That remote hole in the ground, also known as “Orange County’s mini Grand Canyon,” is little seen by the public, with access sometimes limited to one day every two months.

But as soon as the two pickup trucks rolled out of the Augustine Staging Area, it became clear that the entire Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve was a wilderness sanctuary. It felt worlds away from the gridded concrete and congested urban bustle of Southern California.

Chrystene Newman, Program Specialist at the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, looks out over The Sinks, also known as Orange County’s mini Grand Canyon, during a tour of the property. The canyon is located in Limestone Canyon Reserve in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019.(Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)



On a clear day the view from The Sinks, also known as Orange County’s mini Grand Canyon, offers a glimpse of Catalina Island, top right. The canyon is located in Limestone Canyon Reserve in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019.(Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

This spring-fed trough was originally used for cattle but is now maintained by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy for wild animals who have seen other watering holes be developed with buildings. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Irvine Ranch Conservancy manages 40,000 acres on behalf of the landowners including OC Parks and the cities of Irvine and Newport Beach. Photographed on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Erosion is helping shape The Sinks, also known as Orange County’s mini Grand Canyon, in Limestone Canyon in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

A bee climbs around dove weed in Limestone Canyon in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Modjeska Peak and Santiago Peak, top right, are seen along with the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains during a tour of The Irvine Ranch Conservancy property on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Hiking trails in Limestone Canyon in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains are only sporadically open to the public. One trail is seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Sinks, also known as Orange County’s mini Grand Canyon, is only sporadically open to the public in an effort to better maintain wildlife habitat. The canyon is located in Limestone Canyon Reserve in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019.(Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Nathan Gregory, Vice President and Chief Programs Officer at the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, talks about The Sinks, also known as Orange County’s mini Grand Canyon, during a tour of the property. The canyon is located in Limestone Canyon Reserve in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019.(Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Erosion is helping shape The Sinks, also known as Orange County’s mini Grand Canyon, in Limestone Canyon in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

A remnant of the areas cattle grazing days is seen in Limestone Canyon, part of The Irvine Ranch Conservancy, on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The moon sets on The Irvine Ranch Conservancy on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Sinks, also known as Orange County’s mini Grand Canyon, is only sporadically open to the public in an effort to better maintain wildlife habitat. The canyon is located in Limestone Canyon Reserve in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019.(Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Sinks, also known as Orange County’s mini Grand Canyon, is only sporadically open to the public in an effort to better maintain wildlife habitat. The canyon is located in Limestone Canyon Reserve in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, seen here on Wednesday, October 16, 2019.(Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The rolling foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, part of a 50,000-acre reserve on the former Irvine Ranch, featured stands of oak and patches of cactus. The branches and the blue sky beyond hosted mourning doves, acorn woodpeckers, scrub jays and wrens. On the slow roll down the dirt road, the habitat’s raptors were yet to be seen.

Other than the trees and the cactus, the brush in foothills was largely dried and brown. But amid that monochromatic groundcover were a host of plants, some bearing subtle color — white and black sage, California buckwheat, dove wheat and sage brush.

“In the spring, it’s all green,” said Scott Graves, communications manager for the Irvine Ranch Conservancy which manages most of the reserve. “But there’s an old Western charm when it’s brown.”

The trucks, with their cargo of journalists and conservancy staff, paused at a swath of land once used as cattle pasture by the Irvine Ranch. The conservancy recently restored the 84 acres to its native habitat.

Oaks and indigenous scrub have been planted while invasive mustard plants, still pervasive elsewhere in the reserve, have been removed. The mustard plants were brought over by early Spanish visitors, with some theorizing that they used the plants — with their dramatic yellow springtime blooms — as landmarks.

We also paused at a spring-fed watering trough that dates back to ranch days. Once used by cattle, the trough now has a new purpose.

“We maintain it for the wild animals because some of their traditional watering spots have been developed,” Graves said.

A nearby trail camera, one of 56 maintained throughout the reserve, has captured images of the animals, including mountain lions, bobcats, gray foxes, mule deer, raccoons and skunks.

It also has caught photos of deer poachers and nude hikers on the reserve, which is known as the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks.

“Mike O’Connell, our CEO, always tells the story of the naked Santa Claus,” Graves said. “A guy walking along with a big white beard and nothing else.”

The cameras have allowed biologists and ecologists to determine a direct correlation between people and wildlife. The more people, the less wildlife.

“After there’s a significant number of people out here, it takes about three days for the animals to come back,” said Nathan Gregory, a conservation scientist who’s worked in Africa, Brazil, the Philippines and Indonesia. He’s now a conservancy vice president.

“In areas where there’s regular public access, in Irvine and Laguna Beach, we see very little wildlife,” Gregory said. (Anyone wanting to visit restricted areas can find a list of tours, events and public access days at letsgooutside.org.)

The Mediterranean habitat of the reserve — and much of Southern California — is one of just five places in the world where such ecosystems are found, according to conservancy Chief Operating Officer Dave Raetz. Mediterranean habitat accounts for 1% of the Earth’s land mass but hosts 20% of known plant species, he added.

That helps make the reserve the perfect host for a range of rare and endangered plants and animals, including the California gnatcatcher, the cactus wren and the orange-throated whiptail lizard.

Caretaking duties of the conservancy include battling the golden-spotted oak borer beetle, whose persistence kills trees. Infested trees are cut down while threatened trees are treated with an insecticide.

Additionally, the conservancy and its hundreds of volunteers patrol the area during red-flag fire threats, to insure that people — including potential arsonists — aren’t entering the area.

“There are various theories of how it came about,” he says. “One is that there was a catastrophic earthquake and it caused the land to sink. The name stuck.”

“There’s a tree that looks like it could be used for that,” says Chrystene Newman, a conservancy program specialist. “But I don’t know if it ever was.”

A short trail up an incline leads to the Eastern Viewing Deck, where a black Western fence lizard scampers along the wooden flooring.

In the 525-foot-deep canyon, sheer, craggy walls of limestone and sandstone undulate and dive, a few pocks and crevices hide in shadows but the facings, outcroppings and promontories remain stoic in the bright morning sun.

Beyond is a glimpse of several tall buildings in the Irvine Spectrum and a few in Newport Beach. But the vista is otherwise unspoiled by man as one’s eyes continue to the ocean and the silhouette of Catalina Island rising above the offshore marine layer.

We then drive to the Western Viewing Deck for a view of the rocks’ flow and texture that seems more alive and detailed in the shade of the sun.

Afterward, we’re back on the road to the staging area and our cars and the workday ahead. But not before a last gaze at the sky and there:

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