Travel

17 Picturesque Hiking Trails to Hit in Orange County

Get out of town and explore the great outdoors.

Irvine Open Space Park
Irvine Open Space Park | zaranda / Shutterstock
Irvine Open Space Park | zaranda / Shutterstock

Disneyland may be closed for the foreseeable future, but there are still plenty of reasons (at least 17, in fact) to visit Orange County. If you’re on a mission to explore the great outdoors during the pandemic and you’ve already hiked LA’s major trailheads to death, the OC is home to hundreds of incredibly underrated treks that traverse its steep mountains, rolling hills, and canyons. 

Looking for a well-manicured, family-friendly stroll deep in the suburbs, where wonderfully wide pathways make it easier to stay six feet apart from strangers? Check. What about a beach-adjacent nature walk with stunning coastline views that (almost) make you forget you were supposed to be gazing at the Aegean Sea in Mykonos this summer? Check. And if you’re after a particularly strenuous waterfall expedition, the Santa Ana Mountains are calling -- as long as you bring a mask and take all the necessary distancing precautions, of course.

Although dozens of trails in various parks and reserves temporarily shut down during the start of the pandemic, most -- if not all -- have reopened to offer urban dwellers a much-needed respite from the city. Below, we found 17 scenic hikes that are only an hour (or less!) from Los Angeles, but feel like a world away.

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Huntington Beach
This mostly flat trek through the wetlands is a tranquil nature walk masquerading as a hike. You’ll get fresh air, pretty ocean views, and the opportunity to spot birds (more than 200 species have been identified there!) and other wildlife.

Quail Hill Loop

Irvine
Located in the City of Irvine’s vast Open Space Preserve, which is more than 5,200 acres, Quail Hill Loop has been temporarily converted to one-way use in a clockwise direction -- making it easier to practice social distancing. This relatively easy 2-miler is a quick escape from strip-mall suburbia/a quail-free world -- and even offers a little nature education. Dial 949-743-5943 for a self-guided audio tour, where natural resource interpreters and researchers call out interesting details along the way.

Turtle Rock Trail

Irvine
One of the best parts of this local gem, tucked away in a residential area of Irvine, is that it’s easily accessible. ANNNNNNND after 2.5 miles of huffing and puffing your way through a combination of ascents and descents, you’ll get a nice view of Irvine at the top.

El Moro Canyon

Laguna Beach
For a picturesque 3-mile hike that deposits you at Moro Beach, head to Crystal Cove State Park. If you feel like exerting yourself more, you can prolong the hike by exploring the canyon and nearby ridges before heading down to the surf and sand.

Back Bay Loop Trail

Newport Beach
The main route around Newport Back Bay is long -- about 10.5 miles -- but mostly even and level. Be sure to kick off your journey at the Vista Point Lookout to snag the best views, although the entire hike will be incredibly scenic. During non-COVID times, there are opportunities to stop by various educational facilities (especially fun for little ones) too -- including the Newport Aquatic Center and Back Bay Science Center.

Top of the World

Laguna Beach
This 2.5-mile hike in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park is good for a quickie. On a clear day, the sweeping 360-degree view at the top displays Catalina Island to the west and the San Gabriel Mountains to the north. (If you’re willing to risk judgmental stares, you can also cheat by driving to the top and parking there.)

Willow Canyon Trail to Bommer Ridge

Laguna Beach
For a hike that’s challenging but won’t leave you completely screwed the next day, try this 9-mile expedition through the undeveloped Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. The uphill climb is grueling, and you’re exposed to the sun the entire time, but the worthwhile reward is a view of palm tree-dotted Laguna Beach.

Black Star Canyon Trail

Orange County
This remote canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains boasts a waterfall, which makes this 6.8-mile trail totally worth it. It’s deceivingly easy at first, thanks to a minimal incline, then quickly becomes rugged, rocky, and tricky to navigate. Legend says the canyon is haunted, so hike at your own risk.

Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park
Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park | Arne Beruldsen / Shutterstock

Red Rock Canyon

Lake Forest
A little over 4 miles, this hike in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park takes you through an Instagram-friendly red sandstone canyon -- especially photogenic in the evening. Go right when the sun is setting and you’ll feel more like you’re in Sedona than OC.

Peters Canyon Trail

Tustin
This five-mile loop in Peters Canyon Regional Park is just a few miles away from The Market Place, but its 340 acres of sage scrub, freshwater marsh, and grassland -- which is home to mule deer, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, and the occasional mountain lion -- feels a world away. Although the playgrounds, nature centers, and other amenities remain closed due to safety concerns, the important stuff -- like the parking lots and restrooms -- are open.

Skyline Drive Trails

Corona
You’ve got options here. There’s the well-shaded Tin Mine Trail, which boasts some gated, slightly eerie mine shafts you can peek into; the steady climb up to the Doppler Tower, a golf ball-shaped radar tower; and the Hagador Canyon Watershed Trail.  

Buck Gully Reserve

Newport Beach
Encircled by homes and the famous Pelican Hills Golf Course, this little-known trailhead nestled in a Newport coastal canyon is a relatively quick, easy-to-moderate hike. It’s perfect for when you want a dose of nature (wildflowers, a river, foliage, and a view of the Pacific at the top) without a serious trek.

Harding Falls Trail

Silverado
Fair warning: this strenuous trail isn’t for beginners. But, if you’re able to tough it out for the 5+ miles -- which includes boulder-hopping, avoiding poison oak, and navigating rough, unmarked terrain -- a majestic waterfall awaits you. Can’t make it all the way? Don’t worry, because halfway through you’ll find equally cool, crystal-clear pools of water at the base of the canyon.

Modjeska Peak Trail

Trabuco Canyon
If you’re not into mobbed trails, try Modjeska: Santiago Peak’s less-crowded little sister. At nearly 5,500 feet tall, it might be the second-tallest point in the Santa Ana Mountains, but this vantage point arguably offers fewer obstructions for a full, 360-degree view.

Oak Canyon Nature Center

Anaheim
This 58-acre park in Anaheim features four miles of hiking trails and routes for everyone in the family -- some are tranquil and kid-friendly, and others, like Roadrunner Ridge, are steep, unshaded, and dotted with cacti.

San Juan Hot Springs Trail

San Juan Capistrano
This 10-mile journey through the 8,000-acre Caspers Wilderness Park deposits you at a natural hot springs with an interesting history. In the 1870s, the springs served as a resort and tourist attraction before being shut down in the 1930s. Since then it’s opened and closed again. Now you can hike and see the remnants of the springs (right by the fire station on Ortega Highway), but actually going in isn’t recommended -- possibly not even allowed. But don’t worry: You’ll enjoy incredible views along the way.

Sitton Peak Trail

Lake Elsinore
This 10-mile trail -- which brings you to a point that’s 3,273 feet above sea level with majestic views of the Cleveland National Forest (and even the Pacific Ocean on clear days) -- straddles the border of Orange County and Riverside County. The first half is relatively easy, but be prepared for a slightly harder (and steeper) second half, where you might need to use your arms to help with balance. Pro tip: Go for a sunrise hike, where the 360-degree mountain vistas are even more stunning.

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Tiffany Tse is a freelance writer for Thrillist and only goes hiking for the bragging rights (and occasionally, the view). Follow her: @twinksy.