We started our fitness hike as a small pack of about 30 men and women gathered under a highway overpass in the Santa Ana Mountains. Some were clearly regulars, but all were welcoming and chatty. After slathering on sunscreen and checking our water supplies, our group set off together just as the morning haze started to burn off.
But after about five minutes into our gradual ascent up Hicks Haul Road—located east of Irvine at the end of Jeffrey Road near the 241 Toll Road-—we watched most of our new friends gradually disappear ahead of us. One woman took off at a sprint.
“I always thought we kept up a good hiking pace,” said Ellen, my local walking pal who came with me to test out this fitness hike sponsored by The Irvine Ranch® Conservancy, a non-profit group that helps manage nearly 50,000 acres of permanently protected wilderness areas in south Orange County.
We brushed off our egos and stepped up our gait. The goal was to complete the 8-mile hike up to the top of Loma Ridge at about 800 feet elevation, and back, even though we had the option to shorten our there-and-back distance to three or six miles. The entire hike followed a paved rural road that wound through a scenic sandstone canyon, past stands of craggy oak trees and clumps of prickly pear cactus. We even passed a sign marking a pair of nesting red-tailed hawks up on a cliff.
“When you are looking at all the amazing scenery, you can go farther than you think.”
At first, we thought we would opt for the shorter 3-mile hike, but before we knew it we had almost reached the end of the road. “When you are looking at all the amazing scenery, you can go farther than you think,” Ellen said, stop-ping under the shade of an elderberry tree to rest her bum knee. “The point is, even if you are not ultra fit you can still enjoy the hike and get some great exercise.”
Led by Conservancy Docents, this weekly hike was one of hundreds of outdoor activities that residents and visitors in Orange County enjoy every year. Everything from bird walks to sunset yoga to full moon hikes are conducted in the historic Irvine Ranch, county and state parks and other open spaces. Some hikes lead into Limestone Canyon, which has been described as a small-scale Grand Canyon because of its dramatic sandstone features.
All are open to the public, most are free, but registration is required ahead of time. Our hike was billed for experienced hikers who could maintain a steady walking pace. But the Conservancy offers many other types of hikes and walks, including ones geared for families, seniors and children.
The inland trails can get pretty toasty in the fall, so most hikers usually start early in the morning, or opt for trails closer to the ocean. Some of the best options that feature ocean views and breezes are directly to the north and south of Pelican Hill.® One of the locals’ favorites is Crystal Cove State Park to the south, where 17 miles of trail loop through the coastal hills, up along the ridgeline and through riparian woodlands with oak and sycamore trees in the canyons.
Just a short drive north is another hiking-biking-running trail called the Back Bay Loop Trail, which rings the picturesque Newport Back Bay. Visitors can watch sea birds and other wildlife in the vibrant wetland inlet, as well as explore several points of interest, including an interpretive nature center and a new science center.
No matter where you set off for your next fitness venture, chances are the gorgeous scenery in these protected local wild lands will help you move faster and farther than you expected.
For details on hikes and other activities sponsored by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, visit letsgooutside.org. Also, check out crystalcovestatepark.com or newportbay.org for hikes and outdoor activities available nearby.