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Crystal Cove State Park: Plenty of Room and Panoramas to Spare

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March 04, 2001|JANET EASTMAN

Crystal Cove State Park is the place for escape when two-legged and four-wheeled congestion has you feeling stifled in suburbia. From one of its panoramic bluffs, it's easy to imagine Joan Irvine Smith, the 67-year-old art patron and philanthropist, as a child riding her horse with her grandfather James Irvine II across the lush back country of a young Orange County. The pair, simpatico in their love of the land, would ride for hours, surveying their empire that once stretched across one-fourth of the county, from tide pools to the San Bernardino County line.

In the 1860s, Smith's great-grandfather James Irvine and three partners paid $18,000 for more than 100,000 acres to raise sheep and sell wool. Irvine bought out his shortsighted partners in 1876, 13 years before Orange County incorporated. The Irvines' continuous, glorious, undeveloped greenbelt is history, but 30 square miles of it remain as the Open Space Reserve.

A shining part is Crystal Cove State Park, with 2,800 acres of grass, riparian woodland and coastal sage and scrub. Underwater are 1,140 more park acres. My favorite of all of this is El Moro Canyon, with its seesaw trails shaded by oaks and sycamores in the San Joaquin Hills.

On most weekends, the parking lot at El Moro Canyon (8471 E. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; [949] 494-3539; open 6 a.m.-sunset daily) is full of SUVs topped with bike racks, but hikers shouldn't let the spandex trailblazers push them to the side. With 17 miles of crisscrossing trails, there's room for everyone--even a horse or two.

Supervising Ranger Michael Eaton, who has been stationed at the park since the state opened it in 1979 after buying it from the Irvine Co. for $32 million, said there are three types of hobbyists who visit: mountain bikers, hikers and, at "a distant third," equestrians.

From the parking lot, a half-mile steady incline on No Dogs Trail leads you to a fork in the road. Pause along the way to appreciate the grand views of the canyon and the Pacific, then consider your next move. If you take the high road, you'll go four miles inland along No Name Ridge and Deer Canyon trails before a fence detours you to the bottom of the canyon via Fence Line and Missing Link trails. (Elevations range from sea level to 1,000 feet.) You can continue on to Moro Ridge before looping back to the parking lot.

If you turn right at the fork, you'll reach the bottom of the canyon faster via the West Cut-Across (or what the bikers call "Mach One"). You can drop into the canyon and onto Elevator and Slow 'n' Easy trails, or head west back to civilization--the quaint El Morro Beach mobile home park.

The closest pick-me-up place to the park is the landmark Shake Shack (7408 E. Coast Highway; [949] 497-9666. Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday), about half a mile north of El Moro Canyon's parking lot. Sandwiches, burgers and fruit smoothies are on the menu, but the bright yellow beach stand made its name with its date shake ($3).

Getting there: Take Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach to the "School-State Park" light. Follow signs to the canyon parking lot.


Crystal Cove State Park

1. Crystal Cove State Park; El Moro Canyon

8471 E. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach

(949) 494-3539

Open 6 a.m.-sunset, daily

2. Shake Shack

7408 E. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach

(949) 497-9666

Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday

10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

* A new Discover Orange County will run next Sunday in the Orange County Calendar.

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