By John McKinney
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Get the most out of your time on the trail! Inspiration, information, practical tips & entertaining stories
Irvine Regional Park
Horseshoe Loop Trail
Loop around park is 4 miles round trip with 200-foot elevation gain; longer options available
Irvine Park is a classic: stately groves of oak and sycamore, lovely picnic areas and a boat pond ringed with handsome stonework. Add to that heart of the park dating from the nineteenth century, plenty of ball fields and playgrounds, as well as the Orange County Zoo and the Irvine Park Railroad.
Rolling foothills with accompanying trails border the central part of the park and offer the hiker a chance to get both then and now looks at Orange County.
Irvine Park is a lot of things but one thing it’s not: it’s not in Irvine! It’s located in Santiago Canyon about six miles east of the City of Orange.
Irvine is Orange County’s largest (traditional as opposed to wilderness) county park, and now encompasses 477 acres. And Irvine Park is the county’s oldest, too. In 1897, James Irvine donated a 160-acre oak grove with the stipulation that the trees should always have the best of care. The grove had long been popular with Orange County residents, particularly with the German immigrants who settled in Anaheim, and was known as the “Picnic Ground” in those days.
Irvine Park is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Learn more about the park’s colorful history for from a well-done exhibit in the interpretive center: how the pond was constructed, the stories of the zoo and miniature railroad, and the park’s service to country as an Army post during World War II. The history of the park also offers a window into a century of changing park management policy and philosophy.
Before you head for the hills and the trails that climb them, check out the William Harding Nature Area and a quarter-mile long nature trail by the same name. Even Irvine Park’s nature trail is historic; it was created by the Orange County Bird Club in the late 1950s and honors a dedicated club member. Native California flora is the emphasis of the nature area and the path that crosses it.
Horseshoe Trail offers a loop around the historic core of the park. Parallel paths to the north and south of Horseshoe Trail ascend ridges for fine panoramic views. I prefer a counter-clockwise tour of the park and I like to take the ridge route wherever possible. Add the Roadrunner Loop to this hike or put it on your “To Hike” list for the next time you visit Irvine Park and do it as a separate jaunt.
Irvine Park may very well emerge as a kind of Grand Central Hiking Station. Trails lead north into Weir Canyon Wilderness Park and to Irvine Ranch Preserve lands (access at present by guided hike only). The new Mountains to Sea Trail, which extends 22 miles to Newport Beach, begins in the Weir Canyon area of Irvine Park.
Directions to trailhead: From the Newport Freeway (55), exit on Chapman Avenue (East) and head east 5 miles to Jamboree. Turn left and proceed north a quarter mile to the park entry road and turn right. At a fork you’ll need to bear left to pay admission at the park entry station, but note that the right fork (a dead-end road) is where you’ll find the start of this hike.
The hike: From the park entry road, join the east-bound Horseshoe Loop Trail. If you continue with this path be sure to explore the short Cactus Canyon Trail.
An (almost immediate) alternative is Puma Ridge Trail, a rather steep, rough and often eroded path that ascends the park’s southern ridgeline and travels parallel to Horseshoe Trail. Take in the good views, and descend to rejoin Horseshoe Loop Trail.
The trail makes a horseshoe bend north and west before reaching a junction. Choose between two west-bound paths (the upper or northern trail goes to a viewpoint and connects with Roadrunner Loop Trail. Keep in mind, there aren’t many places to cross Santiago Creek, which is can be easily forded at times of low water levels and is a risky venture at times of high water.
The northern trail leads to a developed viewpoint and descends to meet Roadrunner Loop Trail. The eastern leg of the 1.5-mile loop is better defined than the western one, which travels among willows and other riparian growth closer to the creek.
Return to Santiago Creek, cross it, and finish your loop, by trail and park walkway.
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