The centuries-old oak trees in Irvine Regional Park tell a story of what was, what is and even what the future holds for the state’s first regional park.
A defining feature of the park, the oaks were rooted in the earth long before James Irvine Jr. gifted – for the price of $1 – 160 acres of his ranch to the County of Orange on Oct. 5, 1897.
Described by a member of the Board of Supervisors at the time as the “gift munificent,” the acreage situated in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains became the Orange County Park, and then Irvine Regional Park 28 years later.
Now 477 acres, just shy of the size of Disneyland, Irvine Regional Park celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.
“I feel like they tell a lot of what has happened, what is today and represent what our great grandkids are going to be seeing,” OC Parks resource specialist Kelley Burgmann said of the stands of oak trees that offer shade to playing families and secluded paths for hikers.
OC Parks is celebrating the park’s anniversary this year with monthly guided hikes featuring all Irvine Regional has to offer – the next is June 12, get information at ocparks.com/irvinepark.
Irvine Regional clearly has its fans, who fill its acres on weekends with parties and picnics, stretch their legs on its miles of trails, visit its zoo and ride its beloved railroad. But there are still those who don’t know about the gem in their own backyard that offers a full day of activities for minimal cost.
The Irvine Park Railroad, OC Zoo, boat rentals, and an equestrian center featuring horse rentals and pony rides are among popular amenities added over the decades.
“Folks may come for one thing and find out how much more there is to do,” OC Parks Supervising Park Ranger Arturo Castillo said. “We want to try to connect the public to what this park, and Orange County parks in general, have to offer.”
During the pandemic, the park saw a spike in attendance, and “a lot of them have continued to come,” Castillo said. “They came and found out about the wealth of activities.”
Being so close to the county’s urban centers, the park’s wilderness setting combined with a sprinkling of modern amenities make it a popular destination, Brugmann said.
“I think it is that juxtaposition between those two opportunities, where you can go hike and be in the wilderness and then come back and get a soda pop and watch a movie in the nature center and drive home to your home 20 minutes later,” she said.
In 1983, Irvine Regional Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for being an “area of significance” for recreation and architecture. Before it was part of James Irvine’s sprawling ranch, the area was part of the Rancho Lomas de Santiago, a Mexican land grant to Don Teodesio Yorba.
As early as 1857, the park was referred to as the “picnic grounds” by German colonists living in Anaheim, who are believed to be the first group to use the park recreationally.
In 1860, the land was sold to William Wolfskill, one of California’s first commercial orange ranchers. Five years later, an association of Monterey sheep ranchers purchased the land.
In 1868, sole ownership passed to Irvine and the land become a part of his 100,000-plus acre spread, The Irvine Ranch.
James Irvine Jr. acquired the property after his father’s death and acknowledged the land’s popularity as picnic grounds.
Irvine donated the land to the county, with the stipulation that the oak trees be cared for and preserved, and a custodian be appointed to ward off sheepherders and prevent woodchippers from cutting down the trees.
“In an era long before other California counties assumed responsibility for providing for public parks, Orange County assumed responsibility for this large park and began to care for it and preserve it intact for future generations,” the nomination for the historic registry touts.
In 1913, the park’s first concession stand was built, followed that same year by the construction of the lake.
In 1919, the park drew 30,000 visitors for an event honoring the return of World War I troops home to Orange County. The county’s population at the time was 57,000.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the park was closed to the public and used by the U.S. Army for training.
In 1978, county leaders approved plans for restoring the park and upgrading its buildings and grounds for recreational use.
Today, the park’s funding comes from leases with the operators of many of its attractions, such as the railroad, the equestrian center, and bicycle rentals. There is also a small admission fee to the zoo and a $5 parking fee.
OC Parks also has a grants manager who applies for state and federal to help pay for projects.
Just as they did in its early years, many of the park’s more than 1 million annual visitors enter under its iconic white, wooden archway with IRVINE REGIONAL PARK etched along the top.
But the park continues to evolve. In April, a 2-acre expansion of the zoo was unveiled with several new residents.
Officials also said they would like to build on current programming with more movie nights and concerts.
“Those kinds of things are a new way that people can interact and experience our parks,” Brugmann said.
Still, visitors today find the same respite in the park as those who picnicked there more than 125 years ago.
“People can relax and get to know themselves when they have a chance to escape and immerse themselves back into nature,” Brugmann said. “As a county park, we are providing that service to let people find a new interest or to recharge themselves or to share a story with their family and friends.”