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Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park

Location: Coto de Caza: 30952 Oso Parkway
Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. April 1 through Oct. 25, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 26 through March 31; Program hours vary.
Cost: The county parking lot runs $3 per vehicle on weekdays, $5 on weekends and $7 on holidays. Junior program fees vary but usually run $3 to $5.
For ages: All

The 523-acre wilderness park — a quick-to-come-to dirt road right off the very-suburban Oso Parkway — holds the strangest mystery inside.

From the street, it looks very much like a suburban park, but after only an eighth of a mile down its dusty entrance road, you feel like you’re in another world already: Deer sip from a spring creek, squirrels scamper up age-old oaks, and butterflies flit about on an ancient wagon wheel.

The area used to be called “Wagon Wheel Canyon,” in fact, because  just after the turn of the century, when the region was little more than desert hills and sycamores, an old abandoned wagon marked the entrance to the canyon, and early settlers simply refered to this place as “the wagon canyon,” or “the wagon wheel canyon.”

Now, the area boasts hills and hills of high-end suburban homes (Coto de Caza’s south-end gates are just beyond this park’s entrance),  but the park has been left in its natural state and lends itself to a “classroom” environment for scouts, schools and other children’s groups. If you have a young naturalist on your hands, a visit to Riley Wilderness Park for one of its children’s programs and workshops is surely in order.

On your own, you’ll find many discoveries yourself: Once you leave your car and head to the center of the park, you’ll walk through the arbor of one of the park’s showpieces — a one-acre native-plant butterfly garden.

Just beyond the butterfly garden, a ranger station houses a visitor center, hands-on classroom, and volunteer-operated gift shop. There is also a large deck for picnicking and enjoying the views, along with informational bulletin boards.

Feel free to bring a picnic lunch — plenty of tables sit in the shade of the centuries-old oak trees and are near the parking lot for easy “pack out” before you head into the park for hiking.

Ranger-led programs as well as self-guided hikes provide numerous opportunities to learn about the richness of this sanctuary. The park hosts workshops such as “Kids Nature Journaling” for older kids and the popular annual Butterfly Census in the spring (usually June), where children can join butterfly specialists on a hike to help count butterflies on the trails. There are also several junior ranger programs in the spring, and a junior ranger night program in the summer.

Visit the web site below for exact dates and times of the children’s naturalist programs – it’s updated monthly.

Where to park: Parking is plentiful in the county lot.

What to bring: Cash for the entry fee, which you’ll leave in a drop box. Bottled water, sunscreen, hats. Best to wear long pants and tennis shoes for hikes.

Best time to go: Spring and summer have excellent children’s programs.

For more information: 949-923-2265 or Orange County Parks website

Do you like to go to Thomas Riley Park? Do you have any special tips to share?

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