Except for the city and county of San Francisco, Orange County is the smallest in California in terms of land area - and the third most heavily populated (not to mention the sixth most populated in all of the U.S.). Logic would seem to dictate that open space would be hard to find in the O.C. - but thankfully that's not the case. If you know where to look, even in a densely populated area such as Orange County, there are plenty of places to escape and get some great exercise while you're at it. Here are ten scenic and challenging hiking trips in the wild lands of Orange County, in order of difficulty.
#10) Dripping Cave via Meadows Trail. Dripping Cave, also known as Robber's Cave, is one of the most popular destinations in Aliso & Wood Canyons Park. The little-used Meadows Trail is a nice alternate route to the more popular approaches from the West Ridge Trail and from Alicia Parkway. It features a steep descent from the ridge above with great views on the way down - but the bill comes due on the return when you have to climb back up.
#9) Emerald Canyon Loop. Using the entrance from Coastal Park in Newport Coast, this trail quickly takes hikers from an upscale new housing development into the rugged interior of Crystal Cove State Park, passing through secluded canyons and by sandstone caves.
#8) La Ronda/Whispering Hills Loop. To be sure this is more of a suburban than wilderness hike, utilizing several of San Juan Capistrano's city trails. However, with a lot of up and down totaling over 1,000 feet of elevation gain during its 6-plus mile course, this double loop is a great way to burn calories while enjoying some of south O.C.'s best coastal and mountain scenery.
#7) Forster Ridgeline Trail. Like the San Juan Capistrano trails, the City of San Clemente trails offer great workouts with great views. The Forster trail, nearly four miles each way, has more ups and downs than the California Screamin' roller coaster - and it's free.
#6) Deer Canyon Loop. Here's another one in Crystal Cove State Park, this time starting from the south entrance along Pacific Coast Highway. This seven-plus mile hike explores more of Crystal Cove's secluded interior, with several steep ascents to the ridges above the canyons.
#5) Big Bend Loop.Crystal Cove's neighbor, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, is the scene for this challenging loop which is short but features very steep ascents and descents. The scenic rewards include excellent views of the ocean, the San Joaquin Hills and the Santa Ana Mountains.
#4) Los Pinos Peak. Speaking of the Santa Ana Mountains, this trip to the range's fourth tallest summit takes you into Orange County's most remote corner - so remote that one has to drive through a substantial slice of Riverside County on Highway 74 to reach it. A steep ascent on a fire road and a scramble along a rocky ridge line bring you to Los Pinos, where you can enjoy a 360-degree view of Orange County and the Inland Empire.
#3) Harding Canyon. One of O.C.s most rugged canyons, Harding is home to a secluded waterfall. Several miles of scrambling up the stream will get you there.
#2) Whiting Ranch Back Country Loop. This loop explores some of Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park's less-traveled terrain, including the infamous Billy Goat Trail, and culminates in an ascent to Vista Point, the park's highest spot.
#1) West Horsethief/Trabuco Canyon Loop. This challenging and very scenic hike is one of the best in O.C., if not all of Southern California. Starting in the shade of Trabuco Canyon, it steeply ascends the west slope of the Santa Anas to Main Divide Road, where you are rewarded with panoramic views of the Inland Empire and its major summits. A descent through a thick pine and oak forest brings you back down into the canyon in style.
If you've already done these hikes, check out the other list linked below to ten more trips to take. No matter where you go in Orange County, you're sure to find a place to escape it all closer than you think.