Orange County, the hiking gem you need to know. Here are the 12 best trails
It’s no wonder that trails in Orange County sometimes get overlooked. With mountains to the north and east, it’s easy to miss the hidden gems in the county that’s host to 34 cities. The variety of habitats on these 12 hikes may surprise you: from woodlands to coastal chaparral to a botanical preserve. And did I mention the grove of coastal redwoods? It’s all waiting, with routes good for beginners and veteran hikers. By the way, the high point in O.C. is Santiago Peak at 5,689 feet on Saddleback mountain. It’s a 15-plus-mile exposed and strenuous hike to the top but is not included on the list because the main trailhead is closed.
Carbon Canyon Regional Park
The wide dirt path of the nature trail is well-marked throughout and meanders through dense shrubs and walnut trees (listen for resident towhees) before depositing you under the giant arboreal wonders after just half a mile. The grove of 241 coastal redwoods, the product of a local bank’s seedling promotion in the 1970s, is the largest of its kind in Southern California.
Interpretive signs detail their history, including the efforts of park rangers to preserve them despite Southern California’s arid climate. Among the nearly 100-foot Sequoia sempervirens specimens, you’ll notice the temperature drop more than 10 degrees (as if you need another reason to go). Before heading back, climb the steep trail at the southwestern corner for sweeping views that look down on the grove, as well as hulking Carbon Canyon Dam and the surrounding town of Brea.
Park in dirt or paved lots ($3 weekdays, $5 weekends); dog-friendly. Start at the nature trail from the south parking lot.
Santiago Oaks Regional Park
Park in the dirt/paved lots ($3 on weekdays, $5 on weekends); dog friendly. Start at the Historic Dam Trail at the Nature Center.
El Modena Open Space and Old Towne Orange
Park on the street or in a free paved lot. Dog friendly. Start at Cannon Street and Patria Court for the 2.5-mile trail and two-mile walk on city streets to complete the loop.
Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park
a sign for Dripping Cave, one of many accessible sandstone cavities in the hulking 4,500-acre park (also check out Cave Rock), which was allegedly used as a hollowed hideout for 19th century livestock thieves. After exploring the geological grotto, continue on the Mathis Canyon Trail through enchanting oaks amongst riparian woodland before challenging yourself on the Car Wreck Trail, a technical, part-rock scramble ascent. Halfway up, spy an old rusted Dodge sticking out of the dense chaparral. You’ll soon reach the 1,000-foot summit aptly named Top of the World, rewarding you with 360-degree vistas that do not disappoint. The prominent peaks of Mt. Baldy (north) and Santiago (east) dominate the inland backdrop, but the coastal views are breathtaking — and it’s a good spot for a mid-trek picnic. On the return half of the loop, don’t miss the Wood Canyon Trail segment that crosses a babbling stream by way of a short boardwalk.
Park in the free paved lot; dog friendly. Start at the Aliso Creek Trail at the Visitor Center.
Niguel Botanical Preserve
Park in the free paved lot; no dogs allowed. Start at the Crown Valley Community Park, next to the amphitheater on this DIY ramble.
Dana Point Headlands (The Strand)
Park in the free paved lot; no dogs allowed. Start at the Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center.
El Moro Canyon at Crystal Cove State Park
Pay to park in the paved lot; no dogs allowed. Start at the No Dogs Trail next to the Ranger Station.
San Clemente Beach Trail
Park in the paved lot ($1.50 an hour) or on the street. Dogs are allowed on the trail but not on the beach. Start at North Beach, on the south end of the San Clemente Metrolink parking lot.
Upper Newport Bay Preserve
Park in the dirt lot; dog friendly. Start on the Bayview Trail at the interpretive center.
Oso Viejo Community Park
Park in a paved lot; dog friendly. Start at Oso Viejo Community Park.
Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park
Park in the paved lot ($3); no dogs allowed. Start at the Borrego Canyon Trail off Portola Parkway.
Peters Canyon Regional Park
Park in the dirt lot ($3); dog friendly. Start at the Lake View Trail next to the ranger station.