Jason and I love to hike, both near and far. We’ve been hiking in Orange County, California--where we live--for over ten years. Some trails we’ve done over and over and over because they are close and easy. But every so often we challenge ourselves and try something new. And when we do, we’re always impressed with the natural beauty and diversity of our own backyard. So I’m sharing just a few of our favorite hiking trails in Orange County. They range from short, easy, and flat to seriously challenging. But no matter what you’re in the mood for, there is definitely a trail for you.
Best Dog Friendly Hikes in Orange County
We don’t hike with our dog, Todd, but I know many people do. And since many places don’t allow dogs on trails, I thought I’d share a couple that do.
Peters Canyon Regional Park in Orange is a heavily used outdoor destination popular with residents of Central Orange County. This 340 acres park offers several trails, but our favorite is the 5.9 mile Peters Canyon Loop Trail. We don’t usually do the full loop, but turn back whenever we’ve had enough exercise and want to head to lunch (I plan all of our hikes around meals). It offers a nice mix of hills and flats so we feel like we’ve had a good workout. But if you want to push yourself, add on the East Ridge View and Upper East View Ridge Trails. This isn’t the most scenic trail in Orange County, but we love it anyways. It sort of feels like a hiking party--lots of happy people and dogs out for a weekend trek.
My tip for Peters Canyon is to arrive early if you're hiking on the weekends. The parking lot isn’t very large and fills up quickly. Currently the park and lot open at 7 a.m. And don’t forget to pay for your parking and place the receipt on the car’s dashboard. There are restrooms--not port-a-potties--in the lot which I always appreciate.
Another dog friendly hike in Orange County is the almost four mile Shady Canyon Trail in Irvine. Jason and I lived down the street from this trail for three years so we’ve hiked it many times. It starts across the street from the Quail Hill Community Center and continues past Strawberry Farms Golf Course, through the ritzy Shady Canyon neighborhood and ends at Bommer Canyon. If four miles wasn’t enough you can extend your hike along the Bommer Canyon Trail, but dogs are not permitted here. One of the best features of the Shady Canyon Trail is the ample free parking. While the lots get busy on the weekends, I’ve never seen them full, so feel free to come any time of the day. And like Peters Canyon, there are real bathrooms at the trailhead.
Best Hikes With An Ocean View
Even though I live near the beach, I just never get tired of an ocean view, so a trail with an expansive ocean view is always welcomed. And the Willow Canyon to Bommer Ridge Trail might just be the best hike in Orange County. It begins with a short trek through Willow Canyon followed by a long, steep ascent to Bommer Ridge. And it’s along the ridge where you’ll see the Pacific Ocean in the distance. It feels like a generous reward for a tough uphill hike. If you find yourself making several stops to catch your breath, don’t feel bad--many people do this.
You’ll be sharing this trail with mountain bikers, so keep your eyes open, especially at points where trails intersect. Willow Canyon is 1.5 miles and Bommer Ridge is 3.75 miles. If you’re feeling like a greater challenge, there are several connecting trails to extend your hike. There’s almost no shade along these trails, so don’t forget the sunscreen and bring water.
This trail is located in the Laguna Wilderness Park, a 7,000 acres preserve in Laguna Beach. There are four staging areas and parking lots in this park. You’ll access Willow Canyon Trail at the Willow Canyon Staging area. It opens at 8 a.m. and if you’re coming on a weekend, arrive early, or you’ll be disappointed. The lot will close when it’s full.
Best Hike Along The Beach
If looking at the ocean in the distance doesn't interest you, then why not try a trail next to the beach? The 2.3 mile San Clemente Beach Trail is flat and easy, making it a great option for a leisurely stroll. You’ll pass several different beaches and the San Clemente Pier. If it gets too hot you can walk along the water instead. This is a popular trail, so you’ll be sharing it with bikes, strollers, scooters, and plenty of walkers.
I prefer to park near the pier and access the trail sort of in the middle. There is a large paid lot across the street from the pier. From here you can venture North or South on the trail. Then after hiking (it’s really more of a walk) we like to grab lunch at Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar on the pier.
Best Hikes For A Fitness Challenge
Crystal Cove State Park in Newport Beach has been one of our favorite places to hike in Orange County for years. It offers 18 miles of trails through 2,400 acres of native wilderness. And while there are many interesting trails here, we tend to stick to Moro Canyon. Most of the Moro Canyon Trail is easy, but towards the end it connects with a short, .4 mile trail called Elevator. This very steep and rocky section is far more fun than a stair climber at the gym, but accomplishes the same thing. And if it’s a clear day, you’ll also be rewarded with an ocean view far in the distance. Moro Canyon is 1.5 miles, and not too difficult, so we typically combine it with Elevator, and then continue on one of the connecting trails.
You will need to pay to enter this park, and it’s among the priciest of the fees for hiking trails in the county. Currently it’s $15. But we always enjoy our time at Crystal Cove and consider the parking fee our donation to help keep the parks clean and accessible. Fortunately there is plenty of parking along with real restrooms. On weekends there are friendly volunteers at the trailhead happy to answer questions and provide more information about the trails.
Crystal Cove State Park is also home to a lovely beach, so after your hike, head to the beach to cool off in the water and relax on the sand. Just be aware that there are no services in the park, so bring all of your own food and beverages for the day.
Best Hike For Bird Watching
So after twenty years of living in Orange County, we finally went hiking in Huntington Beach (HB). Don’t get me wrong, we’ve been to HB hundreds of times, but for some reason never considered hiking here. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in HB isn’t very big, and offers just five miles of trails, but the highlight here are the birds. These wetlands connect with the Pacific Ocean and are home and breeding ground to a wide variety of birds.
We trekked the 3 mile loop trail which is flat and easy. Along the way we made dozens of stops to get closer views of all kinds of birds including plovers, sandpipers, herons, egrets, and even an osprey. There are 186 regularly occurring species of birds seen in this reserve. When we return to Bolsa Chica we will definitely bring a pair of binoculars to see the birds better, many of which were off in the distance.
There is a small, free parking lot next to the Pacific Coast Highway. If you arrive and it’s full, be patient and wait for a space. There is just a port-a-potty here, so personally I’d use the bathroom before arriving, or wait until after the hike.
Best Hike For Sunset
So I couldn’t write about the best hikes in Orange County for couples and not include one well-known for its sunset views. After a hike last December along Pacific Ridge Trail, I saw one of the most colorful sunsets of the year. The entire 10.2 mile trail is considered difficult and includes Pacific Ridge, Moro Canyon, and Bommer Ridge. But we prefer just to do a few miles of it near Coastal Peak Park in Newport Beach. This stretch is relatively easy and rolls up and down over a few miles.
Parking is free, but I’m not the only one who knows about it being a great sunset spot, so spaces fill up quickly, especially on weekends. And fortunately there are plenty of real bathrooms that are immaculately clean. Make a romantic evening of it and bring a picnic dinner. Either spread a blanket on the lawn or nab one of the tables.