always loved biking as a kid. It didn’t matter whether I was on a paved road or a dirt path. My friends and I would race off to what in my pre-driver’s license world seemed like far-away places, where every curve along the way had the potential to reveal a thrilling secret. And then we started driving. In an instant those 30-minute adventures turned into 10-minute dashes with a thick pane of glass between us and the great outdoors.
I was reminded of how much I miss those days when, on a recent hike in El Moro Canyon, a couple of mountain bikers, whooping it up, sped by me. Their carefree joy took me back and ignited an interest in mountain biking. I had some learning to do before pedaling off into the wild so I contacted Brian Wisely, a mountain biking expert and owner of The Well Fitness in Laguna Beach. Although I’ve always known that Orange County boasts an outstanding network of hiking trails, Brian showed me that the mountain biking map is every bit as impressive.
“I’ve ridden Utah, Hawaii, Arizona, Mexico and Nevada, and I can tell you that the mountain biking along Newport Coast is world class,” says Wisely. “Add to that our year-round good weather, and it’s pretty hard to beat.”
Taking pity on this would-be mountain biker, Wisely drew on his local knowledge and personal experience and plotted out three routes (beginner, intermediate and expert) that are not only among the best in the O.C., but some of the best he’s ridden.
Shady Canyon Trail Bikeway
Distance: Approximately 3 mi. | Elevation: 213 ft. of gradual gain | Skill/Fitness Level: Beginner to advanced beginner
“This is a great ride for beginners that also works well with groups or kids,” says Wisely. “It’s an out-and-back trail with a choice of decomposed granite or tarmac surfaces. If you get tired from the ride out on the decomposed granite, the tarmac offers an easier ride because it’s more stable and offers less resistance.”
Begin your ride in Irvine at Turtle Rock Community Park at the corner of Shady Canyon Drive and Sunnyhill, or at the Bommer Canyon parking lot across the street. Wisely suggests that beginners ride the rolling hills out about 1½ miles and then turn around at the Shady Canyon Community gate and return to the starting point. For those who want a little more of a challenge, continue past the gate on the community trail and on down to Quail Hill.
El Moro Canyon through Crystal Cove backcountry
Distance: Approximately 10¼ mi. | Elevation: 1315 ft. of gain | Skill/Fitness Level: Intermediate
“This ride strings together multiple trails that vary in elevation and demand both low-level and more advanced technical skills,” says Wisely. “In addition to the great workout, the ride ends with a picture-postcard view of the coastline that makes it all worthwhile.”
Begin from the El Moro parking lot in Crystal Cove State Park, and head up El Moro Canyon Trail, a fire road that makes for a good warmup. After you cross the small bridge, continue for a mile, give or take, to East Cut Across Trail, affectionately nicknamed “I Think I Can.” This is the main climb of the ride and is a double-digit grade most of the way. Wisely’s insider tip: Hug the right side of the trail to avoid gravel and downhill traffic.
After riding a little over a mile along “I Think I Can,” take the left fork and join Moro Ridge Trail. This is another fire road, with more climbing, that leads to the back of Crystal Cove State Park near the 73 toll road. After approximately 1¾ miles, take a left onto Missing Link Trail.
“Think of Missing Link as the reward for all the climbing you’ve done,” says Wisely. “This is a fun, serpentine single track requiring intermediate technical skill. You’ll zip down it, and enjoy the speed.”
After a half mile, cross El Moro Canyon Trail and continue onto another fun single track called Fence Line, which you’ll ride for another half mile. When the trail empties out onto Red Tail Ridge, turn right to pass through the gate and take an immediate right onto Bommer Ridge Road. This is the turn-back point for the full loop.
After 1 miles of the return trip, turn right and pass through the gate onto Moro Ridge Trail and enjoy mostly downhill riding past “I Think I Can” trail. From there, continue to BFI Trail and feast your eyes on an amazing view of the coastline, Emerald Bay, Irvine Cove and Crystal Cove. At the bottom of BFI, you’ll turn left onto El Moro Canyon Trail and make your way back to the parking lot.
Newport Coast, Ridge Park Cul-de-sac to Emerald Bay Fence
Distance: Approximately 14 mi. | Elevation: 2000 ft. of gain with steep portions | Skill/Fitness Level: Advanced and strenuous
“The fun comes first and the work comes second on this ride,” warns Wisely. “This is an out-and-back route that begins with a downhill ride.”
From the Ridge Park Road cul-de-sac, start down Bommer Ridge Road as it parallels the 73 toll road. Continue to the Emerald Canyon trail, which begins as a fire road and transforms into a great single track that winds through Emerald Canyon. Don’t miss the beautiful old-growth coastal chaparral, two bridge crossings and the feeling of being cocooned in a wooded paradise. “For a seasoned mountain biker it’s better than a roller coaster,” says Wisely.
After reaching the fence at Emerald Bay, turn around and follow the same route back. The Emerald Bay climb requires a high level of fitness and includes some very steep and technical sections. After you reach the top of the hill, get ready to climb again to make it back up Bommer Ridge Trail to Ridge Park Road.
Regardless of the degree of difficulty, every one of the biking trails in and around Newport Coast can be fodder for an unforgettable experience. For me, riding these trails doesn’t just create new memories; it takes me straight back to my boyhood, when a bicycle ride among friends was a true adventure. And although my world view has grown much broader since then, the idea of a bike ride with friends still leads me to wonder what I might discover when I round the next bend.