10 Great Hikes

Waterfalls and wildflowers, abandoned mines and dripping caves, hot springs and giant turtles.


Cleveland National Forest
It’s long, it’s a climb, it hurts your feet, but it has amazing two-county views and loads of flowers. It’s worth it. Take Trabuco Canyon Trail through the woods with alder and large bay trees releasing their distinctive culinary fragrance. At almost half a mile, the woods give way to a dry, rocky area where you’ll see the first of many flowers. You’ll find an abandoned mine entrance on the left after a mile. About half a mile beyond that, Trabuco forks right; go left on West Horsethief Trail. You’ll ascend along switchbacks, the sweat of perpetual climbing softened in late winter and early spring by the scent of manzanita and wild blue lilac. You’ll begin seeing conifers; soon after, you’ll reach wide North Main Divide. Turn right and enjoy the views—the hills of Trabuco Canyon to the west, and two lakes to the east, Mathews and Elsinore, as well as occasionally snow-capped Mounts San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. After 2½ miles on the divide, turn right onto poorly marked Trabuco Canyon Trail and head downhill through woods and more flowers. The path eventually opens up. You’ll cross a stone-littered creek. When you rejoin West Horsethief, turn left to stay on Trabuco Canyon Trail and you’ll be rewarded with shade on the slightly downhill soft path back to your car.

Distance 10 miles  Elevation gain 2,200 feet  Difficulty Strenuous  Best time February to July  Need to know Requires a Forest Adventure Pass ($5), sold at chain sporting goods stores, including REI. The trail calls for boots or good shoes. A high-clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicle is a help. Pass the parking area for Holy Jim Canyon; then continue for 1 mile. Dogs must be on leash.

Rose Canyon Cantina & Grill, just a block from the entrance to Trabuco Creek Road, has a giant deck and a Mexican combo-plate menu. Dinner Tuesday through Friday; lunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday. 20722 Rose Canyon Road, Trabuco Canyon, 949-766-6939, rosecanyoncantina.com

Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park
Caspers Wilderness Park’s hot springs were a thriving tourist draw in the 1800s and the 1980s; these days it takes a 14-mile out-and-back hike to enjoy the sight and sulphurous smell—bathing is prohibited—of  the 122-degree bubbling pools. This trek takes you to some remote spots in mountain lion country; bring a companion. From May through July, the route is scattered with extraterrestrial-looking Indian milkweed and colorful cactus blossoms. Walk beneath the oaks of Juaneño Trail, with its creek crossings and dramatic bluffs, until the path ends after nearly 3½ miles. Follow your map to continue left on San Juan Creek Trail, then up Oso Trail and right on Cold Spring Canyon Trail. Here, you’ll find unfolding mountain vistas and utter quiet. Descend to the canyon floor, a seldom-visited spot where you’re almost certain to find no other hikers. Enjoy the silence. Where Cold Spring ends, turn left onto San Juan Creek Trail, climbing a short, steep slope. About 700 feet farther along, you’ll notice non-native date palms downhill to your right. Turn right along the faint trail toward the palms and you’ll quickly come to the first of many pools of steaming water.

Distance 14 miles  Elevation gain 1,000 feet  Difficulty Strenuous  Best time May through July  Need to know Park for the Juaneño trailhead in the San Juan Meadow camping area.$3 parking weekdays, $5 weekends. Pick up a trail map at the kiosk. No dogs.

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
This hike has ocean vistas, fossils, a visible earthquake fault, Ghost Rock, and, after heavy rains, a waterfall. Pick up a trail map at the kiosk; hike the loop in reverse so you get the climb out of the way, then enjoy the woods and creek. Take the wide dirt road, which climbs steeply at first. At 1½ miles, take the first trail to the right, Laurel Spur (or climb another 500 feet to Bommer Ridge for an eyeful of rolling hills and ocean, and return). Head downhill and then turn right onto Lower Laurel Canyon, into the dappled shade of oak woodland. You’ll reach a flat rock area, where a stream feeds an ephemeral waterfall more than 50 feet high to your right. Continue to the bottom of the hill, and at the first creek crossing, look for the end of a tube-shaped rock dotted with dark-gray scallop fossils, at least 5 million years old. Continue across the creek and hunt for tiny frogs at two more creek crossings. Emerge from the woods, look across the meadow to your left for Ghost Rock, above, a rounded outcrop that looks like a giant face sticking out its tongue. At the end of the meadow, begin a short ascent; the big step in the rock is an earthquake fault. You’ll pass a small cave before returning to the kiosk.

Distance 3.5 miles  Elevation gain 600 feet  Difficulty Moderate  Best time Late winter, early spring  Need to know Willow parking area ($3). Bring the exact sum or a credit card. No dogs. Trail maps on site. 

Cleveland National Forest
Working your way up a clear, cool stream in a steep-walled canyon populated by frogs and newts, you’d never imagine you were in Orange County. This spot, my favorite in the county for more than 20 years, was damaged by the 2007 Santiago Fire and subsequent landslides, but it still provides a gorgeous, almost mystical escape. The goal is Harding Falls, left, about 5¼ miles out, but you can also turn around at the halfway point, when you reach some cool, clear pools for a good dunking. Ascend Harding Road, a dirt truck trail, for almost half a mile, then turn left, downhill, into Harding Canyon. Turn right at the bottom and follow the creek upstream. In spring you’ll find vivid yellow, purple, and white flowers, all of them fire followers—plants that thrive in the afermath of a fire. As you head deeper into the canyon, you’ll climb rocks next to tall cascades, or just splash your way through the creek. In late spring, look for orange California newts in the water, and tiny, well-camouflaged tree frogs on the rocks. Eventually, the canyon walls narrow, creating a sense of utter remoteness, and turn sharply left in an area of tall bay laurels. Before landslides buried them, there were seven crystal-clear pools full of trout beyond this point. Take a refreshing dip in one of the remaining good-sized pools and head back, or hike a couple more miles to the two-tiered falls.

Distance 5.4 to 10.4 miles  Elevation gain 900 feet  Difficulty Moderately strenuous; the creek makes for slow going  Best time December to June  Need to know Waterproof hiking boots and light, quick-drying long pants make this hike more comfortable. Dogs must be leashed, but are discouraged because of abundant poison oak and sensitive habitat. Street parking. Trailhead is behind the sanctuary.

An old-fashioned diner, Silverado Café, located a few miles north on Silverado Canyon Road, is perfect for breakfast before hiking Harding Canyon, Modjeska Grade Road or Black Star Canyon. 28272 Silverado Canyon Road, Silverado, 714-649-2622


Getting Started
Not an experienced hiker? Here are some trails suited to beginners. 

5. Seeing Starfish
There’s a lot more to Crystal Cove than a summer swim, as you’ll find on this 4-mile tide pool walk. Park in the Los Trancos lot and cross the highway. Pick up the paved path heading north through the scrub. Continue down to Treasure Cove. Take in the strangely contorted rock cliffs and the cave, and hunt for—but don’t touch—crabs, anemones, and starfish. Head south among historical beachfront cottages for more tide-pooling and notice striking concretions—rock formations that resemble spaceships. Head up the road through a pedestrian tunnel and up the walkway that leads back to your car. $15 parking; no dogs allowed on beach. Crystal Cove State Park, 871 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. 949-494-3539, crystalcovestatepark.com

6. Take the Kids
At the Oak Canyon Nature Center, Road-runner Ridge-Bluebird Loop is a 2-mile hike that’s great for young children. In spring, this gem gives an eye-popping floral payoff and it has a fun interpretive center. Start on the Heritage Trail and follow the paved loop to reach Roadrunner Ridge. A gentle climb takes you to the upper part of the canyon’s south wall, which is usually covered with bright wildflowers from March to May. Head straight, until Roadrunner ends, then pick up Bluebird Loop to return. $2 per person. No dogs. Oak Canyon Nature Center, 6700 E. Walnut Canyon Road, Anaheim, 714-998-8380, anaheim.net

7. Tropical Turtles
In the tamed waters of the channeled San Gabriel River lives a year-round colony of endangered green sea turtles, tropical creatures far from their native home. No one knows how the turtles, which can grow to 5 feet in diameter, got here, but the warm water from the nearby power-generating plants appears to be why they stay. Head north along the San Gabriel River’s paved bike path to start your 3-mile hike. Pass under Second Street and look for roiling water; that’s where you’re most likely to spy the flippers or backs of the turtles. No fee. Dogs must be leashed. Binoculars recommended. Pacific Coast Highway and First Street, Seal Beach, turn right on Marina Drive into the parking lot. 

8. Four-Story Falls
Falls Canyon in the Cleveland National Forest is home to a year-round waterfall that, at 40 feet, is more than twice as high as better-known Holy Jim Falls—and you can reach it in less than half a mile. In autumn, when most other hikes are brown and hot, Falls Canyon is cool, colorful, and shaded. Slip down 30 feet from the road to the creek below. A trail on the opposite side leads to a small cascade, the entry to Falls Canyon. Head upstream. Scramble over a 10-foot rock outcrop, cross the creek several times, and you’ll soon pass under an archway of wild grape. The waterfall is 100 feet beyond. Forest Adventure Pass required for parking. Trabuco Creek Road, three miles east of Trabuco Canyon Road, fs.usda.gov/detail/cleveland



Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park
This little-known entrance to Aliso-Wood quickly lands you in a rustic oak woodland with a rare year-round creek. Loop back on your return from any side trail to the main trail to shorten the hike, or go the full six miles. The goal is Dripping Cave. Walk through Canyon View Park into the wilderness park. As you head through Wood Canyon, opt for the more interesting side trails—Wood Creek and Coyote Run—that track parallel to the main Wood Canyon Trail and scan tree bases for wood-rat “houses,” simple mounds of sticks that contain rooms, each with a particular useWhen you return to Wood Canyon Trail, turn right and walk for a quarter of a mile and turn again onto the poorly marked path to Dripping Cave, whose rock overhang drips in the rainy season. Tucked in a steep ravine, it’s also known as Robbers Cave. Retrace your steps to a fork, then turn left onto remote-feeling Dripping Springs Trail. You’ll pass an old oak whose roots intertwine with rock, and through an archway of willow before reaching Mathis Trail. Turn right to return to Wood Canyon Trail, then turn left and stay on the main trail to return, passing an old corral from ranching days.

Distance 2.4 to 6 miles  Elevation gain 300 feet  Difficulty Easy to moderate  Best time Year-round  Need to know No entrance fee. Free street parking. No dogs.

Comfy, overstuffed seats and a range of coffee drinks at The Neighborhood Cup get you hyped for the hike to Dripping Cave in Wood Canyon about a mile away. 1 Journey, Aliso Viejo, 949-716-5100, theneighborhoodcup.com Closed

Cleveland National Forest
Walk into Orange County history, from millions-of-years-old marine fossils to 19th century mines and the nesting place of the county’s once-common California condors. The goal is a scenic meadow called Old Camp, but that’s a 15-mile out-and-back trip. You can catch most of the great sights, including the seasonall waterfall, in a little more than half that distance. Begin a long, gradual climb along the dirt road. Views are expansive but suburban at first, more inspiring as you progress. (Watch for heavy bike traffic.) Just beyond half a mile, look to your left at ground level for a rock laden with fossil shells; hunt for more from this point on. Two-and-a-half miles later, you’ll pass Vulture Crags, an eerie outcropping where California condors roosted until nearly a century ago. You won’t see the crags here, but a little farther, turn around for a full view. Soon after, round a hairpin left turn and pass two shallow mine openings. Then you’ll come to a promontory overlooking the canyon; walk out for a look. After heavy rains, you should spot a waterfall on the other side of the canyon. To the right, toward the base of another side canyon, you’ll see the large rectangular opening to another mine. Turn around at this point, or continue about 3¼ miles to Old Camp. From there, adventurers can find trail access to the canyon floor and mining artifacts, but expect heavy bushwhacking and loads of poison oak. Old mines are fascinating but a perpetual hazard; do not enter.

Distance 7.8 to 15 miles  Elevation gain 1,300 feet  Difficulty Moderately strenuous to strenuous  Best time December to May  Need to know No entrance fee. Street parking only, large stretches marked as no parking. Dogs must be leashed. Collecting fossils or mining artifacts is prohibited.

To read the full story, or order a print or digital copy of the October 2012 issue, click here.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine. 

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