#1 Solitude at San Joaquin Marsh
“The peaceful walking paths rejuvenate me.”
Twelve miles of woodland trails wander along coastal freshwater ponds at the San Joaquin Marsh, where birds nest, wade and dive. “The peaceful walking paths and the ponds teeming with birds rejuvenate me,” says frequent visitor Susan Sirota. “I feel connected to nature here.” Dense stands of trees block views of city life in the distance. They also define vignettes of water and wildlife that change with the seasons. The wildlife sanctuary – two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park – is a major stop for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway, and the international Society of Wetland Scientists named it California’s only “Wetland of Distinction.” While you relax, the wetlands are actually hard at work cleansing waters from San Diego Creek before they reach Upper Newport Bay.
Animals to Check Out in the Marsh
FROGS The Baja California tree frog is well known for its “rib-it” or “krek-ek” call. One frog starts calling and others join in, creating a loud chorus of trills. This small amphibian thrives in freshwater environments.
HERONS AND EGRETS Long-legged and elegant, these birds forage in shallow water. Great blue herons, blue-gray in color, are the largest. Egrets, white in color, are smaller and have either black or yellow beaks. Watch them stalk and snag a meal.
TURTLES Red-eared sliders, distinguished by a thick red stripe behind each eye, are common non‑native turtles seen at the several ponds throughout the marsh. Watch for them basking in the sun on the banks of the ponds.
#2 Family Time at Mason Regional Park
Mason Regional Park, with its expansive lawns, tree-lined trails and a lake where you can watch model sailboats, was made for families to get outdoors. “My parents had our annual family picnics here, and my husband has celebrated Persian New Year here for years,” registered nurse Simi Bemanian says. “Now it’s our tradition, too. Our time here in the outdoors resets us all.” There’s an added benefit to these kinds of family traditions, according to research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health: They improve children’s mental health and increase their confidence. So bring the bikes, pack the picnic, and let the 340 acres of wide-open spaces do the rest.
HEALTH PERK: Family park trips help children grow in confidence, knowing they are valued and appreciated by loved ones.
“Our time here in the outdoors resets us all.”
#3 Sports at Portola Springs Community Park
“Sports fields for the kids, pickleball for us.”
You can often find all seven members of the Hosokawa family running around the 32 acres of ballfields, sports courts and playgrounds at Portola Springs Community Park. “When we made the decision to raise our family in Irvine, the parks were a big deciding factor,” says mom Julie Hosokawa. “And this park is so beautiful and clean, it really brings our community together.” Julie and her husband, Brian, often join friends for a game of pickleball here. The kids take after-school classes at its community center. And the whole family gets together on weekends for impromptu soccer practice. Those sessions release feel-good endorphins and mood-lifting serotonin in the body, according to the nonprofit Scripps Health. And that’s pretty obvious on the kids’ faces. “The time we spend here makes us feel better,” Julie says. “And it makes us feel like we made the right choice for our family.”
HEALTH PERK: Children who play sports are eight times more likely to be physically active at age 24 than those who do not play.
#4 Mountain Biking in Irvine’s Northern Open Space Preserve
“I like conquering uphills as much as downhills.”
Mountain Bike Rider Magazine recently proclaimed mountain biking is the best form of exercise. While the magazine might be biased, Jeff Tong agrees: “Riding is an excellent way to stay healthy, see great scenery and have fun with friends,” says the 25-year veteran of riding Irvine Ranch trails. “I like conquering uphills as much as downhills.” A big misconception is that it’s too challenging, he says, noting The Irvine Ranch has everything from family-friendly to challenging trails. “It’s easy to get into because there are plenty of trails around here.” Want to get started? The Irvine Ranch Conservancy offers classes at its Irvine skills course. When you’re ready to hit the trail, try some docent-led rides in Irvine’s Northern Open Space Preserve, home to some of California’s best trails, from Limestone Canyon to deep inside Fremont Canyon. Visit letsgooutside.org to sign up.
HEALTH PERK: Mountain biking is a low-impact sport and puts less stress on your joints than other aerobic activities.
The Health Benefits of California’s top park system
Q&A with Trust for Public Land’s Howard Frumkin
In one of the healthiest benefits of living in this master-planned city, more than 9 of every 10 Irvine residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. That convenience is just one of the reasons that Trust for Public Land recently ranked Irvine’s park system as California’s best, and the fourth-best in the nation.
Trust for Public Land’s senior vice president, Howard Frumkin, the former dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health, took time with us to elaborate on what that means for residents’ physical and mental well-being.
Why did Irvine rank No. 1 in California in your 2023 ParkScore?
Irvine scored high for total acreage of parks and for access to them. The city’s more than 300 parks are well-distributed in the community, meaning that even if you don’t have time to get the physical activity opportunities you get in large parks, you still get the contact with nature and social benefits. At the same time, Irvine has so many hiking and biking trails throughout the city, which connect with open space, so that’s a big plus.
Irvine also generously funds its parks. It got the highest possible score for park investments, with a total of $284 per capita spent on parks and their maintenance. That’s three times the national average. This kind of spending keeps parks well maintained.
Nationally, Irvine ranks just behind Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and St. Paul. What do all of these cities have in common?
All of those cities have plenty of park acreage and fund their parks generously. What’s interesting is that D.C., Minneapolis and St. Paul are all older cities that developed before the automobile era. Among younger, Sun Belt cities, Irvine really stands out for the thoughtfulness with which parks and trails were built into the city design.
Irvine was master planned with the health benefits of parks in mind. Do you know of any other cities that can make that same claim?
Irvine is the only city I’m aware of that was master planned with consideration of the benefits of physical activity in parks and nonmotorized mobility – biking and hiking – as part of the city’s design.
What is the best evidence for the ways that parks improve public health?
Parks are one of the main venues for people to have contact with nature – an important health benefit. They’re also venues for outdoor physical activity, which has many benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, many cancers, osteoporosis and depression. They deliver these benefits in a widely available way, without adverse side effects and at minimal cost.
Parks are also great places for people to meet and mingle, either with family and friends or people we don’t know as well. Being socially connected is really good for health. At a time when we have a lot of schisms in our society, parks offer opportunities for different people to get familiar with each other, which is good for our civic health.
Not least, parks also promote climate resilience, cooling neighborhoods and managing stormwater.
“Irvine is the only city I’m aware of that was master planned with consideration of the benefits of physical activity in parks and nonmotorized mobility – biking and hiking – as part of the city’s design.”– Howard Frumkin
#5 Exploring at Jeffrey Open Space Trail
“It’s the kids’ secret hideout.”
Tucked along the 3.5-mile Jeffrey Open Space Trail is a winding streambed under a canopy of sycamores. “It’s the kids’ secret hideout,” says pharmacist Sandra Un. “They love jumping off the rocks and getting a little dirty.” That’s actually good for their health, according to three decades of medical research, which shows that playing in dirt strengthens children’s immune system and boosts creativity. The streambed was created to collect rainwater, says landscape architect Richard Roy, who helped design the 76-acre park for Irvine Company, adding, “It’s also an escape – an opportunity to exhale and appreciate what’s all around you.” Look for feathery shafts of fountain grass, tufts of deer grass and delicate purple flowers alongside the boulders. And bring a camera. Its natural beauty makes it a top spot for engagement, family and graduation photos.
HEALTH PERK: Research suggests that playing in the dirt can strengthen kids’ immune systems.
#6 Enjoying Friends & Family at Chaparral Park
“We feel happy and healthy here.”
Locals know Chaparral Park as a place to connect with nature – and with friends. It’s where Rhea and Matt Weiss met their neighbors when they moved in 10 years ago, and it’s where they still bring their three children. “We feel happy and healthy here. I’m grateful we get to raise our kids in such a wonderful place,” Rhea says. On the lower level, neighbors meet for birthday parties, toddler playdates and catch-up time with friends. On the upper level, which rises 500 feet to a rocky outcropping, they watch the sun drop over the Pacific from Sunset Point. “This is what makes it special,” she says. “Just a short hike up and we have the most magical views that span all the way to the ocean.”
HEALTH PERK: Awe-inducing experiences in nature, like watching a sunset, can create improvements in well-being.
#7 Ocean Breezes at Sepulveda Vista Point
“We love seeing nature in every direction.”
From this hilltop perch, you can gaze over the ocean to Catalina Island, up the coast to Palos Verdes or over the city of Irvine to the San Gabriel Mountains. “There’s always a nice ocean breeze flowing through, and you see beautiful greens and blues in every direction,” says Irvine resident Greg Costigan. Psychological research has shown that seeing the greens and blues of nature improve our mood, our attention and even our empathy and cooperation. In fact, looking out at the blue ocean has been found to be even “more restorative than green space,” according to a 2017 article in the International Journal of Environmental Health. Perhaps that is why Costigan uses words like “calm,” “reflective” and “thankful” when asked to describe his experience standing atop Sepulveda Vista Point with his wife and two children. “It’s so quiet and secluded,” he says. “We love seeing nature in every direction.”
#8 Running in Irvine’s Southern Open Space Preserve
“The coastal beauty makes this my favorite trail.”
If you want to get the heart pumping, Quail Trail within Irvine’s Southern Open Space Preserve might be for you. It is a picturesque, 16-mile path to the Pacific with vantage points along the way that will inspire you to keep moving. “I feel lucky to have such a beautiful trail system so close to home,” says runner Kat Meiklejohn. “I’ve run all the way to Crystal Cove State Park, stopped there to refill my water, and followed the trail back to Quail Hill.” Not ready for 16 miles? There are plenty of connecting trails past hillsides of sage, lupine and California poppies that offer up 360-degree views of the city.
HEALTH PERK: Boosting your heart rate increases the size of your hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
#9 Playtime at Northwood Community Park
“My kids love playing hide-and-seek in the castle.”
Each year, thousands of Irvine children climb through the tunnels, cross the bridge and pretend to storm the castle at Northwood Park, affectionately known as Castle Park. Such imaginative play strengthens children’s physical, social and emotional skills, according to child-development experts. It also fulfills the CDC’s recommendation for kids to get at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity every day. “All my kids love this park,” says Katie Taylor, mom of four children, ages 1 to 12. “There’s something here for them all.” The medieval fortress dominates the park, but there are plenty of modern amenities all around it, including the playground with rubberized play surfaces and soccer fields.
HEALTH PERK: During free play, children form new connections and pathways in the brain.
#10 Yoga in Orchard Hills Open Space
“I feel a sense of gratitude for the natural beauty.”
Breathe in the moment. The Irvine Ranch Conservancy offers sunset yoga classes throughout the summer in the foothills of Orchard Hills. Class begins with a relaxing hike past a working avocado orchard to warm up the legs. Soon, you’ll experience the gentle flow of yoga practice in nature. It is quiet. Serene. Enjoy a blissful hour of breathing in peace. This focus on breath calms the nervous system and has positive effects on mental, emotional and physical health. “I feel a sense of gratitude for the natural beauty. And I can enjoy it right here in the heart of my city,” says IRC volunteer Gail Judd. The conservancy also offers yoga classes in Baker Canyon and Quail Hill. Learn more at letsgooutside.org.
HEALTH PERK: Many yoga experts say that practicing yoga outdoors enhances its benefits.
Summer News from the Parks
Enhanced Bommer Canyon Cattle Camp Reopens for Weddings, Private Parties
One of Orange County’s most iconic spots for weddings, reunions and corporate events will reopen mid-July after receiving $6 million in improvements while maintaining its historic character.
The rehabilitation project replaced several old buildings and improved amenities at Bommer Canyon’s Cattle Camp – a throwback to the days when cowboys rustled up cattle on The Irvine Ranch.
Built in 1967, the camp sits at the head of Bommer Canyon, a stunning expanse of native meadows, woodlands and ridgelines with trails that lead all the way to Crystal Cove.
“It’s a beautiful facility in a canyon,” says Stacy DeLong, a senior project manager with the city. “There’s wildlife everywhere. We see deer out here all the time. There are hawks circling around. It’s a really cool, serene place to be. You can sit under the trees and hear the woodpeckers, bird calls and rustle of the trees.”
The Cattle Camp’s Old West setting has long been a popular spot for private parties, picnics and campouts. Residents requested that the modernization project retain the Old West aesthetic of the original camp.
“This area has a lot of history,” DeLong says. “We wanted to make sure that we were honoring that history while modernizing it and making it a facility that anyone of any ability can come out and enjoy.”
The camp now features 39 new picnic tables under a canopy of 100-year-old sycamore trees. A new rustic barn-style building houses a dance stage and a bridal suite. The city also added plumbed restrooms and a catering kitchen with concession windows. The buildings are made from fire-resistant materials. Other improvements include new lighting and meandering walking paths throughout the park.
For more information or to reserve the new Cattle Camp, visit cityofirvine.org and search for “Bommer Cattle Camp” or call 949-724-6620.
Bommer Canyon History
Did you know that Bommer Canyon once was the site of an annual cattle roundup? Thousands of cattle roamed Irvine Company’s Irvine Ranch throughout much of the 1900s. Each spring, cowboys rounded up the herd at the Bommer Canyon Cattle Camp – the ranch’s cattle headquarters. In 2002, Irvine Company donated 2,200 acres of open space to the city of Irvine to establish the Bommer Canyon Open Space Preserve and make it available for hiking and biking activities. Bommer Canyon is now the centerpiece of Irvine’s Southern Open Space Preserve that extends through the coastal mountains and to the Pacific.