Any mention of Orange County and its great outdoors must address the lazy stereotype that there is no nature here: just 948 square miles of suburban sprawl, a massive housing tract roughly the size of Rhode Island.
This is, of course, complete horseshit. Just ask John McKinney, a hiking guru who runs the website www.thetrailmaster.com and has written numerous books about trekking Southern California’s back country.
“You really have to shed some stereotypes when it comes to hiking in Orange County, and one of the biggest is that it’s all about the moment—that there’s no history,” says McKinney, a Santa Barbara resident who grew up in Whittier and Downey and knows just about every square inch of Orange County’s open space. “But the idea that it’s just suburban sprawl vanishes instantly once you get on the trail.
“It’s one of the most densely populated counties in the state and one of the smallest large-population counties, but biologists say it has the second-largest biodiversity in California,” McKinney says. “So, where I really give the county credit is that, given its density, there are an amazing number of parks, preserves and trails.”
There are also signature Orange County landscapes.
“When you talk to people from out of town, they don’t automatically think there is a quintessential hike or landscape, but there are actually many,” McKinney says. “We’ve got sage-covered hills, lovely little canyons, dramatic ridgetops, and excellent coastal views where you’ve got the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. There are mountains, hills, creeks and rivers. Not many lakes, but plenty of beaches.”
Another groovy thing about hiking in Orange County? Because development stretches right up to the edge of most open space, it only takes a few minutes to get into the heart of it.
We asked McKinney for his choices of ultimate Orange County hikes, separated into easy, moderate and one asskicker.
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park: Laurel and Willow Canyon Loop
“This is a 3.5-mile loop with a 600-foot gain,” McKinney says. “It’s family-friendly for sure, with a great little view.” Buckwheat and sage line the earlier portion’s path, with sycamores and live oaks taking over a bit later, and, of course, there’s plenty of laurel sumac, which gave the canyon its name.
The trail winds by sandstone boulders, shallow caves blown into the bluffs and bitchen rock formations. You’ll also see a prime example of Mother Nature correcting herself: Much of the slope used to be a prime spot for cattle grazing, but with the bovines removed, it’s slowly making the transition from grassland back to coastal sage scrub.
The 6,500-acre park is also one of the great success stories of Orange County land conservation, since it was saved from development through a massive grassroots campaign that began in the late 1970s and culminated in an 8,000-person march along Laguna Canyon Road in 1989. 18751 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 923-2235; www.ocparks.com/LagunaCoast.
San Clemente State Beach: Trestles Trail
Though known to most of the recreational world for its killer surf, there’s also a quite gorgeous, if short, hiking trail at this beach, with towering tan bluffs on one side and a large body of water on the other.
The destination—about 1.5 miles from the trailhead—is San Mateo Point, which has served as the southernmost boundary of Orange County since its formation in 1889. At the point, you’ll find San Mateo Creek, which, if you’re feeling energetic, you can traverse rather easily and continue south toward San Onofre State Beach, where your scenic little walk along the greatest ocean on planet Earth will be interrupted by one of the most jarring sites: the enormous nuclear mammary glands of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. 225 Ave. Califia, San Clemente, (949) 492-3156; www.parks.ca.gov.
Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Trail
Orange County’s oldest (1897) and largest (477 acres) county-run park, this jewel is actually located in Santiago Canyon, 6 miles east of Irvine in the city of Orange. This trail is a very easily traversed 4-mile loop with a 200-foot elevation gain that, surprise, winds around the historic core of the park and through groves of oak and sycamore trees. “This isn’t out in the woods, and it’s got more of a rural feeling, which I think makes it quintessentially Orange County,” McKinney says. 1 Irvine Park Rd., Orange, (714) 973-6835; www.ocparks.com/irvinepark.
Crystal Cove State Park: El Moro Canyon
Set in the interior portion of this park, this trail “is about 7 miles roundtrip, and if you’re feeling a bit more frisky, you can extend the loops along the ridges,” McKinney says. “I’d call it moderate because you have to hike up to the ridges.” There are ocean views on the first leg and flourishing vegetation once you get more inland. One word of caution: There isn’t a great deal of shade, so time your hike accordingly and bring lots of water. And drink it! (That’s one of McKinney’s pet peeves with hikers: We all seem to bring water, but we don’t always consume it.) 8471 Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3539; www.crystalcovestatepark.com.
Caspers Wilderness Park: Bell Canyon
First used by Juaneño Indians for the acorns dropped from the oak trees, this is as good a place to spot wildlife such as deer and coyote as any trail in the county. It’s also prime bird-watching territory. “It’s a basic, 7-mile hike along some ridges, and if you go out at the beginning or end of the day, you’re going to see wildlife,” McKinney says. “I really love how the red-tailed hawks float on top of the hilltops and seem to accompany you on your journey.” 33401 Ortega Hwy., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 923-2210; www.ocparks.com/caspers.
Santiago Peak via Holy Jim Trail
You want history? You want views? You want to get your ass kicked? This trail’s got it all. While most of us know Santiago Peak as the highest peak in Orange County—the one with the plethora of communication towers on top—and, along with the slightly smaller Modjeska Peak, half of Old Saddleback, it’s also the one trek you absolutely must make to be “a true Orange County hiker,” McKinney declares. “It will get your heart beating. The peak is 5,689 feet high, but more important for a hiker is it’s a 4,000-foot gain. You want to give yourself a lot of time, maybe as much as eight hours up and down.”
The first documented ascent of Santiago Peak came in 1853, when a group of lawmen pursuing horse thieves wound up clambering to the top. Though the landscape has obviously changed, the views haven’t: On a really clear day (good luck with that), you get a spectacular view of everything from Santa Catalina to the towering mountain ranges that ring the Los Angeles Basin.
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There are a number of trails and access roads that lead to Santiago, but if you’re thinking of making the trek this summer, consider the Holy Jim Trail—but not the whole thing. Why? Because you don’t want to do the actual Holy Jim Trail in the summer: You’ll probably die. You could push it, but better to leave the ascent for a cooler time of year and instead stop at Holy Jim Waterfall, which is only about 1.5 miles in, with a 200-foot elevation gain and a quarter-mile jaunt across boulders and a creek to the 20-foot cascade itself. The trail and the falls are named after the foul-mouthed Jim Smith, a beekeeper notorious for haranguing government surveyors who mapped the canyon in the early 20th Century. Smith’s hives also factor into another piece of Orange County history: They were among those that tempted a grizzly bear named “Honey Thief,” who, in 1907, was shot at the mouth of Trabuco Canyon, the last time a wild grizzly was ever glimpsed in California. From Interstate 5, exit El Toro Road, drive east 7 miles; turn right on Live Oak Canyon Road and drive 4.2 miles to Trabuco Creek Road; turn left and follow the rough dirt road 4.6 miles to the trailhead parking.
For detailed information on these hikes and many more, check out www.thetrailmaster.com, where you can also get information on books written by John McKinney, including his latest, The Hiker’s Way.
This article appeared in print as "The Dusty Trail: Get your stomp on over hill, dale and canyon with these highly recommended hikes."