Situated in between the mountains and the ocean, Orange County is the perfect base for quintessential California hiking. With a handful of beautiful state parks, local trails, and beaches to explore, there’s no lack of things to do outside in Orange County. The many hiking trails in Orange County are so varied, from flat, peaceful suburban parks to rocky canyons, and it can be difficult to decide where to spend your time hiking. We created this guide to the best hikes in Orange County, CA to help you plan your next outdoor adventure.
What to Know Before Hiking in Orange County
Orange County is a very hiker-friendly place to live, travel, and explore, but there are a few things you should know before hitting the hiking trails in Orange County:
- Most trails offer little to no shade from the sun. Because of Orange County’s dry, desert-like terrain, there aren’t many areas with vast forests or trees. Because of this, we strongly recommend hiking in the early morning or late afternoon, especially during the summer when temperatures can soar. If you’re going to hike during the middle of the day, plan accordingly with lots of sunscreen, a brimmed hat, and an insulated water bottle with cold water.
- Many hiking trails in Orange County close seasonally due to wildlife sightings or wildfires. Occasionally trails in the area, especially near the mountains, will close due to wildlife sightings or local wildfires. These closures are typically posted on OCParks.com’s alerts page.
- Beware of poison-oak on the trails. Many trails in California are home to plants like poison-oak, which can cause a very painful skin reaction if touched. You can read this guide to learn about how to identify poison-oak on hikes in Orange County. When possible, we recommend wearing closed-toed shoes and long pants on trails to avoid contact with these plants.
- Buy a California State Parks season pass if you plan to go hiking in Orange County regularly. Many of the parks and hiking trails in the area require an entry fee or a season pass. If you live in the area or plan to explore several hiking trails in Orange County, we recommend purchasing a pass to save money and time on entrance fees.
Best Easy Hikes in Orange County
San Clemente Beach Trail
- Trail Length: 2.3 miles one way
- Elevation Gain: Minimal
If you’re looking for a trail that’s surrounded by towering cliffs and crashing waves, the San Clemente Beach Trail is one of our favorite hiking trails in Orange County. Situated right on the shore in San Clemente, this trail is mostly flat and is perfect for hikers of all skill levels – even beginners! While it’s not very secluded or fully immersed in nature, it’s easy to access and has a relaxed, fun vibe for solo or group hiking/walking.
Dog- and family-friendly, this trail runs next to the local train tracks and has several entry points in the San Clemente area. Along the trail, you’ll find many local wildflowers and plant species to admire throughout the year. We especially love this trail at sunset, when the whole landscape turns a golden hue and the sun shimmers on the water as it dips below the horizon. Undoubtedly, for those looking for a mix of civilization and nature, the San Clemente Beach Trail is one of the best hikes in Orange County.
Pro tip: We’d recommend parking in the San Clemente Pier parking lot (hourly paid parking) and starting your hike there! Afterward, head to the pier for happy hour at The Fisherman, which offers $1 oysters and drink discounts every weekday.
Sea Summit Trail at Pico Park
- Trail Length: Varies
- Elevation Gain: Varies
Located along the coast in San Clemente, the Sea Summit trail at Pico Park connects it to both Vista Del Sol Park and Canyon View Park with captivating views of the ocean and cliffs below. You can find a complete map of the trail here. With wide, well-marked walking areas, the Sea Summit is more of a network of trails than one set hike, but offers a “choose your own adventure” feel that’s a perfect post-work or sunrise outdoor activity. Some trails in the Sea Summit area are even flat enough for strollers and wheelchairs!
Back Bay Loop Trail
- Trail Length: 2.8 miles
- Elevation Gain: 236 feet
A great trail for easy hiking in Orange County, the Back Bay Loop Trail is a Newport Beach gem that’s accessible to hikers of any experience level. This relatively flat trail winds through the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve and provides ample opportunities for wildlife sightings, especially local birds. It’s also just a very pretty landscape, with the marshy wetlands winding in giant curves through a small, canyon-like setting.
On this trail, there are several inclines and downhills, so proper hiking boots or hiking sandals are strongly recommended. Also, please note that there is no shade on this trail, so we would suggest going in the early morning or right before sunset to avoid too much sun and heat exposure.
- Trail Length: 4.1 miles
- Elevation Gain: 452 feet
As one of the most popular hikes in Orange County, the Borrego Canyon trail runs from the neighborhoods in Lake Forest through Borrego Canyon, eventually arriving at the area’s famed Red Rock Canyon. If you’re looking for hiking trails in Orange County that feel like a true escape into nature, this is one of the ones we’d recommend to hikers of any level. This is also one of the few trails in the area that offers a good amount of shade, but we’d still advise going early to avoid the heat.
Throughout its 4.1 miles, this trail offers beautiful mountain views and ends at a unique set of light orange/red rock formations at Red Rock Canyon. It’s not permitted to climb these rocks (although you may see some people doing it anyway), and you can get a fine from the park rangers if you are caught. Also, dogs are not allowed on this trail due to concerns about wildlife interactions.
Badlands Park Trail
- Trail Length: 2.3 miles
- Elevation Gain: 219 feet
Located in the Laguna Beach area, the Badlands Park Trail is a short, easy hike that’s perfect for locals looking for a quick, easy way to spend some time outside. Boasting gorgeous views of the Laguna Beach coastline, this is one of the most picturesque easy hiking trails in Orange County, especially around sunset. On the clearest, least hazy days, you can see all the way out to Catalina Island! While it’s a fairly populated trail (think neighborhoods, families, and views of the suburbs below), it’s a great spot to slide in some stunning views and outdoor time if you’re on a time crunch.
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Hike
- Trail Length: 3 miles
- Elevation Gain: Minimal
Another one of our favorite easy hikes in Orange County is the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve trail. Popular with bird watchers, this Huntington Beach area preserve is a perfect mix of civilization and wilderness. With wide, mostly flat trails, this is a great leisurely hike to do on your own or with family/friends and boasts pretty views of the preserve’s marshlands. Here, you can view various types of large birds, including egrets, herons, terns, pelicans, and more.
Buck Gully Trail
- Trail Length: 4.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 442 feet
Arguably one of the most beautiful hiking trails in Orange County, the Buck Gully trail is an easy to moderate nature trail that runs through the hills in Corona del Mar. Filled with pretty wildflowers in the spring and surprisingly green scenery throughout the year, this trail offers a nice break from the typical desert and coastal landscapes you’ll find in the area. This trail does gain some elevation, but we’d still recommend it to all levels of hikers who are willing to take on a little bit of a challenge.
The trail is partially shaded, making it a great choice for hiking during the sunnier times of day. Bridges and dirt paths wind through the trees as you make your way to some spectacular views of the surrounding hillsides. There are lots of wildlife and plant viewing opportunities on the Buck Gully trail, so keep your eyes peeled for local species to admire along the way!
Moderate Hiking Trails in Orange County
Top of the World
- Trail Length: 2.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 862 feet
One of the most wonderful views in the Laguna Canyon area is from the Top of the World trail. This short and quick moderate trail is just 2.4 miles out-and-back on a wide dirt trail. From the start, the trail gains some pretty steep but consistent elevation all the way up to the Top of the World park views. Along the way, you’ll see sweeping views of the canyon below all the way out to the ocean. There are also several interesting small arch-shaped rock formations dotted throughout the trail to the top that you can stop and admire.
At the top, you’ll connect with a popular local park built around an old water reservoir. There are benches around the park where you can get some rest and enjoy the gorgeous views before turning back and heading down the same way to the Canyon Acres trailhead. Note that there is no shade on this trail, and we’d strongly recommend going in the morning or in the evening to avoid too much sun exposure.
San Juan Hot Springs Trail
- Trail Length: 10.6 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1,079 feet
As the only hot springs in Orange County that you can hike to, the San Juan Hot Springs is an interesting spot to visit, especially during the cooler times of year. This trail starts off pretty flat, gaining the majority of its elevation in the very last push to the springs. For hikers who enjoy longer hikes in nature, this is a good option that’s not far from Orange County.
However, before you go, know that hikers legally aren’t permitted to go in the hot springs. You may see others dipping their feet in or soaking in the hot springs, but whether you choose to do so is at your own risk, and you can get in trouble with the rangers should you break the rules. There’s a little bit of shade on the trail, but it’s mostly uncovered, so plan accordingly if you’re hiking during the day.
Crystal Cove Perimeter
- Trail Length: 9.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1,354 feet
Crystal Cove is one of the most beloved state parks and is home to some of the prettiest hikes in Orange County. Situated on the coast, the park offers a scenic beach, a small walking/shopping/eating area, and several trails around the hills to see views of the entire area. The Crystal Cover Perimeter trail is a 9.4-mile moderate hike that spans the entirety of the park, offering adventurous hikers a glimpse at the variety of scenery this small section of Orange County has to offer.
Note that this is a longer trail with limited shade, so we’d strongly recommend avoiding during the mid day in the summer. It’s also home to lots of wildlife and poison-oak, so keep your eyes peeled and avoid touching any plants. Lastly, this trail is shared with mountain bikers so stay alert with your surroundings!
El Moro Canyon at Crystal Cove
- Trail Length: 5.0 miles
- Elevation Gain: 807 feet
One of the most popular local hiking trails in Crystal Cove (that also boasts some of the most stunning views) is the El Moro Canyon trail. This 5-mile loop offers up views of the surrounding hills and the coast, which is surrounded by cliffs. It’s also home to lots of local species like hawks, California kingsnakes, and plenty of native plants. Along this trail, you’ll get to experience a little bit of everything Orange County hiking has to offer – beaches, hills, local greenery, and wildlife. Plus, afterward, you can head down to the beach for a dip in the cool waters of the Pacific!
Pro tip: Watch out for Pacific poison-oak here. There are signs around the park calling it out, but be sure you know in advance what it looks like and avoid touching plants around the trail’s edges.
- Trail Length: 7.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 974 feet
Shhh…don’t tell the others, but the Dripping Cave trail might be one of the most scenic hiking trails in Orange County! This 7.5-mile loop trail leads through California’s hillsides, around beautiful oak trees, and finally to a small, scenic cave where you can take a rest in the shade. As one of the more varied trails on our list, the Dripping Cave trail is great for hikers of any level who are open to a more challenging trail.
The trail starts on a paved road, but it slowly leads farther and farther into nature until you feel like you’re no longer in the suburban bustle of OC any longer. You can also turn around after the cave for an easier, ~5 mile hike, or continue onward through the loop for a bit more elevation gain.
Willow Canyon Trail to Bommer Ridge
- Trail Length: 4.6 miles
- Elevation Gain: 774 feet
Want a hike that combines pretty wildflowers, coastal breeze, and cool rock formations? The Willow Canyon Trail to Bommer Ridge is a fantastic, moderate option in the Orange County area. Located near Laguna Beach, this 4.6-mile hike boasts gorgeous views of the Santa Ana mountains to the east and the Pacific coastline in the other direction. Because it’s on the shorter side, this is a great trail to tackle with groups or families, especially in the early morning before it gets too hot and sunny outside. Note that there’s limited shade on this trail, and the parking entrance closes at 5 pm (though you can stay past 5 pm until after sunset), so plan accordingly.
Peters Canyon Trail
- Trail Length: 5.9 miles
- Elevation Gain: 623 feet
Peters Canyon is one of the most beloved Orange County hiking trails, with gorgeous views of Orange County and the Peters Canyon Reservoir. This 5.9-mile trail is shared with mountain bikers and is best in the spring, when the wildflowers are in full bloom. Perfect for families and dogs, this is a moderate trail that everyone can tackle. Some hikers even said that parts of the loop around the reservoir are stroller friendly!
It’s a very hilly hike, so prepare for lots of steep sections interspersed with longer, flatter trail areas. There’s limited shade on this trail, so prepare for sun and go as early as you can (or later in the afternoon) to avoid too much direct sun exposure.
Hard Hikes in Orange County
- Trail Length: 10 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,037 feet
If breathtaking views are what you’re looking for, the Sitton Peak Truck Trail is a favorite local hiking trail that leads up to some of the most stunning mountain views of the Santa Ana Mountains from the summit. The beginning starts off on a gradual incline, then jumps to a steep climb in the last half a mile to the summit. Along the way, you’ll have lots of opportunities to see local wildlife and some of the most beautiful views of the Southern California mountains.
Bring a hat, sunscreen, and water for this one – it’s 10 miles of trail with very little shade. We’d strongly recommend avoiding this one during the hottest times of year and in the middle of the day when the sun can be very intense.
Note: You need a California Parks adventure pass to park here. You can buy one here or at a few nearby stores.
- Trail Length: 7.3 miles
- Elevation Gain: ~2,500 feet
For a less crowded but similarly beautiful summit hike in OC, Bedford Peak is a fantastic choice for experienced hikers. At 7.3 miles, it’s a little bit of a shorter hike than Sitton Peak, but it’s got a similar elevation gain for even more challenge. We definitely wouldn’t recommend this hike for beginners! The views from the trail are absolutely outstanding, but there’s very little shade to work with, so we’d recommend going during cooler times of year to avoid too much sun/heat exposure.
Note: You need a California Parks adventure pass to park here. You can buy one here or at a few nearby stores.
Big Bend Laguna Ridge Loop
- Trail Length: 3.9 miles
- Elevation Gain: 974 feet
If you’re looking for a short hike that will give you a great workout, the Big Bend Loop at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is one of the best hiking trails in Orange County. This ~4 mile loop trail gains almost 1,000 feet in elevation in just 4 miles, but you might be distracted from the burning in your thighs with the pretty views of the Santa Ana mountains and the surrounding hillsides. We’d recommend going counter-clockwise to avoid some steep downhills with loose gravel, and early in the morning for cooler temperatures.
Bell View Trail to Bell Peak
- Trail Length: 9.6 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,483 feet
A lesser known but absolutely stunning (and challenging) trail, the Bell View Trail wanders 9.6 miles through the Tracubo Canyon area to Bell Peak. The trail boasts super pretty views of the Santa Ana Mountains, especially early in the day when the sun hits the peaks just right. On this pathway, you can expect steep ascents and descents throughout, offering a great workout in addition to the scenery. Most of the trail is moderate – the steep sections come and go throughout – but we still would not recommend the Bell View Trail for beginners or less experienced folks.
Black Star Canyon Falls Trail
- Trail Length: 6.7 miles
- Elevation Gain: 847 feet
As one of the most popular difficult hikes in Orange County, you may find lots of other hiking companions along the Black Star Canyon Falls Trail. However, it’s popular for a reason – the trails here offer some very stunning scenery, and when the conditions are right, you can even see a waterfall!
Parts of the trail get a little technical, with some scrambling required, so be ready to use your hands and feet. You’ll eventually find a creek which will lead you right up to the falls. Locals love this hike because it’s got diverse terrain (rocks, scrambling) and offers different sightseeing than some of the other hiking trails in Orange County.
Pro tip: Watch out for poison-oak along the trails here. There is a lot of it. We’d recommend wearing long pants and hiking boots, and staying clear of plants whenever possible.
What to Bring With You
- Breathable hiking clothes – For warmer hikes, you’ll want to wear a sweat-wicking shirt and breathable pants, like these Patagonia hiking shorts for men and women. For cold-weather hikes, we recommend dressing in layers, including merino wool baselayers for men and women, a down puffer jacket for men and women, and a Northface waterproof outer shell for men and women (a must for hiking in Seattle). And don’t forget a pair of the best women’s and men’s hiking socks!
- Trekking poles – You won’t need these for every single hike, but we suggest throwing them in your car just in case. We recommend the Black Diamond Trail Ergo cork trekking poles, which are lightweight, easy to transport, and durable.
- Water bottle – Having water available at all times is a huge must. To limit disposable plastic, we recommend bringing your own refillable water bottle. We’re obsessed with Hydro Flask water bottles because they keep water cold for hours.
- Sunscreen and bug spray – Sweatproof sunscreen and DEET bug spray can help you avoid sunburn and bug bites, two of hiking’s most annoying after-effects. Our favorite kind of sunscreen is Sun Bum, as it is free of harsh chemicals and safe for marine life, including coral reefs.
- A brimmed hat or cap – The sun can be brutal in open hikes, so always pack a brimmed hat or cap for day hikes in the sunshine.
- Emergency blanket and first aid kit – We’d strongly recommend bringing a first aid kit and a lightweight emergency blanket on every hike. Why? Because the unfathomable can happen, and it’s always best to play it safe.
- Durable day pack – A durable day pack is the perfect spot to stash all your hiking gear. While any backpack will do, we recommend the Osprey Tempest 20 or the Talon 22 day packs because they’re comfortable and breathable for long hikes. For more information, check out our best day packs for any terrain guide.
Wondering what exactly you should pack for your next hike? Visit our Complete Day Hiking Packing List for our full list and our top gear recommendations.
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