Orange County residents and visitors have a generous selection of places to get out in nature. The OC Parks system has over 20 regional parks, wilderness parks, and open space preserves. Whether you’re looking for a shady hike, a place to hit the trails on your mountain bike, or a place for horseback riding, these parks are some of the best spots in Orange County.
There is a $3 – $5 fee for parking at most of the OC Parks properties. Purchase an OC Parks Annual Pass and get unlimited parking all year.
*Please note that most restrooms and parking facilities have re-opened but nature centers may remain closed due to Covid-19.
Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park
28373 Alicia Parkway, Laguna Niguel
Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park in Laguna Niguel covers 4,500 acres and offers over 30 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. From the Awma Road parking lot, take the Aliso Creek Trail to the Wood Canyon Trail and follow the signs to Dripping Cave for an afternoon adventure. Out and back, the hike is a little over 5 miles but the trail is mostly flat so it’s a relatively easy hike. Legends say that robbers used to hide out in the cave here after train heists. A visitor’s center is currently under construction and there are no playgrounds or picnic areas here. Portable toilets are available near the parking lot. This park is most used for its plentiful hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.
Carbon Canyon Regional Park
4442 Carbon Canyon Road, Brea
Carbon Canyon Regional Park in Brea is home to one of Southern California’s few Redwood groves. A short 1.1 mile walk along a nature trail leads you to the big trees. Enjoy the walk and spend some time wandering under the canopy of 3 acres of Coastal Redwoods. Carbon Canyon hosts many events for individuals and families from guided nature walks to movies in the park. Other park features include tennis and volleyball courts, ball fields, lake fishing, playgrounds, a paved path for walking or riding, a native garden, and group picnic areas. There is no nature center at this location but it’s a great spot for a short nature hike and a fun family gathering.
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
18751 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
Just off the 133 in Laguna Beach, the Laguna Coast Wilderness park offers trails for hiking and mountain biking. The main lot near Nix Nature Center has several trails of varying difficulty. Some difficult trails head uphill for views of the surrounding area. Mary’s Trail is perfect for little ones with signage for an educational trip through native habitat. Follow the trail that heads away from the nature center and crosses under the 133 to pay a visit to Barbara’s Lake, one of the few naturally occurring lakes in Orange County. There are 4 staging areas (and parking lots) along the 133 that are part of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park: Little Sycamore Canyon Staging Area, Willow Staging Area, Dilley Staging Area, and Big Bend Staging Area. Most of the trails connect from the staging areas, but take a look at the trail map online before you go to see what area best suits your needs.
Riley Wilderness Park
30952 Oso Parkway, Coto De Caza
Riley Wilderness park is 544 acres with 5 miles of multi-use trails for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. There are old groves of sycamores and Coast Live Oak, and two seasonal creeks. For breathtaking views of the park and surrounding areas, head up to Horned Toad and Skink Vista lookouts. There is a natural butterfly garden in the park that blooms in April and May and butterfly viewing is in full swing shortly afterwards. There is a ranger station with hands on displays that showcase the rich diversity of the park’s plants and animals. For a great family hike take Mule Deer Trail to Vista Ridge Trail where you can head up to Skink Vista Lookout. Come back down from the lookout and take Oak Canyon Trail back to the parking lot for a magical walk under the canopy of old trees. Restrooms are available and there is a $3 parking fee.
Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park
33401 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano
The 8,000-acre Caspers Wilderness Park in San Juan Capistrano offers miles of hiking trails, groves of Coastal Live Oak and California Sycamore, abundant wildlife, and camp sites. It’s a perfect location to get away from the busy city and spend the day, or the weekend, with family and friends. The nature center at Caspers is full of taxidermy animals that live in the surrounding area including coyotes, squirrels, snakes, and birds. They often have coloring pages out for the kids as well as books and other hands-on activities. Rangers at Caspers offer guided nature hikes, naturalist programs, and Junior Ranger programs. Many of the trails here are available for equestrian use and there are designated areas for equestrian camping. Enjoy an easy hike on the Bell Canyon Trail to experience the beauty and wildlife of the park. The trail is 1.85 miles long so an out and back hike clocks in at just under four miles. The trail is mostly flat the whole way and provides a combination of sun and shade. See the Caspers Trail Map for details.
Santiago Oaks Regional Park
2145 N. Windes Drive, Orange, CA 92869
One of our favorite places, Santiago Oaks is located in the city of Orange behind residential equestrian properties and isn’t far from neighboring Irvine Regional Park. The historic dam and creek crossing are just two of the many highlights of Santiago Oaks. A few of the trails behind the nature center are still closed due to fire damage, but the majority of the parks trails have reopened. If you have little ones, the best route is the Santiago Creek Trail and follow the loop around Bobcat Meadow Trail. On the loop back, take the stairway down to the Historic Dam to skip rocks and look for turtles, then take the Historic Dam Trail back to the play area and restrooms. For a more challenging hike, take the Santiago Creek Trail to the Towhee Trail and follow it up the the Wilderness Trail use the Oak Trail to connect to the Sage Ridge Trail until you connect to Bobcat Meadow. Take Bobcat Meadow back to Santiago Creek and the Historic Dam. In addition to these easy to moderate trails, Santiago Oaks has a number of difficult trails that head into the backcountry so hikers of all skill levels can find an adventure here. See the Santiago Oaks trail map for trail lengths and ratings.
Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park
Two Entry Points – Borrego Parking Lot: 26701 Portola Parkway, Foothill Ranch OR 27901 Glenn Ranch Road, Trabuco Canyon
Whiting Ranch is a popular spot for mountain biking. There are 17 miles of trails here, with Red Rock Canyon and Billy Goat Trails reserved for hikers only. All other trails are open for hikers, bikers, and equestrians. There are no picnic or play areas here and the only restroom is a port-a-potty. This park is for trail adventures only. Whiting Ranch is by far one of the best hiking spots in OC, as it is home to Red Rock Canyon, a beautiful location with magnificent rock formations. For the easiest access to Red Rock Canyon, enter from the Borrego parking lot. The Borrego Canyon Trail ascends gently towards Red Rock Canyon making the first portion of the journey relatively easy. The Red Rock Canyon Trail has a lot of rocky terrain and dry stream beds to navigate so this portion is more difficult, but worth the effort for the view. Round trip, the hike is about 5 miles. See the Whiting Ranch Trail Map for details. The shopping center next to the Borrego parking lot has a grocery store and several spots to fuel up afterwards.
For more information and trail maps for these and other parks in Orange County, visit the OC Parks website.
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Heidi Deal is the author of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles & Orange County, an expert at exploring all that Orange County has to offer, and a children’s book author specializing in history and human rights.