7 Cool O.C. Summer Trails to Do With the Whole Family

Hike during the hot months among the county’s thrilling ocean bluffs and shaded wilderness parks

Spring hikes in Orange County are a breeze, but summer outings require more planning. High temperatures, strong sunlight, dry brush, and snakes are your adversaries. Even so, they’re worth braving for the wildflowers, butterflies, waterfalls, and yes, bats. Start out in the early mornings or late afternoons and evenings, and always carry plenty of sunscreen and water. Here are six summer destinations we highly recommend.

1. Riley Wilderness Park’s Butterfly Garden
The butterflies appear in late spring as temperatures climb. One of the best places to see them is the Riley Wilderness Park’s Butterfly Garden, left. Butterfly behavior is hard to predict, so just wait for a sunny, warm, and still day, then be patient. If they don’t show—and they may stand you up—enjoy any of the short, gently hilly trails. Parking: $3 weekdays, $5 weekends. ocparks.com/rileypark.

2. Oak Canyon Nature Center
From small hilltop climbs to tree-covered paths, you’ll find a variety of short, easy, and relatively green family-friendly hikes that are a great introduction to our suburban wilderness for kids. Regular nature programs are available as well. Oak Canyon Nature Center

3. San Juan Loop Trail
Don’t expect a lot of color on the trail in summer, but just along Ortega Highway and minutes from San Juan Capistrano are three gems for wilderness lovers: the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, Caspers Wilderness Park, and the little San Juan Loop Trail at the edge of Cleveland National Forest. In a little more than two miles, you’ll see late-blooming wildflowers, oak woodland, and a small waterfall near the loop’s trailhead (how small depends on recent rainfall). This trail, which straddles the Riverside County line, is best reached from Lake Elsinore. Park in the lot across from the Ortega Country Cottage Candy store, where you can buy a $5 national forest parking pass. San Juan Loop Trail info

4. Holy Jim Falls
A 1½-mile trail leads back and forth along the creek in well-wooded Trabuco Canyon to the 20- to 30-foot falls, which flow most summers. The drive along a dirt road to the trail is almost tougher than the hike. From Trabuco Canyon Road just northeast of the O’Neill Regional Park entrance, take the dirt road turnoff and go five miles to the parking area.  fs.fed.us.

5. Crystal Cove State Park
The bucolic shoreline between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach just north of Emerald Bay has changed little in 100 years. It’s protected from the sights and sounds of Pacific Coast Highway by cliffs, the beach is never crowded, the tide pools are easily accessible most days, and informational markers point out some of the flora and fauna to look for along the bluffs. Picnics are recommended. Park in the lot at Reef Point and Pacific Coast Highway on the ocean side—it’s opposite Crystal Cove Promenade—but keep an eye out because the guard shack is easy to miss. Parking is $15.  crystalcovestatepark.com.

6. San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary
You’ll soon forget the myths you’ve heard when you tag along with bat expert Stephanie Remington on an easy evening walk around small San Joaquin Marsh looking for Yuma, Mexican free-tailed, and big brown bats. No, they’re not blind, won’t get caught in your hair, or suck your blood. But sign up now for one of the summer walks, because they fill up quickly. Bat hike information and reservations are online only.  seaandsageaudubon.org

7. Astronomy Night – Orange County Stars
Monthly astronomy nights are held in a quiet canyon east of San Juan Capistrano at the Richard and Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy. Private and accessible only on guided tours, it’s one of the few county spots where light pollution subsides, creating clear views of celestial objects in the night sky. Astronomy experts with quality telescopes guide you around stars, planets, constellations, and the International Space Station. Reservations, directions, and more information:  rmvreserve.org

photograph by Priscilla Iezzi

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.

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