Fact: Hiking is actually just walking, only on dirt or rocks or other uneven surfaces. Or walking where an animal larger than you can kill and eat you.
Unlike other XTREME sports like rock climbing and heli-skiing, you don’t need hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of gadgets and shiny things to hike. If you have shoes and a bottle of water, you can go hiking.
Whether you’re seeking beautiful views, a challenging trail or a cool ocean breeze, we’ve lined up the coolest coastal hikes in Orange County. We have tried to add something for everyone as there are trails dotted throughout our beautiful county.
1. Pacific Ridge Trailhead
This fantastic trail network boasts stunning views and miles of paths that are perfect for hiking, running, photography, and more! The trail offers a number of activity options and is accessible year-round. Horses are also able to use this trail. This is my go to trailhead, street parking is free and there are loads of different routes to take depending on how you feel that day. From wide trails to single tracks, just be careful of the mountain bikes on the weekends as they can’t change course as easy as us hikers can.
The Pacific Ridge Trailhead network offers some of the best hiking in Orange County. This collection of trails wind and weave through stunning canyons, along gorgeous ridgelines, and down through Crystal Cove State Park.
Begin your hike at the trailhead across the street from Coastal Peak Park. It’s about a 20 to 25-minute drive from Newport Beach, and there is plenty of street parking along East Coastal Peak and Ridge Park Road. Take Boomer Ridge Trail straight from the entrance and continue on the route for several miles until it begins to bend south towards the ocean. You can follow this route in a complete loop back to your car. There are more than a handful of paths branching off from the Pacific Ridge Trailhead, but most lead to a collection of campgrounds.
If you would like to cut the 9.9-mile loop trail in half, take the third right onto El Moro Canyon Trail. This route dips down through a beautiful and quiet ravine that makes its way down to the beach through the Crystal Cove Park Tunnel!
The views from the Pacific Ridge Trailhead are fantastic regardless of which path you branch off on during your hike. You’ll find the best ocean views about halfway through the trek before dipping down to Crystal Cove Beach. The panoramic scenery is breathtaking, so bring your camera! You can also get glimpses of the surrounding mountains along the first section of the Boomer Ridge Trail.
2. Car Wreck Trail Laguna Beach
Park at Alta Laguna Park, aka Top of the World, amid architecturally stunning homes. As that name suggests, this hike, unlike most, starts at the top, and it’s far easier on the way down than the way back up. It’s steep.
Begin along West Ridge Trail; turn right at Mathis Canyon Trail; and turn right on Car Wreck and descend. Near the bottom are the ruins of a vehicle, variously identified as a 1946 Dodge and a 1947 Volvo, embedded just off the trail, and it is mind-boggling to imagine how it got there. Head back up. Distance: About 3 miles round trip.
Or turn left onto Oak Grove Trail, then right onto Dripping Cave Trail both easy, and add another 2 miles round trip. They lead past smaller caves to Dripping Cave, or Robbers Cave, used by thieves, says a sign, after robbing stages or stealing livestock.
3. Whiting Ranch: Dreaded Hill & Red Rock Canyon
Whiting Ranch is a popular Orange County wilderness park located in Lake Forest between Foothill Ranch and Santiago Canyon. Although it’s surrounded on two sides by subdivisions, once you hike into the park, you’re transported to another time and place. There are oak-linked valleys, red rock canyons, lung-busting climbs and vistas across Orange County.
With close to 2,500 acres of rolling grassland hills and woodland canyons, there’s no shortage of adventures to be had in this local wilderness park. Once you hike in, the stunning oak forests, red rock canyons and breathtaking vistas over the OC will have you forgetting you’re just moments from the city. Hikers and bikers can take advantage of 23 diverse trails, totaling about 17 miles. Rains bring running water to three intermittent streams, Borrego, Serrano and Aliso Creek, each playing host to a diverse wildlife population. But watch your step—spring is snake season!
This journey starts and ends at the Portola Ranch Wahoo’s. The great thing about this location is that there is plenty of parking on evenings and weekends, and you have a ready-made aprés-hike eatery (you will have earned that cerveza, amigos). The parking lot borders Serrano Creek. Follow the paved bike path under Portola Parkway and into Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park on the Serrano Creek trail.
4. Sitton Peak Trail – Cleveland National Forest
This hike gives you a double-digit challenge on well-marked trails off the Ortega Highway corridor. Park in the lot across from Ortega Oaks Candy Store, then carefully cross the highway. The trail begins just to the west of the store.
At 3,273 feet above sea level, Sitton Peak has commanding 360 degree views of the Cleveland National Forest. On clear days, you can see the ocean and even Catalina Island. The elevation gain and distance makes this a good intermediate level hike.
Follow the single-track trail over the ridge and down into an oak-lined valley. At 1.9 miles, you connect with the Verdugo Truck Trail. Turn right and follow the dirt double-track for another mile, where you’ll reach the junction with the Sitton Peak Truck Trail on the right.
The trail climbs and winds around a couple of ridges for 1.25 miles to a marker for the Sitton Peak Trail. This trail requires some scrambling and light bushwhacking up to the ridge. The 360-degree view from the 3,273-foot summit overlooks a wide area of the Cleveland National Forest. On clear days, you can see the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. When you’re ready to head back, retrace your steps to the trailhead. Bring at least two liters of water and good sun protection. Stop in at the Candy Store for a well-earned post-hike treat.
5. San Clemente Beach Trail
This trail in San Clemente might be one of the most unique hiking trails in Orange County. For the entire length of the trail, you are not only walking next to the ocean but also next to train tracks, so you get to watch the trains go by. Plus, the trail brings you through a good surf spot and the San Clemente Pier. So much action!
This 4.6-mile out & back trail is flat and unshaded. Bikers and doggies are welcome, and I don’t see any issues with bringing a stroller or a wheelchair either. This is a relaxing walk to enjoy the slower pace of life with friends.