Trekking along in Bommer Canyon, you see a narrow path that cuts straight down through a curving switchback trail. The path is not marked, but it looks like a shortcut. While the shortest route between two points may be a straight line, that is not always what’s best for the surrounding habitat. And that little shortcut may also lead to a citation or fine.
Why is taking a shortcut such a big deal? Unmarked paths like these are known as “social” or “informal” trails, and are not legal. Landowners have obligations to various local, state and federal agencies to maintain local open space; preserving habitat while providing recreation opportunities. These agencies require landowners such as OC Parks, City of Irvine and City of Newport Beach to develop Recreation and Resource Management Plans for the open space and wilderness areas they own. These plans not only include strategies for stewardship of the land, but they also include a system of authorized trails that will be maintained by the landowner for public use.
The authorized trails that are accessible daily for self-guided use are clearly marked at each trail intersection. So if you don’t see a marker, it is not an authorized trail. Rangers and officers patrolling local wilderness and preserve areas can cite and potentially fine visitors who are using a social trail or who are off trail entirely. However, mostly the ranger will want to get you back to where you belong, with just a friendly reminder to stay on marked trails.
Marked trails also mean that the path is maintained and mapped for visitor safety. If you are on a marked trail and get lost, help will be able to find you quickly. Also, unauthorized trails are not officially maintained, and could include hazards that are unsafe.
Landowners not only maintain authorized trails for the best visitor experience, but they also work to close and repair damage caused by social trails. In heavily-used parks such as Bommer Canyon and Whiting Ranch Nature Preserve, teams of volunteers work with staff from landowner agencies and partner organizations such as Irvine Ranch Conservancy to repair trail damage. It is understandable that the casual user might not be able to tell if a trail is authorized, so usually the goal is to close the trail so that the entrance is no longer apparent.
For instance, in Newport Beach’s Buck Gully Reserve, social trails were too close to the water, causing severe erosion. While clearing a more sustainable trail, Conservancy staff and volunteers took leaves, trimmed branches and other plant debris and placed it at the unauthorized trail entrance. This not only blended with the surroundings, but also encouraged native plant growth under the mulch. While roping off an illegal path is an option, the Conservancy prefers to block the path in ways that blend in more and support the surrounding habitat.
Many times, cactus will be planted to block the path – sending a clear message about the ability to pass along that route. Unauthorized trails tend to pop up over the summer, when trail use is heaviest and dry weather makes it harder for plants to bounce back. In winter, crews can make advances against social trails, since rain will help encourage regrowth of native plants to fill in the path. If you’d like to get involved in closing social trails or maintaining trails within the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, visit LetsGoOutside.org/Activities, and select the “Trail Work” category.