In Orange County, Exploring Laguna Canyon’s Natural Lakes

Lakes are few and far between in Orange County. For the most part, they are decorative contrivances created for city parks, golf courses and housing developments.

The county’s only natural lakes are the Laguna Lakes in Laguna Canyon, bodies of water replenished by rainfall and possibly underground springs. The largest of the three, Barbaras Lake, is particularly delightful for hikers because it’s accessible only by a trail through the engaging James Dilley Greenbelt Preserve.

The name Laguna Lakes is redundant since laguna is the Spanish word for lake. But the name Barbaras Lake has more meaning, honoring late conservationist Barbara Stuart Rabinowitsh.

Fringed by bulrush, cattail and willow, the lake offers habitat for coots, grebes and mallards. High points yield good views of Bubbles Lake, named for the hippopotamus that escaped from the now-defunct Lion Country Safari animal park and took up residence in the little lake on the west side of Laguna Canyon Road. Bubbles eluded capture by staying underwater by day and emerging only at night. Alas, she was shot with tranquilizers and died while trying to elude her captors in 1978.


The preserve itself takes its name from a Laguna Beach bookseller named James Dilley. In the 1960s he began promoting his vision for a band of parks and preserves surrounding Laguna Beach. Thanks to Dilley and four decades of cooperative efforts by conservation groups, park agencies and the area’s major landowner, the Irvine Co., Laguna Beach is green on three sides and Pacific blue on the fourth.

The Dilley preserve is something of an island too, bordered by Laguna Canyon Road on the west, El Toro Road and the Leisure World development on the east, and the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor toll road on the south. The Laguna Lakes form the north boundary.

The preserve is owned by the city and managed by the county parks department, but the nonprofit Laguna Canyon Foundation spearheads efforts to continue preserving hills and canyons, to expand the park and to increase its public use.

The preserve is open for hiking 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Canyon Trail is the first leg of a nature path with numbered markers keyed to an interpretive pamphlet (sometimes available at the trail head). The pamphlet is by no means necessary to enjoy the hike.


Directions to trail head: From Interstate 405 in Irvine, exit onto California Highway 133, which soon becomes Laguna Canyon Road. Drive south three miles to the signed entrance for James Dilley Greenbelt Preserve on the left (east) side of the road; park in the dirt lot. The preserve entrance is just north of the toll road.

The hike: From the parking area, take the dirt road east and join Canyon Trail. The path swings north up the canyon, which is lined with coastal live oak, sycamore, white sage, black sage and buckwheat.

Leaving the moist canyon bottom, the path climbs the slopes, and the vegetation changes to prickly pear cactus, lemonade berry and monkey flower. Near a ridgeline, the path forks. The left branch, sometimes called the Eagle Scout Trail, descends south toward the trail head.

You want the right fork, up the remains of a dirt road to the top of the hill. You’ll see a gravel road leading downhill, west toward Laguna Canyon Road and Edison Trail, a steep fire road heading north. I prefer taking Edison Trail for its views of the San Gabriel Mountains.


Front and center is Barbaras Lake, with a surface area of about 12 acres.

Follow Barbara’s Nature Trail, another interpretive path that runs along the lake shore to an old pump house and an intersection with To the Lake Trail, which heads south. You will parallel Laguna Canyon Road as the path returns to the trail head.


For more of John McKinney’s tips, visit