Is the WILD gone from the WILDerness Park?

The city of Claremont is working hard to manage the crowds. But has the enormous increase in visitors at the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park taken away  from the outdoor experience?

You might think by getting an early start on a Saturday morning, the chances are good you’ll beat the heat and crowds. It’s not often that one can experience the great outdoors with some peace, quiet and solitude so close to home.

Think again.

Saturday mornings are actually rush hour at the park, as hikers, bikers, joggers and barking dogs prepare to climb the trails around the pristine hills. As the COURIER has reported many times, parking is a problem, with cars everywhere, some even a half-mile away from the entrance.

I don’t blame residents close to the park who complain their streets are consistently lined with autos and the mass of humanity that comes with them. Before their summer recess, the Claremont City Council put into motion an increase in permit parking-only restrictions farther south down Mills Avenue and along the adjacent streets.

Another concern is how hikers do their creative best to avoid paying parking fees. This, of course, frustrates the city and pushes the need for more drastic action to control the influx of cars.

The new pay-to-park lots outside the park’s entrance are very well-designed, and are loaded with maps, signs and even portable toilets. But these lots fill quickly, so it’s common to see cars stretched everywhere in all directions. On Pomelo Drive, for example, you can often see a line of cars continuing into the horizon of hills and high-voltage power lines when looking west.

I was on a bicycle on a recent visit and was fortunate enough to be able to ride to the park from home. The first thing I noticed upon entering the 5-mile loop trail was the noise entering the park. It’s not just the people talking, but also the dogs barking at everyone else. I was quite surprised to find deer eyeing the crowds on my morning stroll. Unfortunately, they were eventually chased away by 3 excited kids trying to get a better look.

The well-groomed trail is big enough to accommodate both hikers and cyclists. But if you are on a bike this time of day, it’s critical to always be aware of hikers sharing the trail. People are generally polite and in a good mood but the trail can get bumpy, which limits the options for sharing the road. And, yes, there are bikes coming down the hill at high speeds. “Last time I was here, there was a pretty nasty accident involving a biker and walker. You have to really keep your eyes open around here,” said Marco Rodriguez from Montclair.

The good news is, since the loop trail is quite steep, the number of cyclists eventually thins out. I visited the park again that Saturday afternoon, just after a gentle rain. The main parking lot had few cars, and only the hardcore hikers and bikers were braving the elements. Clearly, timing is everything when planning a trip. Veteran park-goers say the best time to visit is mid-week, mid-afternoon. Just like a trip to the DMV.

You just have to be prepared for the hot weather common with Claremont summers. Another option is to use the Thompson Creek Trail that goes from a parking lot just north of Base Line Road and Towne Avenue, up to the Wilderness Park’s main road, off of Mills Avenue. The incline is quite reasonable and suited for everyone.

The advantage to using this route is the small, free parking lots nestled along the way. The path is narrower but it does take you through different neighborhoods, including Higginbotham Park. One lot that puts you right in the middle of the Thompson Creek Trail is located just northwest of La Puerta Park, off Indian Hill Boulevard.

What will the future bring for the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park? The popularity will only increase, and with that comes more challenging management issues. My guess is, wilderness park issues will continue to be in the news for years to come.

It’s important to keep in mind that the park is not just for Claremont residents. It’s open space. That means it’s open to the public, no matter where your home is.


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