orange county hiking

For the longest time I did not understand hiking. What was the big deal? Put on a pair of shoes with slightly more tread than your flip-flops, grab a bottle of water and walk out the door.

My bias probably originated with my first hike. Switzerland, a long time ago. A typical school field trip involved rising at the crack of dawn and heading straight for the base of your stereotypical Alp. We held hands, boy-girl-boygirl—a Noah’s ark of 9-year-olds. Uninitiated Americans that we were, my mom bought me leather hiking boots just days beforehand, so I have retained a singular memory of this undoubtedly spectacular day: blisters. I don’t think my heels recovered until I got to fifth grade.

Soon after moving to Orange County, I agreed to join a group of uber-achiever hiking women who hit the trails weekly for a cardio gabfest. They carried poles, daypacks and reusable water carriers and wore proper trail shoes. I scoffed, until I got to the top.

The paraphernalia actually made sense, and soon I was decked out like the rest of them. But beyond fashion and function, I fell in love with the extraordinary sense of accomplishment upon reaching a summit, and upon completing a trek. In between, arms pumped, legs churned, hearts thumped. Conversations turned staccato as we rationed our physical output.

Hiking, as it turns out, has a lot to offer, especially when Crystal Cove Alliance, the Laguna Canyon Foundation and the Irvine Ranch Conservancy work to keep our open spaces open.


Crystal Cove State Park maintains a network of trails to suit all ability levels. With plentiful parking (for a fee), it’s a breeze to set off on one of my favorites: El Moro Canyon Trail to Moro Ridge. A round trip clocks in at four miles, but the trail’s sometimes challenging grades can make it feel like a longer hike than one of similar distance, such as Dartmoor.

The best parts of El Moro are the cut-across and final climb, both of which come into play during the second half of the hike. Once you’ve come up B.F.I. from El Moro Canyon (take a right just past the wooden bridge) and continue along Moro Ridge, watch for a trail marker indicating the E-Cut Across. This delightful descent is a breath of fresh air, even when there is no breeze whatsoever. Gentle turns take hikers down into a lush, shaded canyon.

If you’ve had enough, complete the loop by heading back to the parking lot along El Moro Canyon Trail. Diehards can take a quick jog to the right that leads to Poles, named for the telephone poles lining it bottom to top. This narrow, steep trek will cut the liveliest of conversations short, as it demands every ounce of energy to reach the top. But, once there, what relief! What elation! I find myself cheering every time, even as I gasp for breath. While a cool-down stroll along No Dogs is all that stands between you and the finish line, the benefits of the hike, physically, mentally and spiritually, are sure to nourish you for hours to come.

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orange county hikingBOMMER CANYON

The Irvine Open Space Preserve’s Bommer Canyon greets hikers with big-sky vistas and a potpourri of wetlands, oak woodlands, grasslands and coastal sage scrub scattered across wide-open savannahs that rise gracefully to the ridge beyond. Bommer Canyon fits into the family friendly hiking category. Its groomed trails, meadows and abundant signage leave nothing to chance; no matter which trail you choose, simply do an about-face and you’ll end up right where you started.

Access the trailhead from Shady Canyon Drive and set off on the Bommer Meadow trail, following signs to Bommer Pass and, eventually, West Fork. Just when you think you’ll never see a hill, the track narrows, the grooming fades away, and you are enveloped in the lovely, leafy silence of nature. For those who wonder why we hike, this trail is a gentle and memorable answer.

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DARTMOOR orange county hiking

Along the upper ridge of north Laguna Beach is a trailhead named Dartmoor. Its shady, treed entrance has regulars, even as they don their hats and rub in the sunscreen, thankful for the cool morning air.

Considered a moderate hike, Dartmoor begins with a warm-up along Spur Ridge, a broad, gravelly path that increases in pitch to a challenging but relatively short climb. Views are all about the ocean, which twinkles and glistens as it laps against the curvature of Laguna’s main beach.

The top of the ridge presents a hiker’s choice: Turn sharply left and make your way westward to a lookout point that offers sweeping views of the town, the sea and, if your timing is right, the setting sun. A bench fairly begs for company, and company usually begs for the bench. A cold drink and a bag of trail mix wouldn’t be the worst idea.

If, however, you’ve just gotten warmed up, hang a right and head north. Almost four miles round trip, this trail meanders through some of the last remaining coastal canyons of Southern California. At the end, hikers can turn and head back, gaining an entirely new perspective in this southerly direction, or they can proceed to Water Tank Trail, which drops into residential Laguna Beach several blocks to the south.

No matter which way you turn, the heady sensation of taking in 360 degrees of simple and natural beauty will have you coming back for more as soon as humanly possible.

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  • Images of Crystal Cove from Southern California Coastal Mountains to the Sea book. Stoecklein 2011.

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