By John McKinney
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Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
Laurel Canyon, Willow Canyon Trails
Laurel-Willow canyons loop is 3.5 miles with 600-foot elevation gain; to Bommer Ridge Overlook is 7 miles round trip
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is the Orange County of the 19th century, a lovely diversity of landscapes highlighted by woodlands, grasslands and scenic ridgelines with handsome sandstone outcroppings. The 6,500-acre park also contains Orange County’s only natural lakes, which provide habitat for fish as well as for such waterfowl as geese, grebes, coots, cormorants and kingfishers.
James Irvine and his partners purchased the one-time Rancho San Joaquin in 1865 and the company grazed cattle on it for more than a century. Now, with the Irvine Company’s cooperation, substantial acreage in and around Laguna Canyon is becoming parkland under the stewardship of the Orange County Parks Department.
That these hills and canyons don’t resemble the developed Orange County of the 21st century is a tribute to three decades of exemplary work by local conservationists, as well as state and local park agencies and municipalities. Preservationists, with the support of then California Senator Alan Cranston attempted to create Orange Coast National Park in the late 1970s. In 1989, 8,000 people marched along Laguna Canyon Road to show their commitment to preserving the Laguna Hills. A year later the citizens of Laguna Beach voted overwhelmingly to tax themselves $20 million in order to purchase land alongside Laguna Canyon Road and far up into the hills. Lengthy negotiations among public entities and private parties, as well as increased preservation efforts spearheaded by the Laguna Canyon Foundation took place during the 1990s.
For more than a decade, access was restricted to an extent that only the most connected local hikers were able to figure out when, where and how to hike this park. Currently the park is open for hiking seven days a week.
Directions to trailhead: From the San Diego Freeway (405) in Irvine, a few miles north of this freeway’s junction with the Santa Ana Freeway (5), exit on Laguna Canyon Road (133) and head south toward the coast and Laguna Beach. Look for the main (Laurel Canyon) entrance to the park on the right (west)side of the road.
The hike: Join the path leading north parallel to Laguna Canyon Road and soon pass a sandstone boulder sculpted by wind and water into a very small cave. Keep an eye out for more such caves and rock formations crowning the park’s ridges.
The trail traverses an open slope that, with an end to cattle grazing, is making the environmental transition from annual grassland to coastal sage scrub. Buckwheat and sage line the path which turns away from Laguna Canyon Road and enters the quiet of Laurel Canyon.
Begin a westward ascent among live oaks and sycamores. The oaks appear to have recovered far better than the sycamores from the terrible 1993 Laguna Fire that blackened Laurel Canyon and thousands of acres around it. Certainly the vegetation in the canyon bottom regenerated quickly: what is now a brush-crowded narrow footpath up Laurel Canyon was actually a fairly wide ranch road before the fire.
The path leads by a seasonal creek (look for an ephemeral waterfall during the rainy season) and ascends to meet a dirt road. Turn left on this road and begin an ascent to a saddle on Willow Ridge and another junction. Go left again and descend Willow Canyon Road.
Most of the view on your descent east is of parkland, with the major exception of the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road which, alas, bisects Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Your journey ends at the park office, a short walk from the trailhead and parking area.
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