This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.
Though dotted with towns and cities, the Orange County coast has an abundance of wilderness in its canyons, and plenty of untrammeled land tucked in its coves and beaches. It is more than possible to beat the crowds and follow a trail, or a bend in the coast, for a day. Or several days.
Doheny State Beach to San Clemente State Beach
7 miles one way, easy
It's possible -- and very enjoyable -- to walk this stretch of beach on the sand. And it's at least as nice to take it in from the saddle of a bike on the paths and streets of Dana Point and San Clemente. The Pacific Coast Highway provides a bike lane on the coast south of Dana Point (though views are sometimes obstructed by beachfront homes). Entering San Clemente, cyclists would be best advised to follow El Camino Real as the streets closer to the beach here are a maze. The beachside rail trail for all modes of transit is another good option. This excursion is equal parts beach and beach-town experience. Traversing the California coast often means winding through cities and towns. And like many coastal areas in the Golden State, it is -- happily -- sometimes tough to separate the beach from the beach town. This seven-mile stretch can be done in either direction.
2 or 4 miles, easy
The Dana Point headlands knuckle their way into the Pacific, creating a dramatic landform that has charmed visitors going back at least to Richard Henry Dana, who landed there in 1835. Today, the point makes for a refreshing place to amble along the beach. Salt Creek Beach Park is a fine place to start and the crowds that sometimes line the beach beneath The Ritz-Carlton hotel will thin as you head south. Before you reach the southern end of the point and the marina tucked away there, either turn around for a 4 mile hike, or pick up a trail that leads you uphill to The Dana Point State Marine Conservation Area. You can leave a car here beforehand or walk along Pacific Coast Highway back to Salt Creek.
Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park
4 miles, moderate
The local name for Alta Laguna Park, "Top of the World," kind of says it all. And a trailhead from that perch gives access to hikes where, for miles on end, you will be treated to sweeping views of the Pacific and Catalina Island. One of the most popular outings is the West Ridge Trail, which gives sweeping views for its entire 2 mile length. It's an out-and-back hike, so hikers can choose to turn around at any point if it gets too hot (there is no shade). Or walk the full length, soaking on the ocean breezes on cool days and coastal sage scrub and wildflowers.
Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park
11 miles, difficult; or 4.5 miles, moderate
Aliso and Wood Canyons hold more than ocean views. They're also home to cool rock formations, natural caves, meadows, willow and oak woodlands, and more. The Woods Creek Trail delivers all. Pick it up on Awma Road, west of Alicia Parkway. Take the side trail to Dripping Cave to get a taste of the geology and see where banditos reportedly hid from the weather and the law. Turn back here for a 4.5-mile hike, or continue back to the main trail and join the Mathis Canyon Trail for a steep, challenging climb, eventually linking back to the West Ridge Trail. Your toils on the steep sections will be rewarded with views of Crystal Cove State Park.
Crystal Cove State Park
6.5 miles one way, moderate
Laguna Beach is surrounded by 20,000 acres of protected land, comprised by Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and other open lands. The state park is the star of the show, with its coves, early 20th Century seaside village, and coastal mountains. The park offers numerous trails to choose from, of varying difficulties. But you could do worse than hiking Moro Ridge, a trail following the namesake ridge from Pacific Coast Highway to Bommer Ridge Road, and north to the park's entrance on the ridge. Along the way, the trail passes two campgrounds and treats hikers to dramatic views of the coast. This 6.5-mile hike would require arranging for a ride back to the start down on PCH, or turn around at any point.
Crystal Cove to Laguna Beach.
5 miles one way, easy
Orange County might be known for vast swaths of wide, sandy beaches. But there's more to the coast, like hidden coves, rock outcroppings, and tidepools galore. Those attributes are in abundant supply between Crystal Cove and Laguna Beach. Make sure to pack a mask and snorkel as the reefs host ample opportunity for submarine exploration. This 5-mile stretch can be done in either direction. For a north-to-south route, start at the Los Trancos parking lot inCrystal Cove State Park.
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
Nestled between Seal Beach and Huntington Beach are 1,200 acres of protected wetlands.Bolsa Chica State Beach is a refuge for more than 300 bird species, some stopping over on their journeys along the Pacific Flyway, and numerous other critters in the water and on land. Hikers can avail themselves of five miles of short, flat trails through the wetlands, and possibly glimpse brown pelicans, leopard sharks, jackrabbits, and coyotes. From the north parking lot, off of Warner Ave., you can hike the .7-mile Mesa Trail, and link that up with the .8-mile Pocket Loop Trail for a 3-mile loop.