10 Ways to Escape into the Wild Lands in O.C.

#3: Conservation – Step Back to Old California at Starr Ranch Sanctuary

Find plenty of activities under ancient oaks at Starr Ranch Sanctuary.

This 4,000-acre sanctuary—a National Audubon Society-owned center for conservation, research, and environmental education—is a visual throwback to Orange County’s early ranching days. Old orchards and original farm buildings still stand deep in Bell Canyon, and the buildings are now used to house staff and research laboratories. A trickling creek meanders amid the woodlands in the canyon bottom.

The sanctuary opens to the general public with its Family Nature Workshops, held on Saturdays. The next one is scheduled for November. Look for informational talks about local wildlife, introductions to sanctuary research, a not-to-be-missed truck ride into the depths of Bell Canyon, and several nature walks, including one under the oak trees where you can make out all sorts of animal tracks. This is mountain lion territory.

The workshops are free, but registration is required, and there’s no way to get to the ranch otherwise. The sanctuary is adjacent to a gated community near Rancho Santa Margarita, down an easy-to-miss road.

Bell Canyon is named for the famous Bell Rock, a 6-ton behemoth used by the Acjachemen people. It rang out when struck, with a bell-like tone that carried for a mile. This, and Maze Rock, another Native American artifact with a maze‑like configuration chipped into its surface, were moved from the canyon decades ago. You can find them in the entry garden of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Good to Know

➔ Two-mile hikes, with several minor climbs
➔ Open to children. Free (donations requested). Pre-register for Family Nature Workshops; the next one is in November. Bring plenty of water and a bag lunch for the four-hour event.
➔ 100 Bell Canyon Road, Trabuco Canyon, 949-858-0309, starrranch.org. Get on the sanctuary’s email list to find out about events, which fill up quickly.