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Across Orange County there are a variety of parks and hiking trails that provide some of the best views of the coastal and inland cities of Southern California. There is also an abundance of biodiversity among these hidden gems, making outdoor activities during the summer even more enjoyable. Next time you find yourself stuck on what to do, check out one of these locations and enjoy a walk, ride or hike through the beautiful natural habitats of Orange County.

Quail Hill Loop

34 Shady Canyon Drive, Irvine

If you’ve ever wondered about those massive hills on the side of the 405 freeway, you’d probably be surprised to find out that there’s actually a well-marked trail that you can walk around. Quail Hill Loop Trail is a 1.8-mile dirt path that offers spectacular views of Irvine and the closeby Saddleback areas. This easy trail is great for families because it’s short, relatively flat throughout, and easy to access. There are also picnic tables near the beginning of the trailhead, perfect for a quick snack before or after you enjoy your stroll. Dogs are also welcome to enjoy the loop as long as they are kept on leash.

Quail Hill is an easy 1.8 mile trail in Irvine just off of the 405 freeway. Credit: CRYSTAL HENRIQUEZ, Voice of OC

Currently with COVID regulations, the loop is a one-way trail to allow for social distancing between hikers. At the trailhead, turn left and go up the only hill to start your walk. The entire loop takes about 30 to 40 minutes to complete, going at a steady pace. As you walk you may notice some hummingbirds, snakes and other varieties of birds in their natural habitat. There is a seasonal pond; however, during the summer it is usually dry.

If you bring your cellphone, you can even visit https://apps.guidebycell.com/gbc2/http/Podcast2.jsp?phone=9497435943 to download an audio tour to learn more about the trail’s biodiversity and wildlife.

Peters Canyon

8548 E. Canyon View Ave., Orange

Peters Canyon Regional Park offers graded roads wide enough for pedestrians, bikers and equestrians. The East Ridge View Trail is a 5.7 mile long loop that guides you through groves of rare black willows and cottonwoods alongside a running creek. The loop is overall rated as moderate because of its short but at times steep hills. Many runners come here to work on their endurance, so you’ll likely see a lot of people sprinting up the hills. At the peaks of the trail, you can catch some expansive views of Orange and the surrounding areas. For your downhill journeys, you might want to have some shoes with good grip.

Peters Canyon has frequent and steep hills that will lead you to some exceptional views of Orange County. Credit: CRYSTAL HENRIQUEZ, Voice of OC

Peters Canyon is a vast park that covers 340 acres of land with great biodiversity. You can find freshwater marsh, riparian, coastal sage scrub and grassland habitats all within Peters Canyon. The various habitats mean you might come across an extensive amount of wildlife including bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, small amphibians, reptiles and even the occasional redtail or red-shouldered hawk. 

Once known as Cañón de las Ranas, or Canyon of the Frogs, Peters Canyon had drainage that led into the Ciénega de las Ranas, otherwise known as the Upper Newport Bay. After the days of the Spanish, Peters Canyon later went on to be used as a U.S. Army training area. There’s still an old bunker along the upper Peters Canyon trail. Near today’s Lower Peters Canyon is where “Camp Commando,” as it was known, once stood.

There isn’t a lot of shade along the trail, so make sure to bring sunscreen and lots of water as well. Dogs are allowed but must be kept on leashes at all times.

Back Bay

600 Shellmaker Road, Newport Beach

Back Bay Loop is a heavily trafficked trail in Newport Beach perfect for walking, running, biking, riding your horse and more. The entire loop is 10.5 miles with 7 main entry points for you to start your trip. Entry points include the trailhead at Back Bay Science Center, along with points at the Newport Dunes, Upper Castaways Park, Mariners Park, Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center, Bay View Park, Back Bay Lookout and the Big Canyon Inlet off of San Joaquin Hills Road. 

A nature enthusiast’s dream, the trail encompasses the Upper Newport Bay, home to numerous plants, amphibians, reptiles and mammals such as bobcats and coyotes. The bay is the place for birdwatching, with over 200 different species of birds inhabiting the land. As one of the last remaining natural estuaries in Southern California, the species you see may be endangered or unique to the bay.

I recommend starting at either the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center or by the Big Canyon Inlet, which are at opposite sides of the bay. Off of University Drive and Irvine Avenue, the interpretive center side tends to be more crowded; however, it offers complete views of the bay that can’t be beat. You can head down toward Jamboree from this end, while crossing bridges and sharing the pathways with bikers and equestrians. Try to keep an eye out for any horse droppings on the trail to avoid any slips or messes.

Coming in from the Big Canyon Inlet, this side of the loop is moderately trafficked by cars and bikers. However the trail is pretty wide, which is great for social distancing. On this side the trail is down closer to the water and you might even see nearby kayakers as you pass by. There are also a few smaller trails you can step off into as well. Birdwatching and fishing are common on this side, and if you’re lucky you’ll even see a gaggle of geese roaming freely in and out of the water.

Dogs are allowed on leashes on the Back Bay Loop. For more info on nearby activities such as kayaking, paddleboarding and electric boating, visit: https://www.visitnewportbeach.com/vacations/back-bay/ 

Fairview Park

2501 Placentia Ave., Costa Mesa

Costa Mesa’s Fairview Park might not look like much from the street point of view, but once you head down the trails you’ll be surprised to find hidden lakes and vernal pools that are quite the sight to see. This underdeveloped park houses five different habitat environments, meaning you’ll catch sight of many species from fairy shrimp to the snowy egret or burrowing owl. The park serves as a gateway to the Santa Ana River Trail and Talbert Regional Park, providing over 7 miles of trails for walking and hiking all across 195 acres of open space. 

From the parking lot, walk adjacent to Placentia Avenue to start your hike down into the wetlands of the park. There are paved sidewalks as well as dirt paths for walkers and bikers. Pass the coastal sage scrub restoration and you are now on the Santa Ana River Trail. Continue for a few miles and make a left into a trail heading back to Fairview Park, just before you reach Victoria Street. Making your way up you will pass bluff restoration, the vernal pool complex and the grasslands of the park.

Due to COVID, large picnics, parties and gatherings are not allowed like they used to be. Fairview Park is home to the Orange County Model Engineers railroad, which will reopen to the public on the third weekend of September. Hours will be 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on that third weekend of September and every third weekend of the month thereafter.

With around 5 miles of track that wind through the park, kids will be sure to love a ride on this reliable first-class railroad. Reservations for private birthday parties are actually being accepted now. It’s a $200 donation for an exclusive two-hour train ride. The available times are 10 a.m. to noon and 1-3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Call 949-54TRAIN to book a private birthday train ride.

Santiago Oaks Regional Park

2145 N. Windes Drive, Orange

In conjunction with the San Diego Creek in east Orange lies Santiago Oaks Regional Park, a peaceful refuge and a true natural wonder. This 1,269-acre park is heaven for all bikers, hikers and equestrians. There are several interconnected trails ranging from easy to difficult, so there is something for everyone. Popular trails include the easy Historic Dam Trail, a short walk that leads you to a small dam that forms a tranquil waterfall during wet seasons. Moderate trails include Bumble Bee Trail and Sage Ridge Trail, where you’ll gain some incline. To reach the peaks and catch some amazing views of Orange and beyond, take the Oak Trail or Peralta Hills Trail.

The park is also well equipped with picnic areas, playgrounds and rest areas. There is a beautiful historic orange grove visible from the parking lot that is well maintained as well.

There is substantial wildlife throughout the park that includes bunnies, woodpeckers and an extensive list of bird species. The active wildlife couples well with the variety of matured tree species that inhabit the park, contributing to the soothing atmosphere of the park. Back in 2011, around 200 coastal live oak trees were planted and now provide an adequate amount of shade for hikers. 

Buck Gully

872 Poppy Ave., Corona Del Mar

Nestled in the neighborhoods of Corona Del Mar, Buck Gully Trailhead is an easy 4.4-mile-long trail through a coastal watershed. Open daily dawn to dusk, the trail is narrow but well marked throughout its entirety. Hikers also share the in-and-out trail with bikers, who are only allowed to ride uphill. There is plenty of shade throughout the relatively flat trail at Buck Gully. There are some easy inclines, but it is nothing too intimidating. Recently, the Irvine Ranch Conservancy has helped to install four aluminum bridges in different spots of the trail in order to make traversing through the gully easier for hikers, as well as make the walk less intrusive to the habitat. 

Buck Gully is one of the less trafficked trails in Orange County, nestled in a coastal canyon in Corona Del Mar. Credit: CRYSTAL HENRIQUEZ, Voice of OC

Dogs are not allowed on this trail because there are snakes in the habitat that could easily bite your furry loved one. Along with snakes, try and look out for any quails, hummingbirds and rabbits while on your hike. Enjoy the wildflowers during the spring that line the dirt paths as well.

Car Wreck Trail

Alta Laguna Park, 3299 Alta Laguna Blvd., Laguna Beach

Beloved by many locals, Alta Laguna Park is the trailhead to the hikes with some of the best views in Orange County. One of those includes Car Wreck Trail, a bumpy 3.8-mile downhill trek to see the remains of a 1946 Dodge five-passenger coupe. Throughout the hike you’ll see some sweeping views of Catalina Island, Mt. Baldy and the Angeles National Forest.

From the Alta Laguna parking lot, make a slight left to find the main wide dirt path that will lead you down the West Ridge Trail. Continue down the West Ridge Trail until you come to a T-junction with Mathis Canyon Trail and Car Wreck Trail. Make a right to continue your journey to the car wreck. The descent down is quite rocky and steep at certain points, so bring your best outdoor shoes and take it slow. Be mindful of having to share the road with mountain bikers, which are quite common along this trail. 

The car wreck is nestled at the bottom in a shady area of the hike, so it’s cool to look at its remains for a few minutes while taking a break. The car is completely covered in graffiti and, for the most part, scrapped of all its parts. Here you can either turn around and go back the way you came, which will make for a solid 2.6-mile hike. The popular option is to continue down a mellow path surrounded by oak trees that will lead you into Mathis Canyon Trail, which will loop you right back up to West Ridge Trail. This way back up is not as rocky yet still rather steep, however the views along this path make it all worth it.

Dogs are not allowed on this trail at all. Bring lots of sunscreen and water as there is very little shade for the majority of these trails. 

Carbon Canyon Trail

4442 Carbon Canyon Road, Brea

Home to the only redwood grove in Orange County, Carbon Canyon Trail is a great hike for beginners, families and bikers. The trail is part of Carbon Canyon Regional Park in Brea, a 124-acre park upstream of the nearby Carbon Canyon Dam. The park is home to a man-made lake, tennis and volleyball courts, and playgrounds. 

Park in lot E to be right at the trailhead of the Carbon Canyon Trail. There is a Butterfly Garden just before the beginning of the hike and displays a variety of flowers and plants like the California poppy and various sages.  The Carbon Canyon Trail will lead you 1.1 miles into the Redwood Grove, which has 241 massive redwood trees. The Redwood Grove offers a significant temperature change due to the 15-foot diameter canopy of shade it offers. Along the trail, you might encounter red ants and striper snakes, so beware of your surroundings and be careful to also not bump into any of the poison oak along the walkways. 

If you don’t want to walk too much to reach the Redwoods, my tip is to park at Lot A which is only about half a mile away from the grove. Dogs are allowed on this trail if kept on leashes. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Fairview Park train has just reopened for public rides on every third weekend of the month. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the train will not reopen to the public until the third weekend of September. The train is available now for private birthday parties.

Crystal Henriquez is an intern for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at crystalh774@gmail.com.

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