10 Orange County Hikes to Take You From Sea to Summit

Orange County has many outdoor trails to explore. Discover ocean vistas at sunset, waterfalls in the wilderness,and wind-swept mountain peaks with 360-degree views.

Photograph by Sean Tiner

Sitton Peak
Cleveland National Forest

Distance: 10 miles
Elevation gain: 2,150 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Dogs: On leash
Best time: Fall to spring
Need to know: An Adventure Pass is required for trailhead parking.

This hike gives you a double-digit challenge on well-marked trails off the Ortega Highway corridor. Park in the lot across from Ortega Oaks Candy Store, then carefully cross the highway. The trail begins just to the west of the store.

Follow the single-track trail over the ridge and down into an oak-lined valley. At 1.9 miles, you connect with the Verdugo Truck Trail. Turn right and follow the dirt double-track for another mile, where you’ll reach the junction with the Sitton Peak Truck Trail on the right.

The trail climbs and winds around a couple of ridges for 1.25 miles to a marker for the Sitton Peak Trail. This trail requires some scrambling and light bushwhacking up to the ridge. The 360-degree view from the 3,273-foot summit overlooks a wide area of the Cleveland National Forest. On clear days, you can see the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. When you’re ready to head back, retrace your steps to the trailhead. Bring at least two liters of water and good sun protection. Stop in at the Candy Store for a well-earned post-hike treat.

Photograph by Kimberly Skeen

Moro Canyon Loop
 Crystal Cove State Park

Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation gain: 820 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Best time: Year-round
Dogs: No
Need to know: Parking at Crystal Cove State Park requires a day‑use fee, payable at the ranger station.

This loop is a favorite route in the Crystal Cove backcountry, with ridgeline views of the coastline and a shady canyon that feels a world away from suburban life. All this, and it is easily accessible from Newport Coast.

Park at the El Moro Visitor Center on the inland side of Coast Highway. The trail begins at the southwest end of the parking lot. Follow the dirt path along the car campsites, continuing down the dusty trail to the bottom of the hill. Turn left and head over the bridge to continue on the El Moro Canyon Trail. Continue up the canyon, keeping a watchful eye for deer, roadrunners, rabbits, lizards, and other critters.

At 1.4 miles, turn right and head up the East Cutoff Trail, affectionately known as “I Think I Can,” a slow and steady climb to the El Moro Ridge Trail. Turn right here and head downhill toward the coast. This stretch has some steep sections where trekking poles might be handy. There’s a good reason many hikers call this “BFI” (Big Fat Incline).

The coastal views are beautiful. When you see Coast Highway, look for the trail marker on the right, leading you down to El Moro Canyon near the bridge, and follow the dirt trail back to the visitor center.

Photograph by Jeff Hester

Las Ramblas Trail
 San Juan Capistrano

Distance: 4.5 miles
Elevation gain: 1,150 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Best time: Year‑round, especially at sunset
Dogs: On leash
Need to know: Check the street signs for trailhead parking regulations.

The grassy hilltops of San Juan Capistrano offer wonderful networks of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Time your hike to catch the sunset over Dana Point Harbor and Catalina Island in the distance. Be sure to bring a headlamp to light your path on the return trip.

Although the trail is entirely within San Juan Capistrano city limits, park at the end of Camino de Los Mares in San Clemente. Follow the North Los Mares Trail on a slow-but-steady climb for the first mile, turning left at the ridge on the Prima Deshecha Trail. Keep left at the Las Ramblas Trail until you reach the saddle and then turn right to climb the steep hill on Patriot Trail. Once you reach the top, take a moment to catch your breath and take in the views. From here, the trail follows the roller-coaster ridgeline to a vista point with a flagpole and spectacular view at sunset.

Keep your eyes open for wildlife, including deer, bobcats, and the occasional rattler.

On your return, take the junction to the lower route around the ridge, back to Prima Deschecha and Los Mares. Our favorite post-hike treat? Fish tacos at Wahoo’s.

 Salt Creek Trail 
 Laguna Niguel

Distance: 6.8 miles
Elevation gain: 500 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Dogs: On leash
Best time: When rain closes other local trails
Need to know: Family friendly

Many of the local wilderness parks shut down their trails after the rain. This protects them from erosion and damage, but it presents a challenge when you’re looking to get your fix of the outdoors.

The Salt Creek Trail in Laguna Niguel is a great alternative. When the dirt trails are closed, this meandering bike path provides a beautiful destination (Salt Creek Beach), and you can hike or jog it anytime, even in the rain. No, it’s not the dirt-under-your-feet experience, but it provides a good distance through a wild canyon on a weatherproof path.

The trail begins at the southwest end of the sports park on Chapparosa in Laguna Niguel. Follow the path as it parallels Salt Creek, keeping your eyes open for rabbits, frogs, and the occasional snake. The path crosses under Niguel Road, Camino del Avion, and PCH via tunnels. The main path is marked with a dashed yellow line—a reminder to keep right as bicyclists share the route.

When you reach Salt Creek Beach, you can extend your hike with a beach walk, returning via the same path when you’re ready to head back.

Photograph by Rowena Pelayto

Chiquito Falls
 Cleveland National Forest

Distance: 9 miles
Elevation gain: 2,900 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Dogs: On leash
Best time: Spring, after rainfall
Need to know: An Adventure Pass is needed for trailhead parking.

Chiquito Falls is a seasonal waterfall best viewed soon after decent rainfall. The trailhead begins across the street from Ortega Oaks Candy Store on Ortega Highway.

Start at the San Juan Loop Trailhead, which leads to a short climb over the nearest ridge and a descent toward San Juan Creek. You get a great view of San Juan Falls—a popular destination due to its proximity to the trailhead—but continue on the trail that follows the creek downstream.

At 1.1 miles, there’s a marker for the creek crossing where you’ll boulder-hop across. The trail continues up a smaller tributary for nearly another mile before turning sharply back and heading up the steep slope. Continue up and around the ridge to a high point of 2,700 feet above sea level before descending to Chiquito Falls. A short spur trail leads to the top of the falls, while the main trail continues on to connect with the San Juan Trail.

Hike this trail after a good spring storm, as the water slows to a trickle quickly and dries up by summer. Follow the same route back to the trailhead.

Aliso Peak
 Aliso  Wood Canyons Wilderness Park

Distance: 1.6 miles
Elevation gain: 530 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Dogs: Not allowed
When to go: Year‑round
Need to know: The hardest part is the way back

This short trail is officially part of Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, but it isn’t connected to the more familiar trails in the park. The trailhead begins at the west end of Seaview Park in Laguna Niguel, where you can park along Talavera Drive.

Hike through green, grassy Seaview Park to the west end where you’ll find information signs with park rules and the beginning of a wide dirt path. The trail follows the ridgeline with Aliso Canyon on your right. You’ll pass a number of picnic tables in the first 0.3 miles, after which the trail descends steeply. Follow the signposts marking the trail. At 0.7 miles, you’ll reach a junction with the Toovet Trail, ascending from Laguna Beach below. Bear right, heading up the steep, final push to the summit of Aliso Peak.

At the peak, you’re rewarded with a bench to sit on and panoramic views of the coastline. This is a great spot to catch the sunset (be sure you bring a headlamp) or watch for whales during their annual migration. Save some energy for the return trip. Unlike most peak hikes, on this hike, you do most of your climbing on the way back.

Black Star Canyon Waterfall
 Cleveland National Forest

Distance: 6 miles
Elevation gain: 300 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Best time: Fall to spring
Dogs: Not advised
Need to know: The last three-quarters of a mile to the falls requires bushwhacking, boulder scrambling, and likely getting your feet wet.

The trail begins at the public end of Black Star Canyon Road, just before the gate. Continue hiking past the gate and up the road. You’ll pass private property on either side, as the road turns to dirt, winding under oak trees and old farm equipment. About 2.4 miles in, the road veers sharply left, but here you bear right, down to the creek. What has been a leisurely stroll now gets challenging, as you make your way upstream along the creek for the three-quarters of a mile to the falls.

The “path” here is sporadic at best. Keep to the left when possible, and take care to avoid the poison oak. Travel up this stretch is slow as you bushwhack and boulder scramble upstream. The payoff is the waterfall, with a twin cascade emerging from an abandoned mine shaft when the water is flowing strong. This is a good place to rest and enjoy the fruit of your labor before you turn around and make your way back.

Photo by jeff hester

Dreaded Hill
 Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park

Distance: 5.25 miles
Elevation gain: 860 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Best time: Year-round
Dogs: No
Need to know: Hikers, bikers, and equestrians share trails here.

Whiting Ranch is surrounded by subdivisions, but inside the oak-lined canyons it’s easy to be transported to another time and place. This lollipop loop climbs up the appropriately named Dreaded Hill. Unlike the stair machine at your gym, this climb rewards you with panoramic views of the county.

You can start this trail at the parking lot for the Portola Ranch Wahoo’s. At the north end of the lot, a bike path leads down to Serrano Creek. Follow the path under Portola Parkway, into Whiting Ranch on the Serrano Creek Trail. After a mile of easy warm-up, turn left at the junction and head up the Dreaded Hill Trail. This trail climbs relentlessly, reaching a top elevation of nearly 1,600 feet.

From the summit, follow the trail down the other side, bearing right toward to Four Corners, a popular spot to rest, refill your water bottle, and regroup. From here, take the Whiting Trail downhill and back to the Serrano Creek Trail. Tread quietly as you hike through the oak trees back to the trailhead, and if you’re lucky, you might spy a family of deer.

Photo by alex wood

Santiago Peak
 Cleveland National Forest

Distance: 16 miles
Elevation gain: 4,470 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Best time: Fall to spring
Dogs: On leash
Need to know: You’ll need an Adventure Pass for parking, and a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. 

This epic hike climbs to the highest point in O.C.—5,689-foot Santiago Peak. Just getting to the trailhead is part of the adventure, with a 6-mile trip down a bumpy dirt road into Trabuco Canyon for which you’ll want a high-clearance vehicle.

Park at the signed trailhead area and follow the road beyond the gate into Holy Jim Canyon, crisscrossing the seasonal creek several times. About one mile into your hike, turn left at the junction to head up the switchbacks toward the Main Divide Road and begin the climb in earnest.

When you reach the Main Divide Road, turn right. As the road climbs the eastern slope, you’ll catch glimpses of the Inland Empire. Watch carefully for the sign marking Upper Holy Jim Trail, which branches out from Main Divide Road at about the 5-mile mark. This single-track trail climbs up a ridgeline, ultimately rejoining the Main Divide Road for the final stretch to the top.

The summit is easily identified by the cluster of cell towers. Make your way around to take in the views. Break for lunch, and head back down the way you came. When you return to Holy Jim Canyon, take the quarter-mile trip upstream to see the falls before heading back to the trailhead.

Hiking to the summit of Santiago Peak takes the better part of a day. Start early, take plenty of water, food, and layers of clothing, and be prepared for a change in weather. There can even be snow at the summit.

Laguna Ridge Loop
 Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

Distance: 3.6 miles
Elevation gain: 930 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Best time: Year‑round
Dogs: No
Need to know: This trail is exposed. Go early or late to avoid the heat of midday. Day-use fee required for parking at Big Bend.

Begin this hike at the Big Bend staging area for Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Follow the trail that parallels Laguna Canyon Road for a short distance before turning uphill on the steep Laguna Ridge Trail. The climb is tough, ascending nearly 925 feet in a short 1.25 miles. At the top of the ridge, turn right and hike up the Bommer Ridge Trail. This ridgeline route gives you great views of Emerald and Laguna canyons and the coastline beyond. Follow the Bommer Ridge for about a mile, turning right at the junction with the Big Bend Trail. This final trail descends back to the staging area, closing the loop and returning to the parking lot.

Laguna Coast Wilderness has a network of trails that allows you to mix and match your own route to suit the time and distance you want. But no visit is complete without some dirt time on Bommer Ridge. 

Looking for something on the lighter side? Click below to download guides to some of our favorite O.C. walks.

Printable Guides to Our Favorite Walks in Orange County

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