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HIKING / Orange County's Sheep Hills

Park Preserves Laguna's Coastal Hills

August 23, 1992|JOHN McKINNEY

Aliso-Wood Canyons Regional Park, the largest park in the hills above Laguna Beach, preserves 3,400 acres of pastoral Orange County.

Hiking this land is a good way to shed some stereotypes about Orange County. One of those--that Orange County is nothing more than a monotonous urban-suburban sprawl--vanishes when you witness firsthand the ecological diversity here.

Most locals and other hikers refer to the low hills that back the Orange County coast from Corona del Mar to Dana Point as the Laguna Hills or "the mountains behind Laguna Beach." Actually, the northerly hills are the San Joaquin Hills, their cousins to the south the Sheep Hills.

Here's how nature writer Joseph Smeaton Chase described an outing in the Sheep Hills in his classic 1913 book, "California Coast Trails": "A few miles along a road that wound and dipped over the cliffs brought us by sundown to Aliso Canyon. The walls of the canyon are high hills of lichened rock, sprinkled with brush whose prevailing gray is relieved here and there by bosses of olive sumac. Our camp was so attractive that we remained for several days."

Today's parklands and greenbelts are the result of decades of work by conservationists, various Orange County municipal and county governments and private developers. Like parts of the European countryside, where hill and coast towns are separated by collective green space, these tranquil spaces help relieve suburban sprawl and give the separated communities their own identities.

Aliso-Wood Canyons Regional Park is a great place to hike, but it does present a minor access problem: From the parking area to the mouth of Wood Canyon is a less-than-scintillating 1 1/2-mile walk alongside a road. Some hikers avoid this road walk by bringing their bikes--either mountain bike or standard bicycle will do--and cycling to the "true" trail head. Cyclists can ride some of the park's trails (the wider dirt roads), then leave their bikes at conveniently placed racks and walk the narrower, hiker-only paths.

Directions to trail head: From the San Diego Freeway in Laguna Hills/Mission Viejo, exit on La Paz Road. Drive west, then south four miles to Aliso Creek Road. Turn right and proceed a short half-mile to Alicia Parkway. Turn left, then make a right on the park service road that crosses Aliso Creek and leads to the parking lot for Aliso-Wood Canyon Park on your left.

The hike: From the parking area and information kiosk, hike along the paved road heading into the hills. The road (sometimes called the Aliso Creek Bike Trail) and a parallel dirt path for walkers, heads southeast, meandering just west of Aliso Creek.

After 1 1/2 miles of walking, you'll arrive at a junction with Wood Canyon Trail on your right. Join this path (a dirt road) as it begins the very gentle ascent of Wood Canyon. Skirting the base of the Sheep Hills, the path visits the remains of an old corral and delivers the trees promised on the park map--Five Oaks Canyon and Sycamore Grove.

From Sycamore Grove, you can loop back via a trail on the opposite side of Wood Canyon by joining the short connector trail that leads to Coyote Run Trail.

Ambitious hikers will join either Lynx Trail or Cholla Trail (near the end of Wood Canyon Trail), head west over West Ridge Trail, then south to Rock It Trail or Mathis Trail, either of which returns you to Wood Canyon and the way back to the trail head.

Aliso-Wood Canyons Path Where: Aliso-Wood Canyons Regional Park Distance: Aliso Creek Trail to Wood Canyon, 3 miles round trip; through Wood Canyon to Sycamore Grove, 6 miles round trip; long loop of Wood Canyon, 9 miles round trip. Terrain: Gentle Wood and Aliso canyons, pastoral Sheep Hills. Highlights: Grassy Laguna Hills, handsome canyons, invigorating vistas. Precautions: Hot days with coastal moisture sometimes causes a "streambath" effect; get an early start and bring plenty of water. For more information: Contact Laguna Niguel Regional Park, 28241 La Paz Road, Laguna Niguel 92677, (714) 831-2791.

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