Times Staff Writer

You say you’re feeling a little hemmed in by the cars, the smog and the crowds of other runners. You’re bored by the same neighborhood route. You’re yearning to get out and run free.

You need to get out in the wilderness and kick up your heels.

There are a number of exceptional places to go off-road running in Orange County, varying from difficult to as easy as your local neighborhood loop.

Here’s a list of a few of the top running trails in Orange County:



*** Difficult

** Moderate

* Easy


Descriptions and ratings by Staff Writer Elliott Teaford.


Distance: Eight miles

Rating: **

Course description: A primarily flat, out-and-back wide trail with one steep hill. Highly recommended for beginners. After 3 1/2 miles, the trail forks. To the right is a steep, but short, 600 meter-long uphill section. You can avoid the hill by turning back at the fork for a six-mile run. To the left is a longer, though more gradual climb. Either route loops back to the fork. There is a great view of the ocean and the surrounding hills when the trail levels off at the top of the hill. There are some tree-lined sections along the course, but it can get hot in the canyon especially when heading inland. On the return, you’ll encounter a cooling breeze off the ocean. It’s a good place to get away from it all without having to take a long time to get there.

How to get there: Moro Canyon, part of Crystal Cove State Park, is a half-mile north of the Laguna Beach city limit and about 3 miles south of the Newport Beach city line on Pacific Coast Highway.

Miscellany: Water and restrooms are available at the ranger station but not along the route. Because parking is $4, it’s a good idea to car pool. The canyon is a favorite spot among mountain bikers, so keep an eye out to avoid collisions.



Distance: 5 1/2 miles

Rating: *

Course description: Perfect for the beginner. A wide, tree-lined out-and-back course from Hillcrest Park to Laguna Lake in Fullerton. Basically uphill from Hillcrest to the lake, involving several street crossings. The most urban of the courses listed. Starting from Hillcrest Park, cross Harbor to Valley View Drive past the North Orange County Municipal Court. The trail begins on the right side of the street. After a sharp downhill, head cautiously cross Bastanchury Road. (There is a crosswalk there). Continue on Morelia Avenue, where the trail ends for a block. It picks up again past Laguna Road. Laguna Lake is on the right about a mile farther up the trail. Take a short, half-mile loop around the lake and head back.

How to get there: Exit the 91 Freeway at Harbor and head north to Hillcrest Park.

Miscellany: Water and restrooms are available at Laguna Lake. One of the cooler courses on the list, it is shaded in most parts. It’s used heavily by horseback riders, particularly on weekend afternoons.


Distance: 10 miles

Rating: ***


Course description: This is a true hiking trail and not a wide fire road. The narrow, out-and-back trail also is often overgrown with underbrush, particularly in the summer. The course starts out fairly flat, but rises steeply after a few miles to the end of the trail at Bear Springs. As with the others it can be hot in the summer and there is little shade along the trail. Holy Jim is not for the novice runner. However, if you’re really looking for a slice of the wilderness, this is it. The lower portion of Holy Jim Canyon is filled with trees, vines and brush. Not far from the beginning of the trail is a fork, which ends at Holy Jim Waterfall.

How to get there: Getting there is half the fun. Take El Toro Road north off I-5 to Live Oak Canyon Road, which becomes Trabuco Canyon Road just before the entrance to O’Neill Park. Turn left at Trabuco Creek Road, a dusty, unmarked, dirt road just past Rose Canyon Road. It’s a little hard to spot, but once you dip down into the dry wash past Road Canyon Road you’ll see the road between two red-and-white colored barricades. Follow Trabuco Creek Road into the Cleveland National Forest and up to a fork in the road. Parking is available at the fork. Take Holy Jim Road to the left. The trail is an extension of the road.

Miscellany: There is no water available at the trail head or along the course itself. Bringing water along on the run is a must.


Distance: 9 1/2 miles one way to the Main Divide Truck Trail.

Rating: ***

Course description: Straight up and straight back down. You can run all 19 miles or only 1 or 2. The trail, also known as the Harding Truck Trail, starts at the end of Modjeska Canyon Road at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary and heads quickly uphill for 1 1/2 miles before there is a short downhill section, the only one on the course. Because it’s almost all uphill, it’s important to stop and walk every so often. It’s almost essential if you are trying to cover the entire 19-mile distance. The trail offers incredible views of southern Orange County as the trail winds up the mountain, which is another reason to stop occasionally. The ideal way to run this one is to run 10 minutes, then walk for a while, run 10 minutes, then walk until you’re ready to turn back.

How to get there: Take Modjeska Canyon Road until it ends at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. There is ample parking. Modjeska Canyon is off Santiago Canyon Road, which can be reached from the north via Chapman Avenue and from the south from El Toro Road.

Miscellany: Water and restrooms are available at the wildlife sanctuary but not along the trail. It’s important to take water along if you’re going to run more than three miles out (or six round trip). There is little or no shade and often no breeze. The trail is usually closed in summer months because of fire hazard.


Distance: 23.2 miles

Rating: ***

Course description: This is the longest trail in the list. However, you are not bound to running every step of the out-and-back hiking trail. Shorter versions include a 4-mile round trip up to the top of the switchbacks and a 12-mile round-trip version to Sugarloaf Peak. Like the Holy Jim Trail, running the length of the San Juan is not a good idea for novice runners. However, the short version would be an ideal introductory run. There is a 50-mile race held in the fall over most of the San Juan Creek Trail.

How to get there: Take the Ortega Highway, route 74, north from I-5. The trail head is at Hot Spring Canyon about three-fourths of a mile past the San Juan ranger station.

Miscellany: There is little shade in the lower portions of the trail. Water and parking are available at the San Juan ranger station.


Distance: 6.8 miles

Rating: **

Course description: A wide, out-and-back truck trail beginning at the end of Silverado Canyon Road. It offers a fairly tough grade, rising 1,900 feet in 3.4 miles to the Main Divide Road. As with most of the trails in this list, you can turn back whenever you feel tired. Running for 20 minutes, then turning back is a good way to run this one for the first time. The footing is very good and it’s not all uphill. There are a few, gently sloping downhills along the way. But it can be hot in the summer and there is only sparse shade. This is another one to be attempted only in early morning or late afternoon hours in summer months. At the Main Divide Road, you can continue another 880 yards to the summit of Bedford Peak.

How to get there: There is ample parking. Silverado is off Santiago Canyon Road, which can be reached from the north via Chapman Avenue and from the south from El Toro Road, which becomes Santiago Canyon Road.

Miscellany: There is no water available at the trail head, so it’s important to bring your own. Drinks also are available at two stores in the community of Silverado Canyon. The trail is in the traditional summer fire hazard closure area, so check with the forest rangers before heading out.


Distance: Six miles

Rating: *

Course description: An out-and-back, relatively flat course that starts from Carbon Canyon Regional Park. Another good trail for beginners. It can be hot and dusty in summer. The best time to run is early morning or late afternoon. The surrounding hills are brown and dry in summer, but in winter it’s lush and green. Another trail that’s not far off of the beaten track. From the parking lot, head east along a horse trail that follows Carbon Canyon Road. After passing the second of two gates used to keep cars out, bear right and follow the trail into the canyon. The more adventurous runner can make a 10-mile loop out of the run. After about 2 1/2 miles in the canyon, take the fork to the left and head up the steep switchbacks. After about 880 yards, you reach the top of the hill. Stay to the left and follow the road back to the gate at the start.

How to get there: Exit the 57 Freeway at Lambert Road and head east. Passing Valencia Avenue, Lambert becomes Carbon Canyon Road. Turn right into Carbon Canyon Regional Park (about a mile past Valencia) and park in the lot to the left.

Miscellany: Water and restrooms are available in Carbon Canyon Regional Park. There is ample parking in the park. The bulk of the run is in Chino Hills State Park.

Sources for this guide included Santa Ana Mountains Trail Guide by Kenneth S. Croker, published by Whale & Eagle Publishing Co. of Costa Mesa and available at Loeschhorn’s For Runners in Mission Viejo.

For more information on running in the Cleveland National Forest, including possible fire - hazard closure, call the district offices in Corona 736-1811. Other offices are located in Silverado Canyon, 649-2645, and El Cariso (off Ortega Highway), 678-4170.