like a road and I did encounter quite a few bicyclists while walking. I was able to look out over a short metal wire fence at a natural woodlands area that I had always wondered about when going down the 91 Freeway. I also noticed how the Santa Ana River had become a dried up riverbed, with very small pockets of water appearing sporadically. Further down and around a curve, construction vehicles were being used to clear a large area adjacent to the Santa Ana River.

Restrooms and facilities once offered at Featherly Park can now be found just five miles away at Yorba Regional Park, located adjacent to another part of the Santa Ana River Trail and off La Palma Avenue in Anaheim Hills. It’s still maintained by OC Parks and can be found right next to a local park with sports fields and a playground area. I’d recommend parking in the lot by the City’s park and walking in to the regional park, which charges $3 per vehicle on weekdays and $5 per vehicle on weekends.

Swan and paddle boats at Yorba Regional Park.

It’s best to visit early when the weather is cooler. I made sure to bring a water bottle with me when I visited. Featuring more than 400 picnic tables with shade, four large lakes with connecting streams, bicycle trails, volleyball courts and a couple of playgrounds, Yorba Regional Park is over one mile long and larger than it looks from the street. There were also quite a few ducks near the streams and lakes. Swan boats and paddle boats could be rented at this park. I also noticed a few people fishing off small wooden docks and bridges.

While the trails my dad remembers at Featherly Regional Park are no longer accessible to the public, those sorts of activities are now available a few miles west at Yorba Regional Park.