Orange county sits between Los Angeles and San Diego counties and is the smallest county, land mass, in California. Orange County may be slight size wise, but it offers vast hiking opportunities.The OC isn't just strip malls and freeways. We are a community of 3 million, diverse people with interests far and wide and for those of us who like to hit the dirt, Orange County has many options. We have beaches, canyons, and wilderness areas with trails available for all skill levels.
I have many beloved places to hike in Orange County; here are a few:
Irvine Ranch Landmarks
Numerous community partners have a vested interest in the National and California Natural Landmarks including the many volunteers who donate their time towards education, conservation, and preservation.Several landmarks offer limited access with scheduled activities requiring advanced registration. Open-access (scheduled) days are offered occasionally and do require advanced reservations as well. The landmarks stretch from the Santa Ana mountains all the way to the Pacific ocean and include multiple regional and wilderness parks (operated by Orange County parks), open spaces, nature preserves, and Crystal Cove which is operated as a California State Park.
We live in a semi-arid, mediterranean-type climate and our hills are an earthy, natural brown most of the year. But once the rain falls the landscape transforms into a beautiful shade of green and I always feel transported to another country. I once hiked in the Fremont Canyon Wilderness area the spring after a particularly heavy rainy season and it was amazing. As far as I could see the hills were alive in color.
Need to know: Search the Irvine Ranch Landmarks website before you visit since many of the landmarks are not open-access and are only available via scheduled meetups. Most hiking activities are free, but OC Parks and California State Parks do charge day use fees.
My favorite: Crystal Cove State Park is a must see in Orange County and a fantastic place to hike. The park is divided in two by Pacific Coast Highway. You can hike in the hilly and wooded canyons for miles and then head down to the coastal bluffs and beach where you can explore the tidepools. You may even see marine wildlife swimming near the shore. Grab a burger and shake at Ruby's Shake Shack above the historic district and eat while you gaze at the sea.
Orange County Parks
Parks, beaches, historic sites, and a zoo make up the county park system offering many hiking and scenic opportunities. The parks organization has a comprehensive and user friendly website with engaging interactive maps.
Most of the regional and wilderness parks have excellent trail variation and by combining one or more trails you can hike for hours. Along with the hikes some of the parks have captivating nature centers, too.
My favorite: Caspers Wilderness Park and Riley Wilderness Park are located in south Orange County. Riley is the smallest of the two, but I always enjoy the grassy, rolling hills. Caspers is the largest of all the Orange County parks and the most remote making it, usually, the least crowded. Both parks have trails on ridges or down in the valley under oak and sycamore canopies and I always see deer when I visit these parks.
Need to know: day-use fee
Travel tip: after a day hiking at Caspers drive into downtown San Juan Capistrano and take a walk through the Los Rios Historic District then have a microbrew and burger at Ruby's Rooftop Sky Ranch. Sit outside, eat, and enjoy the views. (and no, I'm not affiliated with Ruby's at all. I just like burgers and beer.) If burgers are not your thing grab a burrito at one of the MANY Mexican eateries in town. My favorite's are El Molino de Oro and El Maguey Mexican restaurant.
Cleveland National Forest
The Cleveland National Forest is comprised of 424,000 forested acres in Orange, Riverside, and San Diego counties. The Orange County section is in the Trabuco Ranger district of the national forest. Some of the trails can be difficult to access depending on the season and the terrain is more rugged than the parks of the area. Be prepared.
Bag a peak or two
Santiago Peak is the highest in the Santa Ana Mountains and tops 5600 feet. Sure it's not a 14er, but don't discount the hiking challenge. At 16 miles round trip and 4000 foot elevation gain, the most popular route to the top via Holy Jim Trail, will take you about 8 hours to complete.
Modjeska Peak and Santiago Peak form a "saddle" outline and both peaks are commonly referred to as Saddleback Mountain.
Visit a waterfall
There are several waterfall hikes in the canyons. Holy Jim Falls is the most popular in Orange County. Falls Canyon and Black Star Canyon also make the list.
Travel Tip: Spend extra time driving through the canyons: specifically Modjeska and Silverado Canyons. At the end of Modjeska Canyon is the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary where you can walk, sit on the bird porch and watch/identify the bird visitors, and learn canyon history in the onsite nature center. The canyons are rural, historic, and charming. If you need a place to eat go to the Silverado Canyon Cafe for cheap prices and tasty, home-style cooking.
Of course, many of you come to Orange County for the beaches, as you should. We have some of the best around and miles of it, which means you can walk for hours if you so choose. It's hard to find fault with scenic ocean vistas and there isn't a bad one. Pick a beach and go. Walk at sunset and you won't be sorry. If you need a recommendation then take a stroll on the San Clemente Beach Trail, detour to the end of the pier and back, and have a brewski at the Fisherman's before you wander to your car.
The next time you plan your trip to the third most populous county in California, spend the day in Orange County open spaces and take a hike, escape the crowds, and explore something new.