|Trailhead||Willow Staging Area
20101 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
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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