Corona hikers demand more trails into national forest to complement Skyline Drive
Even on a weekday, Skyline Drive above Corona is bustling with hikers, joggers and mountain bikers. Designated parking spaces on Foothill Parkway for the popular trail are packed with cars.
Foot traffic has “exploded,” said Corona Councilman Wes Speake, in the wake of surging population growth in Riverside County’s third-largest city and a 2014 decision to close Skyline Drive — a county-maintained dirt road — to most vehicles.
But hikers say the Skyline trail isn’t enough to quench the community’s thirst for outdoor recreation.
“Our oceanfront is the Cleveland National Forest,” photographer Roger Conard told the Corona City Council at a recent meeting.
And Corona residents need — and deserve — better access to that public land, he said.
Conard and other residents argued forcefully at that April 17 meeting for more connections to the chaparral-carpeted mountains that lie south of the city of 165,000. But, underscoring the challenge of finding locations for trails, homeowners bordering the forest were as passionate in their contention that the south end of Malaga Street isn’t an appropriate place for a connection.
Barbara Andrews, an avid hiker and runner who lives in the neighborhood, recently showed a visitor where Malaga abruptly dead ends next to steep, brushy hills.
“This is our new Skyline? I don’t think so,” Andrews said. “We won’t let that happen.”
For now, the city won’t let that happen either. The council voted 4-0 to remove from a preliminary plan for 34 estate homes a condition that a trail easement be provided through a proposed 64-acre development.
At the same time, the council did leave in a potential forest connection in a preliminary plan for a 9.45-acre, 13 single-family-home tract at the end of Main Street.
Speake, the council member, said Malaga is the wrong place for a trail, but Main is the right place. There, he said, residents already hike an informal path along a ridge that wraps around a canyon and leads into the mountains.
Speake is especially familiar with the path because he used to train on it when he played high school football.
“I would go jog up to the top of Main Street, touch the eucalyptus tree at the top there and run back down,” he said.
Speake agrees that more access to the forest is needed.
“We share 12 miles of border with the national forest and Chino Hills State Park, with, really, one connection,” he said.
And even that connection wasn’t intended to be a trail.
Skyline Drive was built in 1927 as a county road to let people drive between Corona and Orange County cities.
Then in February 1986, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors limited traffic after a series of fatal and serious accidents. But until recently, one could drive Skyline by paying the county a $100 deposit for a key that opened the gate.
“If you came to the front counter, showed us your driver’s license and gave us $100, we gave you a key,” said Patty Romo, county transportation director.
Records indicate the county issued 1,800 keys.
“But I suspect there were more, that people made copies of them,” Romo said. “It just got out of hand.”
So the county changed the locks and closed the road to most vehicles in January 2014, she said. Since then, foot traffic has grown tremendously.
“There is clearly a hunger for trails,” said Councilwoman Jacque Casillas. “We have the Cleveland National Forest in our backyard.” “That is a huge asset. And it is an opportunity. … Trails can be that defining thing that sets us apart from our neighbors.”
Casillas said it is time for the city to launch a comprehensive planning effort to provide more connections.
Jake Rodriguez, recreation and lands officer for the Trabuco Ranger District, which oversees 140,000 acres of forest from Corona to Camp Pendleton, said the U.S. Forest Service is open to the idea of creating hiking trails in the mountains near Corona.
“We want people to get outdoors,” Rodriguez said. “We want people to enjoy the natural resources.”
He said building trails would require extensive planning and environmental study to ensure they are put in appropriate places. It would also take significant amounts of money. He said that some existing paths in the forest are fuel breaks for firefighting and aren’t suitable for pedestrian trails.
“We’re not opposed to trails,” Rodriguez said. “We just want to make sure that it makes sense, that it is friendly to the natural resources and that it is friendly to the public who will be using it.”
Rodriguez said the Forest Service has had preliminary meetings with the city. “We’re talking about some different options,” he said.
However, Joe Morgan, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in November, criticized the council for eliminating one option in removing the trail-access condition for the Malaga project.
“You just flushed away an opportunity,” Morgan said, suggesting council members were “bullied” into the decision by the Brent Ridge neighborhood.
But neighbors contend that Malaga Street is not a viable option.
For starters, they said, there are no existing paths in the forest nearby to hook up to. And because of existing development on both sides of the street, a Malaga trail would place hikers next to houses and young children.
Then there’s the memory of the problems that followed when the Brent Ridge Homeowners Association created a public space for the community a decade or so ago with a walkway and benches that afford a sweeping view of Corona and the valley below.
“We set up a nice greenbelt area behind our slopes,” said longtime resident Christi Bush. “We put up benches so people could see the view of the city lights.”
High school cross-country teams used to conduct practice runs back behind our houses.
“And we never complained once,” Bush said.
That is, until the problems began a few years later.
“We’ve had extensive drug dealing going on behind our properties,” Bush said. “We’ve had people having sex and leaving condoms, and vandalizing our property. One of our neighbors even had their mailbox blown up.”
Now, the benches and walkways are gated off.
“We had to hire our own security guards and eventually fence in the association lands just so we could get all of the crime out of our neighborhood,” Bush said.
“We tried as a community,” said homeowner Mary Kramer, “to open up our back yards and let people in.” And she said it just didn’t work.
Now, said homeowner Eric Papp, the neighborhood fears a public trail would invite “a wholesale abuse of that entire area again.”
Michele Wentworth, a city parks commissioner, said she understands why the neighborhood was upset, saying the conflict underscores the need to avoid bringing hikers through neighborhoods. But at the same time, she said, the city needs to avoid putting new housing tracts in the paths of hikers.