Forget the gym; Laguna’s landscape offers a wealth of alternatives for getting in shape.
By Brett Callahan
Fitness in Laguna Beach is centered on experimentation. Every day, more and more locals and visitors alike choose to expand their horizons by replacing the mundane hypnosis of a treadmill with a trail in Laguna Canyon, substituting indoor cardio routines for a paddle in the surf and ditching the “cool down” period for a post-workout stroll on our 7 miles of coastline. Laguna provides one of the world’s premier outdoor playing fields, and we’ll gladly take full advantage of its offerings.
“Nature has the power to transform and heal,” says Billy Fried, the self-appointed “chief paddling officer” at La Vida Laguna, a company that organizes outdoor activities. “The air oxygenates your blood, the sun gives vitamin D, salt from the ocean is cleansing and the earth provides negative ions, which create alkalization. If that’s too technical, you also get an eyeball massage.”
The metaphysical benefits described by Billy are made possible by Laguna’s spectacular landscape and seemingly endless supply of near-perfect weather. As he adds, “Where else can you find world-class biking, hiking and water sports available year-round?”
The Rambler’s Route
Few workouts offer payoffs as immediate as the one gleaned from hiking the web of trails that weave across the Laguna Canyon wilderness. Trekking the hills and dusty paths can be a taxing undertaking, but it’s the surrounding elements that promote health nearly as much as the charging movements of the leg and gluteal muscles needed to scale the area.
“When you’re out in the wilderness parks and on the trails, you’re not just exercising your body,” says Hallie Jones, executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation. “The smell of the coastal sage, the glimpse[s] of birds, coyotes and bobcats—all of those things combine to remind us of our place in the greater world. … It’s more than just a workout.”
If those benefits aren’t rewards enough, just remember that climbing the steep ascents typically results in priceless views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding coastal towns.
According to Hallie, the most popular local trail is the 3.5-mile Laurel Canyon Loop near the Willow Canyon parking lot. Those in search of a less advanced route can park closer to the James Dilley Preserve, near the intersection of Laguna Canyon Road and state Route 73, then head out to the 2.7-mile Barbara’s Lake Loop. For an educational experience, stop by the James and Rosemary Nix Nature Center near the trail at Little Sycamore Canyon, which offers both 1-mile and 5-mile climbs. Hallie adds that she favors the scenic Dartmoor Trail, located at the top of Dartmoor Street in north Laguna.
Severiano Sanchez, a master’s degree candidate in public health and outdoor exercise and a contributor to the Laguna Canyon Foundation, adds that the holistic experience of connecting with nature and its associated health benefits is something that no gym or boot camp can come close to matching.
“Outdoor exercise is proven to reduce stress, anxiety and blood pressure while increasing self-esteem, cardio capacity and strength,” he explains. “Controlling these factors reduces your risk of developing chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.”
For a more aggressive thigh-burning activity off the trails, athletes can head to the legendary staircase at Thousand Steps Beach (which actually only includes about 232 steps) and take to conquering the task as if they’re running bleachers in a stadium. A dip in the ocean is a customary finale to celebrate completing the challenge.
While hiking those trails and wilderness parks, don’t be surprised to hear calls of “on your right!” as off-road bikers glide into the sunset with blissful grins on their faces. Hiking’s more extreme outdoor cousin, off-road mountain biking, presents riders with the same environmental eye candy, in addition to the added benefit of an adrenaline rush that remains unequaled by other activities. It also serves as the quickest way to explore Laguna’s landscape.
“Biking is a unique workout because it’s great cardio and also exhilarating,” Billy remarks. “Laguna has tremendous technical terrain, [which] makes it fun and adrenaline-filled, not to mention beautiful.”
The Dartmoor Trail is one of Billy’s top recommendations for those looking to strike out on their own because of its easy access, varied landscape and unparalleled views. The Car Wreck Trail inside Top of the World Park offers a convenient entry point to the route, or bikers can head in from Laguna Coast Wilderness Park off of Laguna Canyon Road.
“Make sure you check out the trail first, as many of our local trails aren’t open to bikes,” Hallie advises. “Also, please follow good biking etiquette, as we want to make sure these trails stay open for all of us to use in years to come.”
Outdoor companies like La Vida Laguna offer both bike and equipment rentals. For a multidimensional experience, sign up for a guided excursion like La Vida Laguna’s two-hour Back Roads Laguna Eco Bike Tour, which begins in downtown Laguna and introduces riders to local sustainability projects. Along the way, the 21-speed mountain bike tour passes through Bluebird Canyon, the Dartmoor and Crescent Bay lookout points, Heisler Park, historical Pyne Castle and other nearby hot spots.
Whether on a guided tour or a solo adventure, strenuously pumping gears will allow riders to work up the kind of sweat that can’t be duplicated by most other outdoor activities.
“Exercises like mountain biking will help you build more strength and burn more fat because you are working with resistance and using most of your body,” says Ryan Kollock, owner and founder of Code Green Fitness, a local personal training service.
Over the past decade, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) has become known as one of the fastest growing water sports in coastal cities; in Laguna, however, it’s a downright institution. Whether cutting through challenging swells or learning to balance in calmer waters, participants can rest assured that SUP provides unique physical benefits for a variety of bodily systems and muscle groups.
“One of the biggest advantages of paddleboarding is the ability to utilize all muscles,” says Taylor Chaput, owner of Laguna-based company Paddle Board Bliss. “From your head to your toes, everything is engaged on the water without even realizing it. Just balancing on the board requires an engaged core at all times. Proper paddle technique generates power from the arms, upper back, lats and, most of all, the core and obliques.”
Taylor adds that Fisherman’s Cove is a prime introductory spot for novices, as it’s protected from open water and gives amateur paddlers the opportunity to glimpse a California sea lion or two in their natural habitat. Just below Montage Laguna Beach, meanwhile, Goff Cove offers another friendly launch spot for beginners.
Paddle Board Bliss instructors also take many of their paddlers out to kelp forests, which provide the flat surfaces and calm waters necessary for paddle yoga. Using the same paddleboards as one would for SUP, the guided groups are able to enjoy yoga sessions atop the gently pulsing surf.
“It cultivates an awareness of the present moment, and it’s a workout without feeling like a workout because you’re having fun, relaxing and enjoying nature,” Taylor explains. “I’ve never had that feeling on a treadmill.”
The myriad opportunities associated with paddleboarding make the activity one of the most versatile water sports for any athlete to experience. Locally, Paddle Board Bliss and La Vida Laguna offer multiple SUP classes, and both welcome participants of all skill levels.
Although stand-up paddleboarding may have arrived on the scene only within the past decade, a more traditional water sport has been providing outdoorsmen with the chance to experience complex marine life and open-air workouts for thousands of years. Kayaking, first developed by Eskimo people to aid in hunting, is now one of the best ways to experience firsthand the many protected coves along Laguna’s northern coast.
Just like paddleboarders, many kayakers opt to push out from Fisherman’s Cove. Accordingly, groups like Billy’s team offer rental equipment and daily tours for both solo and tandem riders.
“We get extra calm, clear water enabling us to see straight to the bottom, where there are garibaldi, starfish and colorful sea urchin,” Billy says. “Plus, Seal Rock [off the shore of Crescent Bay] is always a highlight.”
Kayakers have nearby Catalina Island to thank for the placid waters, as the island acts as a natural barrier for oncoming winds. This allows voyagers of all abilities to cruise as closely as possible to reefs, private beaches, tide pools and kelp forests with natural ease.
“We take a lot of people out who have never been on the ocean and are scared out of their wits with all kinds of irrational fears,” Billy adds. “Once we get them out on the water and they relax, they are overcome with serenity and well-being. Plus, it’s a thrill when they see sea lions, and perhaps even dolphins and whales in their natural habitat.”
Utilizing mainly the upper body and core to steer, athletes can consider the seated activity something of a respite from the intensive lower-body workouts endured on the trails. LBM