Sagewood Wellness Center
I love to hike! It’s a great way to stay active and healthy and I really enjoy exploring and interacting with nature. Between the gorgeous weather and all the beautiful locations to choose from, South Orange County is a hiker’s dream.
Whether you’re an avid hiker or a novice, there are many OC trails in and around the South Orange County area to suit your hiking style and needs. For this post, I’ll be focusing on the area in which I live and work because that’s where I spend a lot of my time and do the majority of my hiking. I live in San Clemente, work in San Juan Capistrano and I’ve included Dana Point because it’s right between and has some great trails. While this guide is provided for the benefit of fellow hikers, feel free to utilize the information I’ve provided here for walking or biking these paths as well, though the recommended fitness levels may be slightly different and some details may not apply.
San Clemente Beach Trail
Because I live in San Clemente and because I love the beach, one of my very favorite hikes is The San Clemente Beach Trail. Since it’s next to the ocean, this trail is scenic and cool and mostly flat with hard packed sand and dirt, so it’s a great trail for all fitness levels. It’s also dog-friendly, so it’s a great path for our four-legged friends as well. Length is about 2.5 miles one way beginning at the train station at North Beach and running past the pier and T-Street to Calafia State Beach. There are restrooms and water located along the trail and food is available at the pier.
If you’ve never hiked this trail, there’s a convenient map at the trailhead that shows you the mileage markers as they relate to areas that you pass so you can choose the length of your hike. Hike the whole length and back, or just shoot for landmarks as half-way points while still keeping track of distance traveled. For advanced hikers and athletes, there are also 6 beach access points along the way with stairs that you can use for a healthy cardio challenge.
You can start at the State Beach end if you like, but parking at the North Beach Metrolink Station is a bit cheaper. This lot has pay stations that take cash or credit cards, and parking costs $0.25 for 15 minutes. Parking is free after 6pm and I think it’s free in the morning before 8:00AM as well, but I couldn’t find any information online confirming this.
This really is a scenic hiking path that perfectly captures the beach-town feel of San Clemente. Feel free to take off your shoes and use the beach itself as the soft sand provides a great workout. Dogs not allowed on the beach itself.
Dana Point Sea Cave Hike
This another gorgeous hike right on the coast of scenic Dana Point, with the added bonus of having caves at the end of the trail. This is a hike perfect for all athletic levels, even kids, which makes it a great hike for the family or with a group of young people. Exploring the tide pools and caves will score big points with the adventurers of the family. The only thing that makes this trek a bit difficult is maneuvering through the rocks, so be careful and watch your footing. Exploring the caves is fun and can be a welcome departure from the more typical nature trail style hike.
Be sure to go there during low tide, when the moon is waning. Otherwise you won’t be able to get to the caves and there won’t be any tide pools. In high tide the water goes right up to the cliffs in places and makes it impossible to get through. Make sure you wear good pair of hiking or workout shoes. Like I said, the trail is very rocky, and gets very slippery in places when wet. It can be very easy to twist an ankle if not careful, and it’s not the type of area you want to try to negotiate, hobbling back to your car.
Parking is inside the north end of the harbor past both of the historical sailing ships at the Marine Institute. Speaking of which, this is a Marine Protected Area and it is prohibited to take living creatures from the tide pools. From the parking area, go behind the Marine Institute and head towards the jetty.
To the far right of the jetty, look for the staircase down to the beach. From here you’ll enjoy nice views of the Dana Point Headlands cliffs above. On the far side of the beach, you’ll come to a rocky path that takes you around the Headlands and leads to a series of caves that have been carved out of the rock over time.
I’ve included some great pictures of the Sea Caves here, but they don’t do this hike justice. Between the caves, the tide pools and the views, you really get a sense of escape and connection with what I call “raw nature”.
Salt Creek Trail (Dana Point/Laguna Niguel)
The Salt Creek Trail provides a picturesque hike that follows Salt Creek from near Golden Lantern in Laguna Niguel, all the way down to Salt Creek beach at the north end of Dana Point, and back. This is a moderate paved hike that takes about two hours with gently rolling inclines and beautiful scenery as it winds through the canyon. I’ve actually seen all kinds of wildlife throughout the canyon including Coyotes, Red Tail Hawks and a bunch of rabbits.
This is a great trail for groups or families walking together as the scenic environment will keep everyone engaged, while not being too tough of a hike for anyone. There are a few hills along the way, so be warned if you’re a beginner or a mom pushing a stroller. It’s also nice to arrive at the beach and stop for a few minutes to enjoy the sea breeze and sound of the ocean at Salt Creek. You can also explore nearby Sea Terrace Park or walk on the beach towards the Dana Point Headlands before heading back.
There are several points of access for this hiking trail depending on how long you’d like your hike to be. The closer trailhead is located off Camino Del Avion between Niguel Road and Crown Valley Parkway. Here’s a map for reference. Park along the street and walk toward Crown Valley. As the sidewalk starts to slope downward, you’ll see a bike path off to your right. Take this path, then bear to your right crossing under the street and heading toward the beach.
For a tougher challenge, access the trail from Chapparosa Park. Parking is at the end of Chapparosa off Golden Lantern. Follow Chapparosa Park Road all the way to the sports park at the end, and park as far into the park as you can. The trail begins at the far southwest end of the parking lot.
San Juan Capistrano Trails (San Juan Capistrano)
This is one of my very favorite places to hike in OC. The trails here are not crowded at all and you can literally hike for hours through this 50 mile web of trails. Moderate to difficult hiking trails on dirt paths through rolling hills with a great selection of flora, fauna and local wildlife. You’ll find beautiful views of the canyons and ocean all the way from Dana Point to San Clemente, and these scenic trails can accommodate dogs (on leash), bikes, hikers, and horses alike. There are several access points to get to these spectacular nature trails and while they are mostly located within San Juan Capistrano city limits, they can be accessed from San Clemente as well.
I personally like to use the trailhead at the end of Camino De Los Mares, off the Camino De Estrella exit (5 Fwy) in San Clemente. This trailhead is right on the San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente border. From there you can head west into the SJC Trails or head East where it connects with The Forster Ridgeline Trail (another amazing SC hiking trail – see below). This is a great map that not only shows this area, but all the San Clemente hiking and biking trails.
There’s another trailhead access off of Las Ramblas that you may want to try called “Patriot Trail” which can be challenging for some. It starts off with a long, steep hike up what’s called “Patriot Hill” and then connects with the rest of the San Juan Capistrano Trails. Be sure to check out “Harbor View Trail” and the infamous flagpole and mailbox 9/11 memorial at the trail terminus. From there the panoramic views are breaktaking.
GO HERE for videos on just about every individual trail that comprise the San Juan Capistrano Trail network. You can use these videos to preview different trails before you head out.
Talega Trail and Cristianitos Trails (San Clemente)
As you can tell by looking at the map, San Clemente is actually home to quite a few major hiking trails. These trails form a connecting network that covers most of the surrounding hills and canyons and provides some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery in Orange County. Expect to see coyotes, bobcats, deer, roadrunners, jackrabbits and various other wildlife. My favorite of these trails are the Talega Trail and the Cristianitos North/South Trails, both of which back to open canyons and valleys and have some of the best scenery of all the San Clemente trails.
Cristianitos North and South trails comprise the Cristianitos Regional Trail that ascends to San Clemente Summit and connects to the Talega Trail, which is about an hour to hour and a half hike and can get pretty steep in places. San Clemente summit is actually the highest point in San Clemente at 1,008 feet. From the summit heading west, Forster Ranch Ridgeline Trail can take you an additional two hours or so back to the Camino de los Mares trailhead, and San Juan Capistrano. From there you can head to Ortega Highway in one direction or return to Camino de los Mares and follow it back to the beach.
A waterproof, tear-resistant version of the above referenced San Clemente Trails Map can be purchased at any City facility for $3. For more Information call (949)361-8264 or email Recreation@San-Clemente.org
Healthy Hiking Tips
- Walking Stick – For the steeper trails in SJC and SC, a walking stick is a good idea. You can purchase one at sporting goods stores.
- Shoes – Good hiking boots or shoes with treads helps you navigate the downhill grades so you don’t go sliding down on your butt. Don’t wear new shoes on a long hike until you’ve worn them a few times on shorter ones.
- Water bottle – I have a little carrier that I strap across my shoulders which carries my water bottle and allows me to hike without having to carry a bottle the whole way.
- Sun screen – most of the trails listed here have little to no shade
- In cooler weather dress in layers; you’ll warm up as your heart gets pumping.
- In hot weather consider wearing a hat when hiking the hills. They can get really toasty, especially in summer.
- For longer hikes, it’s a good idea to bring a light, healthy snack (fruit, veggies, nuts) for an added energy boost.
It’s no coincidence that I recommended hiking and/or walking as part of wellness programs for certain clients. The health benefits of hiking and walking are many and varied, from rehabilitation to conditioning and stress relief, to just the therapeutic benefits of being out in nature and getting lots of fresh air. So get out there, get healthy, and enjoy the beauty of the hills and the ocean views! We live in a gorgeous area and are so lucky to have so much open space around us. I encourage you to try and take advantage of them all. Your healthier mind and body will thank you.
Have a balanced day!
About The Author
Maria is the Executive Director and Founder of the Cancer Support and Education Program, and has been owner of Sagewood Wellness Center for 20 years. She is a Certified Neuromuscular Therapist and specializes in the treatment of chronic, severe, or minor pain, as well as injury rehabilitation and prevention. She is Board Certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. Before changing course after her first cancer diagnosis at age 27, Maria had earned a Master of Science in Counseling. She subsequently served as Senior Therapist for two hospital-based in-patient chemical dependency programs, as Chief Therapist of an in-patient eating disorders program, and as Program Director for private and hospital-based outpatient chemical dependency programs. She also has a background in training and development, having developed, implemented and managed training and development programs for a major health maintenance organization. Maria’s interest in the field of holistic health and wellness stem from her own healing journey through five cancer diagnoses. She has a strong personal desire to use these experiences as a way to help others heal and experience greater health, joy and balance in their lives. Her passion and life’s calling is to help others not just survive, but thrive in the face of challenges.