Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is truly a special glimpse into California’s native landscape exactly as it has existed for thousands of years. The park is a lovely 7,000 acres of oak and sycamore woodlands sprinkled between native and endangered Coastal Sage Scrub and rocky bluffs overlooking the ocean.
As part of the South Coast Wilderness area, comprised of Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, Crystal Cove State Park, and The City of Irvine Open Space, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and its sister parks protect a massive total of 20,000 acres as a habitat for many wildlife and plant life. I mean, how rad is that?
While exploring the hiking trails, you’ll get an opportunity to encounter Mule Deer, Long-tailed Weasels, perhaps a Bobcat, flying Red-tailed Hawks, and many more California creatures. Plus the Nix Nature Center has even won awards with its exhibits that focus on education and preservation of the park.
Have I convinced you to visit yet? Well, here’s all you need to know for visiting Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
Laguna Coast Wilderness History
If you are looking for the history of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, the best place to start is in the rocks themselves that create the beautiful landscape. According to OC Parks: ‘Some park rocks date back to the end of the age of dinosaurs — 65 million years ago – with clay and sand deposited by streams, swamps, and ponds near the coast. In other park locations, fossil scallops tell of a time 40 million years later, when salt water covered the park and sea creatures thrived here on an ocean shelf.’ Those are some fascinating rocks if you ask me.
After dinosaurs, prehistoric sharks, and other ancient whales vanished from the area, indigenous peoples such as the Acjachemen people called this land home. They remained a hunting and gathering community until around the late 1700s with the arrival of white settlers and missionaries, who proceeded to enslave the native peoples as they occupied their land attempting to force them into a much different way of life. This time period sadly forever changed the Acjachemen people culture to this day as they fight for recognition and rights as an indigenous tribe of the land.
Flash forward about a hundred years to when Jose Andres Sepulveda in 1837 acquired the land through Mexican Land Grants and created Rancho San Joaquin. In 1860 the Great Drought forced the sale of the Rancho to Mr. James Irvine who formed the Irvine Ranch.
The Irvine Company, which owned Irvine Ranch, farmed these lands for over a century until 1989 when artists and other citizens built “The Tell,” a 636-foot wall that followed the ridgelines of what is now the Dilley Preserve to protest future development of the Laguna Coastline. The citizens of Laguna Beach would go as far as to stage an 8,000-person rally to save the canyons. This community support motivated the Irvine Company’s owner to donate land back to the city which became present day Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
On April 10, 1993, Orange County Parks officially opened the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and manages its beautiful refuge to this day for both locals and visitors to enjoy.
Arguably the most popular activity to enjoy at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is hiking. The park contains over 40 miles of developed trails to enjoy. The trails themselves range from family friendly ones to more heart pumping difficult rated treks. Here are some you must check out when visiting the park:
- Joseph R. Sweany Bench: This short 2-mile round trip hike leads to a bench to rest and take in views of the ocean at the top. This trail is great for a nice lunch or snack with a view.
- Laguna Coast Wilderness Park Loop: This 6-mile, moderate in difficulty rated trail combines some of the best trails for a lovely loop. It is a rocky and sometimes steep hike, but features a view of the popular Ghost Rock (aka Emoji Rock) off Laurel Canyon Trail. This trail can be shortened by starting at the Willow Canyon Staging Area and taking Laurel Canyon out and looping back via Laurel Spur and Willow Canyon Road.
- Big Bend Laguna Ridge Loop: Although this trail is just shy of 4 miles what it lacks in length is more than made up for in the steep elevation gain and descent. It also boasts of great views of Laguna Canyon to enjoy.
When visiting Laguna Coast Wilderness Park a stop at the Nix Nature Center is a must. The center is relatively new and was opened in 2007 from a cooperative effort of OC Parks who manage the park and the Laguna Canyon Foundation which serves to protect it. But it was only through a generous donation from Laguna Woods residents James and Rosemary Nix that this plan for a new nature center could come to realization. Hence the name Nix Nature Center – named after the donors.
The Nix Nature Center has a showcase of hands-on exhibits that explore the Laguna Coast Wilderness for all ages. Here you’ll find information for the trails such as maps and guides, scientific studies on the local wildlife, and inspiration for both local artists and the cultural renewal of the indigenous tribes that once dwelled here. The center also houses Laguna Coast Wilderness Park’s new headquarters, which provides an ongoing series of educational programs, guided hikes and other activities for visitors to experience.
The Nix Nature Center is open daily from 8am to 5pm.
- The park has a $3 daily parking fee. The machines located in each parking area accept $1 bills and quarters or Visa/Master Cards. If you visit often check out their annual passes that are available to purchase in the park office.
- In order to preserve the wildlife and plant life here, dogs unfortunately are not permitted in the park. There is a nearby dog park for furry friends.
- After rain storms, trails are closed until the mud can dry out. Hiking on wet trails damages the landscape for all to enjoy. This drying out process usually takes 3 or more days.
- Check out the park in April or early May to see the yellow mustard plants in full bloom. Some will grow even taller than you and is quite an Instagram worthy photo to capture!
- Make sure you pack plenty of water and sunscreen for your hikes. There is little to no shade, no water available and you can quickly get dehydrated. Find out more about what to pack for a hike here.
- The parking lot hours are 8am to 5pm but the trails and park itself is open 7am to sunset every day in case you want to take in a sunset.
- Don’t feel like hiking? All of the trails serve as popular biking routes for avid mountain bikers.
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is a beautiful area for the whole family to enjoy. I hope this guide will help make your trip a memorable one.
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus