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Following the Lesser-Known Path in Alta Laguna Park

June 09, 2002|JOHN McKINNEY

Tucked between Laguna Beach and Laguna Hills, Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park is a 4,000-acre reminder of what undeveloped Orange County looked like a century ago. More than 30 miles of dirt roads and trails wind past the park's canyons, ridges, oak woodlands and year-round creeks.

Most visitors use the Alicia Parkway entrance and begin their adventures from the canyon bottoms. But I'm going to discuss a less crowded way to go: from a second trail head at Alta Laguna Park, perched atop a ridge on the west boundary of Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. Handsome little Alta Laguna has water, restrooms, a picnic area, a play area for the kids and plenty of parking--not to mention superb views.

Hikers should be warned that the Aliso and Wood Canyons park is popular with mountain bicyclists. Beginning riders cruise the nearly flat canyon bottoms, and advanced riders careen down steep ridgelines and along rocky tracks shared with hikers. Pedestrians have the right of way but still need to keep an eye out.

The route I'm suggesting can be shortened or lengthened according to your time and inclination. Four trails extend from the park's West Ridge and offer loops of varying lengths.

Directions to the trail head: From Pacific Coast Highway (California 1) in Laguna Beach, drive east on Park Avenue and climb two miles. At Alta Laguna Boulevard, turn left. After a block, turn right into Alta Laguna Park.

The hike: The most eager among us can get right to the hike by stepping out onto wide West Ridge Trail, but I recommend following the more roundabout trail to Carolynn Wood View Knoll and taking in the panoramic vistas. You'll see Laguna Beach to the south, the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the north, and San Clemente and Santa Catalina islands to the west. Gaze east to the San Joaquin Hills and the communities of Aliso Viejo and Lake Forest; behind the hills and suburbs rise the Santa Ana Mountains and their two most distinctive peaks, Modjeska and Santiago, which form Old Saddleback. On a clear day, hikers may be able to pick out Mt. Wilson and Mt. Baldy.

Thanks to slope restoration efforts, these hilltops are healing from off-road vehicle use from before the creation of the park. While enjoying the view, realize that the knoll's purpose is more utilitarian than aesthetic: Below ground is a reservoir containing about 3 million gallons of water.

My 5-year-old son recently wandered off the trail and began shouting "Goats! Goats with big horns!" I figured Daniel's overactive imagination had kicked in again or, uh-oh, I had kept him out in the sun too long. But sure enough, dozens of goats were nibbling the brush--low-tech vegetation thinning in advance of fire season.

From atop the knoll, a path corkscrews down to a spur road connecting to West Ridge Trail. A half-mile descent leads north to a park bulletin board, bench and signed intersection with Mathis Canyon Trail. If you're not up for a long hike, retrace your steps back to the car.

If you're game, follow Mathis Canyon Trail as it drops southwest quickly. It's a hairy ride for mountain bikers and even steep for hikers. The trail finally levels out, and a better-graded dirt road leads to the grassy, oak-dotted bottom of Mathis Canyon.

Turn north on Wood Canyon Trail through the heart of the wilderness park. Follow the mellow path along a seasonal creek, gently climbing 21/2 miles to the north end of the park and a junction with Cholla Trail. Bear left and head up Cholla Trail to the ridgeline. Return to your starting point with a final 21/2-mile walk along West Ridge Trail.*

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