s a hiking guide, I’m fortunate to have explored some of the most epic trails in the world. When I moved to Orange County, great hiking wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. But as I got to know my new backyard, I realized that it is a hiker’s paradise. You get a little bit of everything here: mountains, desert, rolling hills and hidden waterfalls. The three hikes I describe here, all rites of passage for locals, showcase the best of the OC for fresh-air enthusiasts looking to go outside and play.
If you’re envisioning views, an ocean breeze and a glimpse of unblemished coastline, this Crystal Cove hike is for you. The one-way, 2-miler starts in Coastal Peak Park, which is perched next to Signal Peak, the highest point on the Orange County coastline. Snap pics of Mt. Baldy and its neighbors to the north even as you pass through the Ridge Park trail entrance and make a right onto No Name Ridge Trail.
The trail immediately treats you to expansive vistas, the glistening Pacific contrasting with the lush green of the park. One can usually spot Catalina Island and, on a crisp day, remote San Clemente Island, 60 miles off the coast.
After a time, you’ll leave Laguna Coast Wilderness Park behind and pass through a gate into Crystal Cove State Park. Both parks are less than 50 years old, and crews have been working to restore the native and rare coastal scrub habitat. Glancing into lush Moro Canyon, it’s easy to imagine how the Tongva people thrived here, living off plants, seeds, small game and fish. Keep an eye out for roadrunners and desert quail; their forbears were likely around for the original inhabitants to enjoy.
As the trail meanders down toward the beach and the sea breeze picks up, hikers approach the end of the hike and land at the Crystal Cove visitor center. Check out the interpretive displays before making your way to the beach by continuing to the Moro Canyon parking area, walking through the tunnel and heading north for 30 minutes to the steps down to Crystal Cove.
For more information visit crystalcovestatepark.org/hiking-2/.
Black Star Canyon
Black Star Canyon is a must-do for Orange County locals. Although at seven miles it can’t be called short, the trail is manageable and rewards hikers with a wondrous waterfall hidden deep in the backwoods of Irvine Ranch Open Space and recognized as a natural landmark by the state and federal governments.
The area’s checkered past attracts not just hikers but history buffs and thrill-seekers. In 1831, newly arrived fur trappers massacred members of the Tongva, one of the most powerful indigenous peoples to inhabit Southern California. Sixty years later, the site was marked by more bloodshed as homesteaders battled for the land. Add abandoned mineshafts from the Black Star Coal Mining Company and rumors of Tongva ghosts and you have a perfect recipe for a haunted hike.
The first half of the expedition is a gentle stroll on primitive dirt roads that hearken back to the days of early settlers and homesteaders. As you follow signs to the falls, the trail meanders beneath oaks and over rippling streams.
At about 2 ½ miles, a trail marker points hikers toward Black Star Creek, where the path follows a lush streambed and climbs upward. The trail and the creek become one, with a generous share of rock hopping and boulder climbing involved. Don’t let that scare you— hikers of all ages, canine and human, make the pilgrimage every day.
After a short climb up the final boulder, a cool dampness settles on the skin and the falls of Black Star Creek spill some 50 feet down the sheer cliff into a natural pool. Surrounding boulders provide front row seats to the natural wonder before your eyes. If you happen to be here on Halloween, expect lots of company. Otherwise, you’ll be sharing the space with salamanders, frogs, the odd mule deer and a smattering of fellow explorers. Once you’ve recharged and had your fill of the view, the sounds and the mist, retrace your steps to return to the starting point.
The Orange County skyline is dominated by Santiago Peak, the higher-altitude half of what we call Saddleback Mountain. The peak’s prominence and omnipresence make it a popular destination for hikers seeking a challenge. It’s no easy feat: At 15 miles round-trip and 4,000 feet of elevation gain, Santiago promises a tough but highly rewarding experience. Luckily, the well-marked trails are accessible to any hiker with a decent level of fitness.
The Holy Jim Trail takes you almost to the summit, with dramatic scenery changes along the way. The start winds past cabins that were once home to early mountain men who made their living off beekeeping and bear trapping (for the furs). The last grizzly seen in Southern California met his end here in 1908.
Eventually, hikers begin to ascend the slopes of Cleveland National Forest, with switchbacks and metal mile markers supplying progress reports. Once past Main Divide Road, the Upper Holy Jim Trail offers panoramic views of the high mountains to the east. When at last you reach the summit, you’ll find the peak marker, the best views in Orange County and a well-deserved selfie waiting. Note that a parking pass is required for the Cleveland National Forest.
For more information on the hike and logistics, visit hikingguy.com/santiago-peak.