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Laguna Coast Wilderness Park – Willow Canyon and Laurel Canyon





Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park

Vital Stats
Trailhead check +Lake+Forest, order +CA&hl=en&ll=33.681229,-117.665098&spn=0.009856,0.01929&sll=33.680515,-117.664733&sspn=0.009856,0.01929&vpsrc=0&gl=us&hnear=26711+Portola+Pkwy,+Lake+Forest,+Orange,+California+92610&t=m&z=16″>26711 Portola Parkway
Lake Forest, CA
Length 4.6 Miles
Elevation 446 Feet
Difficulty Easy

Whiting Ranch is a part of the OC Parks Limestone Canyon & Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. Whiting Ranch is open to the public like most other Orange County parks, while Limestone Canyon is only open two days a month for open access days and for guided tours. Whiting Ranch is very popular with mountain bikers but is open to hikers and even has a few trails that are only open to those on foot.

Borrego Trail out to Red Rock Canyon starts from the parking lot located on Portola Parkway right at Market Place in Lake Forest. Parking is $3, just as it is at most other OC Parks. The trailhead is marked by a sculpture garden with a large obelisk at its center that’s dedicated to the local wildlife. There is also an information kiosk that has all of the standard warnings and information for the park, and some maps of the park’s trails that you can take with you.

Once on the trail, the first thing you’ll notice is a large sign warning of mountain lions. This isn’t the only mountain lion warning on the trail, and for good reason. Over the years there have been a number of mountain lion attacks in Whiting Ranch, including one fatal one in 2004. However, Whiting Ranch is a very popular park and the odds of being attacked are very low.

The trail heads north through a valley that’s flanked by houses. Despite that, you get the feeling of being in the wilderness quite quickly. Almost immediately you cross a sandy, dry stream bed that’s a bit difficult to walk in and very difficult to ride a bike in. This stream hadn’t been quite so sandy prior to the winter storms of 2007, but that year the rains washed a lot of sand down out of the canyons and deposited it on the lower reaches of the stream.
The trail continues through some old oak groves and over another stream crossing. Most of the way up Borrego Trail is fairly well wooded and shady. While my wife and I were hiking along the trail, we saw a family of mule deer on the hillside not far from the trail. Wildlife abounded all along Borrego trail, with countless lizards, rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks skittering along through the plants as we made our way along.

As the trail continues into the park, you’ll come to a trail intersection with Mustard Road. This is a larger trail, big enough to drive a truck on, where you’ll see another informational sign, including a little map in case you didn’t pick one up for yourself at the trailhead. At this intersection, you’ll head right along Mustard Road for just a hundred feet or so up a small incline. As you round a bend in the road, you’ll see a picnic bench with two additional trails leading off. The smallest of these trails is the Red Rock Trail, which will take you out to Red Rock Canyon.

Red Rock Trail is only open to hikers. The trail mostly follows a dry creek and has been marked with large rocks. Red Rock Trail is much more exposed than Borrego Trail and has the potential to be very hot. The further out you go on this trail, the more scenic the scenery becomes. Unfortunately, the trail also gets more rocky and you’ll have to spend a good deal of time looking down where your feet are going.

Once you make it out to Red Rock Canyon the trail ends. There are signs posted to stay out of the canyon and away from the sandstone walls. This is more to protect the fragile stone and not really to protect hikers. It might seem strange to think of stone as fragile, but if you go out there not long after a rain you’ll be able to see where the falling water has made little craters in the stone face. It looks just like it would in a sandbox after a rain. However, Red Rock Canyon is one of the nicest rock formations in Orange County, rivaled only by the Sinks in Limestone Canyon.

The way out is right back the way you came, at least until you reach Mustard Road. There is a second trail, Cattle Pond Loop, that makes a small loop right where Mustard Road and Red Rock Trail meet. If you’re interested in an extra .2 miles, Cattle Pond Loop is a nice little jaunt up and then down in a big horseshoe. The rest of this hike is so flat, it’s nice to get just a little bit of elevation thrown in before heading back to the car.

Red Rock Canyon has earned itself a spot among the more popular hiking destinations in Orange County due to the unique sandstone canyons. Getting there is easy on this flat trail as long as you don’t mind the four and a half mile walk. As a hiker, you’ll have to watch out for the numerous mountain bikers that frequent Whiting Ranch, but on this flat section of trail you shouldn’t have any problems. Red Rock Canyon is a great family excursion for a half day hike.

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Vital Stats
Trailhead sick +Laguna+Canyon+Road, price +Laguna+Beach, pfizer +CA+92651&aq=0&sll=33.579999,-117.761893&sspn=0.009939,0.01929&vpsrc=0&gl=us&ie=UTF8&hq=Willow+Staging+Area,&hnear=Laguna+Canyon+Rd,+Laguna+Beach,+California+92651&ll=33.579892,-117.76228&spn=0.009868,0.01929&t=m&z=16″>Willow Staging Area
20101 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Length 3.53 Miles
Elevation 557 Feet
Difficulty Moderate

This hike in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park visits some of the more lush areas of Orange County due to its proximity to the ocean. The route is steep in places and goes over some ill-maintained trails but is a pleasant hike non-the-less, especially towards the end.

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is sandwiched between Laguna Canyon Road (SR 133) and Crystal Cove State Park. The park gets a lot of damp sea air so the park stays green year round, unlike most of the rest of Orange County. Unfortunately, the park doesn’t get a the nice sea breeze that you might expect being so close to the ocean. Combine the lack of sea breeze with the wide fire road trails and no shade, the trails in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park can feel much warmer than you might expect.

This route through Laguna Coast Wilderness Park starts at the Willow Staging Area, located along Laguna Canyon Road just south of El Toro Road. There is a dirt parking lot at the Willow Staging Area that can be quite crowded on busy weekends. Also located at the Willow Staging Area is a ranger station and information board. You can pick up a trail map and, on the weekend, park rangers will ask you to sign in so they know how many people are in the park.

There are two trails that lead out from the ranger station, Willow Canyon Road and Laurel Canyon Trail. This route head off on Willow Canyon Road and comes back using Laurel Canyon Trail. Willow Canyon Road is fire road that starts out flat for the first few hundred feet followed by 1.4 miles of up hill. The trail is wide and has little shade along the route. Most of the trail is hard-packed dirt with some places of slick rock. It’s possible to see where they’ve done trail maintenance and clearing with a scraper of some sort.
Once the trail has wound up the hill side, you’ll reach a slight leveling off and two trails branching off from Willow Canyon Road, Laurel Spur and Bommer Ridge Trail. For this route, you’ll want to take the first turnoff, Laurel Spur.

Laurel Spur is a steep downhill on a fairly poorly maintained trail. All along the trail, there is a deep gulch running along one side of the trail. There are a number of other areas that show erosion across the trail, but those areas aren’t too bad off. The trail has everything from slick rock, to hard packed dirt to loose sand. Once at the bottom of the hill, Laurel Spur dead ends at Laurel Canyon Trail. To the left is a fire road that will take you across San Joaquin Transportation Corridor (SR 73) to the Nix Nature Center. To the right is a single-track trail that’s closed to mountain bikes that will take you back to the parking lot.

Laurel Canyon Trail is the real jewel of this hike. It follows along the banks of a stream, dry during the summer, and under a lush canopy. In places, the stream has eaten into the trail, making it quite narrow with a steep drop off if you miss your step (which is likely why this is closed to cyclists.) The trail crosses the stream in a number of places before it opens up into a meadow, flanked by the hill you just climbed. The trail continues, running along south, mostly paralleling Laguna Canyon Road but always getting closer to the roadway. Thankfully, you can’t see the road until the intersection with El Toro Road, just a few hundred feet away from the parking lot. Despite being so close, there is one final climb, up and then down, before you arrive back at the Willow Staging Area.

Willow Canyon Road and Laurel Canyon Trail make for a nice workout for the average hiker. The first two thirds of the hike are fairly steep up and then down, with the last third being a lovely trail through some of the most lush topography in Orange County.

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Published inLaguna BeachLaguna Coast Wilderness Park