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Irvine Regional Park: A Big Slice of Family in Central OC

Published: 09/30/2010

Not far from Irvine and the rest of central Orange County is a place where you and your family can relax and have fun in myriad ways. Irvine Regional Park (IRP) is an expanse of big lawns, oaks and sycamores; a nature center and the OC Zoo; and the starting point for a trail network beloved countywide by hikers, mountain bikers and runners.

There's even a train. But like most everything in this park, this train is modest and easygoing. The Irvine Park Railroad mini-train (daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.) chugs around the middle of the park, with rides just $4 a person for all ages. Many families make a tradition of coming before Halloween, Christmas and Easter, when the train and grounds are decorated and full of activities (a hay maze and haunted house in October, for example).

The zoo (open daily 10:00-4:30/weekends and 10:00-3:30/weekdays) is also quite kid-friendly, with an emphasis on the animals and reptiles of the Southwest. Right next to the zoo is the Nature Center (open weekends only, 11:30-3:30), where lifelike models of animals, birds and reptiles are found, plus interactive displays and a presentation of the area's history dating to Native Americans.

There's plenty more for families, too. Horseback and pony rides are available from the stables ($4/child ponies, $40/hour horses) from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (closed Mondays). At the 1914 boathouse at a small lake, paddleboats ($12/half-hour) and bikes ($10-$25/hour) can be rented. It's open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (10 to 4 on winter weekends). And scattered around the lawn areas of the park are four playgrounds, four softball diamonds, two horseshoe pits, and enough picnic areas to accommodate even the huge crowds the park draws on summer weekends. IRP is the oldest (established in 1897) and most visited (750,000 annual visits) regional park in the state.

All of these family recreation options are packed into the generally flat middle of the park. But hikers and birdwatchers can explore 10 miles of trails in the surrounding hills, which is especially colorful during the spring wildflower season. The easiest trails are the Horseshoe Loop and Santiago Creek Trails, which encircle the park in the lowest hills. Mountain bikers can go much farther on 20 miles of trails in adjacent Santiago Oaks Regional Park that link to IRP's trails.

HelloIrvine Tip: Guided hikes, mountain bike and horseback rides are scheduled daily on the trails on the new 20,000-acre Irvine Ranch Conservancy, which also abuts IRP. But you aren't allowed on this land alone. Go to ("Activities and Programs") to reserve a group outing slot. It's free.

- by Bob Cooper, Irvine Reporter for HelloMetro


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