Nestled in Laguna Canyon, miles of paths await exploration by hikers, bikers and equestrians of all ages and expertise.
By Karlee Prazak | Photos by Jenn Prewitt
In a county that’s home to more than 3 million residents, successful businesses and world-class beaches, it’s often easy to overlook the expansive open space in our own backyards, metaphorically speaking, of course. But, in the space between Laguna Beach and surrounding cities, there are 20,000 acres of land—indigenous Southern California habitat—filled with 42 miles of multiuse trails that welcome hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding to the tune of 300,000 visitors annually, according to Laguna Canyon Foundation Executive Director Hallie Jones.
These trails are the product of efforts in the early 1990s to preserve and protect nature’s beauty and stop the development that was threatening the now endangered coastal sage scrub of coveted beachfront locations, Hallie explains. Those efforts led to today’s expansive South Coast Wilderness, an open space network composed of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, Crystal Cove State Park and the city of Irvine Open Space Preserve.
“The community [came] together to save something that was so important in preserving the character of Laguna Beach,” Hallie explains. “[Today,] we are putting incredible amounts of pressure on this land because there are so many people who love it and enjoy using it in such a small amount of time. But the more [people are] out there, the more they love it and the more they want to protect and preserve trails.”
The best way to do so is by using the trails responsibly, which means packing out what supplies you take in, staying on designated trails and respecting—and even volunteering for—maintenance efforts by OC Parks, Laguna Canyon Foundation and Crystal Cove State Park staffs. In the following pages, you will find a guide to five local trails, all with trailheads in Laguna Beach, organized by increasing difficulty and excitement. Distances listed are all round trip.
This combination of two short, flat, well-maintained trails is the perfect recipe for families looking for an afternoon activity unplugged and away from the hustle and bustle. Located in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, this trailhead is based just steps outside the Nix Nature Center—a facility complete with restrooms, water and educational resources like useful maps and friendly rangers.
Mary’s Trail marks the beginning of the adventure with a half-mile loop, weaving in and around the foliage, complete with signs pointing out interesting facts about the surrounding land and resident creatures. Hallie says this interactive component makes for a great beginning hike for families—curious toddlers and stroller-bound babies alike, especially because it is a hiking-only trail.
From Mary’s Trail, break off onto Barbara’s Lake Trail toward the east end of the parking lot. Barbara’s takes you under Laguna Canyon Road via tunnel and onto a lush trail for a quarter-mile until you first catch a glimpse of the crisp waters of Orange County’s only natural lake. Barbara’s Lake’s namesake is late Laguna Canyon nature activist Barbara Stuart Rabinowitsch, who is credited with helping in large part with the aforementioned preservation efforts. This lake was also the hideout for the freedom-loving hippopotamus, Bubbles, who escaped in the late 1970s from the then Irvine-based Lion Country Safari. Bubbles garnered national attention for both her escape and her love of this local lake.
West Ridge Trail
The West Ridge Trail, starting from Alta Laguna Park, is a fantastic out-and-back hike with varying difficulties, also perfect for an intro to mountain biking. The best part, though, is that West Ridge is one of the few trails on which dogs are permitted.
Park by Top of the World and tackle the short distance to the trailhead, or stop at the very top lookout point to see clear from Long Beach to San Diego. From here, it’s 2 miles of rolling hills, featuring intermittent views of the coast, cholla cactus and plenty of shrubbery. This means West Ridge is an exposed trail, so while it’s a great place for a good length hike or ride, it is in direct sunlight, so plan accordingly.
The way out is a mostly steady downhill from 1,036 to 700 feet, which is why 25-year resident and avid mountain biker Michael Hall says West Ridge is a nice beginner ride, but for the advanced rider, it’s mainly a “commuter run” to access more challenging single tracks in Aliso and Wood Canyons. “This is one of the few trails that are fairly flat and are beginner friendly,” Michael explains, adding that this changes once you hit the turnaround point. “[It’s a] long grinding ride back to the top with a few climbs, but, overall, it’s straightforward and nothing dramatic.”
To increase the difficulty, head down Lynx Trail to the short, steep Cholla Trail; from there, head down Wood Creek Trail through a sycamore grove. This meets up with Coyote Run Trail and loops back via the easy Mathis Canyon or steeper Car Wreck trails. This tacks on an extra 1.5 miles, but offers the option of seeing the infamous dated wrecked car. If you choose the most difficult route, you’re looking at going from an elevation of 300 feet to 1,036 feet, so keep that in mind when ambition comes knocking.
Dartmoor Street to Water Tank Trail
Hallie refers to this as the “locals’ hike” for those who are looking for an effective, quick, cardio-blasting workout with views. Note: Tackling this loop requires some urban hiking from Poplar Street back to the car on Dartmoor Street at the end of the adventure.
From the trailhead, it’s an every-man-for-himself, strenuous ascent, just shy of a half-mile to 700-foot elevation. For bikers, once you make it up this initial fire road, which is steep and difficult, but not a technical climb, Michael says the rest of this trail—like most of Laguna—is as difficult as you choose to make it. So this is a good entrance point to the more technical single tracks housed within the canyon.
Either way, as sea level dips farther below, enjoy panoramic ocean views while the trail climbs steadily for another 125 feet. The top marks the ideal spot for a quick rest to look for whales and dolphins swimming along the horizon before meeting up with Water Tank Trail.
Water Tank Trail leads back toward the welcoming ocean waters until it appears to disappear off the side of a cliff. On the way down, keep an eye out for snakes sunning themselves in the warm sun and, before you know it, dirt turns to asphalt. All that is left is one very manageable mile along city streets back to the car.
Emerald Canyon Road
For the first time since a detrimental storm-caused washout in 2010, Emerald Canyon Road is open to the public. Hallie explains that extensive rebuilding efforts went into the trail by the Laguna Canyon Foundation, Irvine Ranch Conservancy and OC Parks staff and volunteers to make this possible. The result is a newly placed 60-foot footbridge near the end of the trail that crosses the washout area. “It’s such a fun and beautiful trail,” she says. “It’s great to allow people back out there to enjoy it again.”
It does take a while to access the beauty of the tree-covered canyon overgrown with lush foliage and bright flowers, which makes up the 3-mile Emerald Canyon Road. To gain access, park in the Willow Canyon Staging Area off Laguna Canyon Road just before El Toro Road. From there, the hike starts with a strenuous 650-foot elevation gain—manageable for both strong bikers and hikers—up Willow Canyon Road. “The climb from the Willow parking lot is strenuous at first, but moderate at best over its remaining length,” Michael advises, from a mountain biker’s perspective.
Willow Canyon meets up with the Bommer Ridge Road for a short connection to Emerald Canyon Road and the beginning of a beautiful descent into the lush canyon. As this is an out-and-back, the end of the trail leads to an inaccessible gate on the edge of Emerald Bay neighborhood, which is somewhat anticlimactic, so the journey is the highlight of this trek. Take the time to observe the small critters scurrying and flying about, or even tackle Old Emerald Falls Trail—a more advanced single track for both hikers and bikers—to catch a glimpse of the waterfall along this trail.
“[Old Emerald Falls] is interesting and active with a lot of turns in the upper portions, but gets a little rocky and sporty toward the bottom,” Michael says. “It’s really pretty straightforward, with no unexpected surprises such as big rocks, drops or hazards.”
Lower Moro Campground
Crystal Cove is the perfect place to take the family for a day hike and explore. But even more so, it provides 2,400 acres teeming with trails, most of which start with a leg-burning, heart-pounding ascent from sea level, maxing out at elevations of 1,000 feet on the ridge. For experienced mountain bikers, Crystal Cove provides several opportunities to hit these mile-plus climbs to the ridge and challenging single tracks down.
For those on foot, ranger Scott Kibbey recommends visiting one of Crystal Cove’s three pack-in backcountry campsites. “It’s moderate to strenuous, pack-in, pack-out, so you have to come prepared,” he explains. “But it’s worth the experience. It’s a good way to be in Laguna, but really get out and into the backcountry while still being in Orange County.”
Each campground offers entirely different atmospheres—Deer Canyon (about 3.5 miles from the ranger station parking lot) is nestled down in the canyon among the oak trees; Upper Moro (roughly 3.5 miles from the lower parking lot) offers expansive views of the Orange County skyline; and Lower Moro (3 miles from the lower parking lot) offers panoramic ocean views as well as a birds-eye view of the canyon below. Between Upper and Lower Moro, there are 32 sites, but the latter is the campground that Scott recommends because of the views and the possibility of crossing paths with coyote, mule deer and the occasional, stealthy bobcat, which are all best seen in the late dusk hours after the park is closed to day-use visitors.
The numbered sites each come with a picnic table and access to a pit toilet, but visitors need to be prepared because Scott stresses there are no fires allowed whatsoever in these primitive sites. However, backpackers are permitted use of approved small backpacking stoves.
So, whether you aim for a leisurely trek or an adrenaline-pumping journey, Laguna Beach’s sprawling canyon trails offer a little something for everyone.
Editor’s note: Please keep in mind the distances are estimated from the given trailheads and routes, but many of these trails have multiple entry and exit points that allow for desired adjustments to difficulty and length.