We passed by this wilderness park many times on the way to Laguna Beach and never thought to stop. At our friend's advice, we finally decided to turn into the Nix nature center and try it out. We were pleasantly surprised by its wild beauty and the abundance of trails.
The park is about 7000 Acres of hills, canyons, and ridgelines – some with commanding views of the ocean. The trail system is well-maintained with a variety of difficulty levels.
The park contains the only three natural lakes in Orange County and a seasonal waterfall. The biggest one is Barber’s Lake – across the street from the Nix Nature Center. The waterfall only happens after a major rainfall.
This park is part of a bigger system of parks called “South Coast Wilderness Area” and includes places like “Crystal Cove” and “Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park”.
Nix nature center
This nature center is a good launching point for your explorations. You can spend some time in the center, viewing the exhibits and talking to the rangers. They are very helpful and can provide valuable information for your hike.
The Laguna Canyon Foundation runs several programs from the Nix Nature Center. Look for fitness hikes, geology hikes, family bike rides, and California native plants hikes throughout the year. Find upcoming events here.
The trail system
The park has 42 miles of trails, spanning the area between Irvine and Laguna Beach. Hikers and bikers can explore a dozen loops.
Important Note: At the center and in every other staging area, you will find a check-in sheet. Make sure to add your info before your hike. The rangers use the sheets to make sure everyone made out of the wilderness.
The trail difficulty ranges from moderate to challenging due to the hills, canyons, and ridges. There are no easy trails here. You can pick up a booklet showing trail ratings at the Nix Center. Find a detailed trail map here.
Sycamore to Stagecoach Loop
This loop starts from Nix Nature Center and connects four trails for a total of 5-miles. We started at the Little Sycamore Canyon trailhead, but you can make the loop in the opposite direction by starting at Stagecoach trailhead.
Turn left at Serrano Ridge for a more flat hike on this fire-road. From this ridge, you can see the canyons on one side and a great view of the Santa Ana mountains on the other.
Important Note: There are no services on the trail. Make sure to use the restrooms or porta-potties at the trailheads before you start your hike.
After this long and easy stretch of trail, turn left again on Camarillo Canyon Road (marker 28). This trail passes through descends through some rough terrain into a grove of Live Oak Trees and a grassy meadow.
Stagecoach has a steep zigzagging climb before it drops back to the Nix parking lot. After you pass the highest point and start descending, you see Barbara’s Lake on the other side of Laguna Canyon Road.
The hike took us around 4 hours to complete, but some hikers were able to complete it in less than 3 hours. It depends on how fast you walk and how many stops you make.
You can find a detailed guide for the same loop but starting from Stagecoach here.
Laurel / Willow Loop
Laurel Canyon offers hikers a rare glimpse into untouched wild California. A few feet away from civilization, and you are immersed in live oak, sycamores, sagebrush, and wildflowers – with birds and rabbits running across the trail.
This loop goes through Laurel Canyon, Laurel Spur Ridge, and Willow Canyon. You can take this hike from either end. This makes for a 3.5-mile hike and can take from 2 to 3 hours to complete. It is considered moderate because of some steep climbs and some rough terrain.
Important Note: Bring plenty of water for your hike. I needed three bottles of water for a 3-hour hike with nice cool weather. You will need much more during hot summer days.
Just before turning left into Laurel Spur Ridge, we came across a granite outcropping that drops 60 feet to the canyon floor. I am told that a waterfall runs down this cliff after a rainy day. Unfortunately, it was totally dry when we visited in June.
After I turned into Laurel Spur, we had a great view of the hills and canyons – and the Santa Ana mountains in the distance.
This ridge connects with Crystal Cove State Park trails. You can keep going for a much longer hike, but we turned back into Willow Canyon and started descending back to the parking lot.
If you like to try the hike from the other direction, there is a good guide here. The advantage of starting from Laurel Canyon is that you will warm up while going on a level trail for a while - before starting your climb. On the opposite direction, you will start climbing almost right away.
Other trails and loops
This wilderness area has many more trail to explore. Some of the suggested trails are Barbara’s Lake Trail, and Big Bend Loop with an Ocean view. Some of those trails connect to Crystal Cove system of trails. Read more about Crystal Cove State Park here.
Flora and Fauna
The Laguna Coast Wilderness is rich with vegetation and wildlife. Some of it will cross your path on your hikes. we were lucky to see rabbits and gophers, a roadrunner, lots of lizards, butterflies, bees, and a few eagles. Many species of birds live in the abundant vegetation.
All this wildlife lives among Live Oak, Scrub Oak, Red Gum, and Sagebrush – with a large variety of wildflowers.