Get some fresh air and exercise with the family this summer at these local scenic hikes.
Planning for school is more nerve-wracking this year, for sure. And by now, many parents feel as though they have pulled out all the stops on finding creative activities in the home and backyard. Maybe there were some trips to a beach with physical distancing. What next?
During this frenetic time of planning both for the school year and for continued safety measures around the new coronavirus, it’s a lifesaver for the family nerves to go out on the trail. Hiking is one of the safest and healthiest activities during the pandemic — fresh air, exercise, distance from others.
August isn’t the height of hiking season in Southern California, though. The hills tend to be dry and brown and the sun shines hot. The creeks have dried up and most of the flowers have gone by. That means this time of year calls for hikes with special features: maybe trees for shade and a year-round water source. Or features of interest that don’t depend on springtime flowers.
Here are two hikes just right for chilling this month and for fascinating kids, picked from my book, “50 Hikes in Orange County.” Both are in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, close enough to the coast that the temperatures are a bit cooler than farther inland. Even so, make sure to bring plenty of water for the hot, dry weather, along with shade hats. Heat and dehydration are particular dangers at this time of year.
Pecten Reef Loop trail is only about a half mile, but walking to and from it makes the total distance a still ultra-short 1.4 miles. This used to be a weed-infested little area but there have been huge volunteer efforts to restore it to a more natural state. It was still fun during its mangier days because the chief attraction here aren’t the plants but the marine fossils, mostly the imprints of pectens, or scallops, in the rocks.
These date back 15 to 20 million years and are part of a much bigger reef formation through this area that has yielded ancient whale bones, shark teeth and other fossils. The reef is part of the ancient sea floor, exposed by tectonic uplift over the past million years.
Start by parking on Laguna Hills Drive, adjacent to Sheep Hills Park off Moulton Parkway in Laguna Hills. Then walk through the park and the tunnel that goes under Moulton Parkway. You’ll be walking along Aliso Creek on the paved bikeway. There will be a large sign saying you’re entering the wilderness park, and very soon after, there will be a sign indicating the start of Pecten Reef Loop on the right. Start looking at the rocks on the ground along the way — you should be able to spot some fossil imprints. But they get more numerous as you climb a short, easy rise. At the top of the rise are several rock outcroppings with multiple pecten imprints.
In ways, late summer is a perfect time to walk here: The dying back of many of the plants exposes the rocks and their treasures more clearly. Please remember not to take any fossils you might see — not only is it illegal, but it would rob the spot of its special qualities. Those fossils were here millions of years before we came on the scene.
Robber’s Cave, trees and creek
This walk along Wood Canyon Trail and a shorter parallel trail is filled with natural wonders. Its year-round creek and shade oak woodland are a pleasure in late summer. Keep hiking to get to the feature known as Dripping Cave or Robber’s Cave, said to be the hangout of sheep rustlers who belonged to the infamous Juan Flores gang. Kids love this spot.
This hike is 5.5 miles roundtrip if you want to get all the way to the cave, but you can always turn around. Please make sure you have plenty of water. The uphill part, though relatively easy, is on the return, when it’s hotter and the kids are more tired. It helps to bring snacks for this hike.
Start at Canyon View Park on Canyon Vistas in Aliso Viejo. Park on the street and walk down the wide, paved roadway along the side of the park until you reach the gate to the wilderness park. Continue straight, soon you’ll come to the shade of a delightful oak woodland and the murmuring sound of the creek. About a half mile after entering the park, look for the start of Wood Creek Trail on your right. This brings you deeper into the woodland. Look at the base of the trees here. You’re almost certain to see the messy domed piles of twigs that make up the nests of wood rats. They have separate room inside with designated uses: food, baby rearing, bathroom-ing.
You’ll cross a couple of bridges and then return to Wood Canyon Trail. Turn right and continue down the trail until you see the sign to the cave, which is at the end of a short, narrow trail (watch out for poison oak here). There’s a sign that tells you some of the history of the cave and Juan Flores. Spend some time looking around, especially at the holes in the walls that were used to hang supplies, and the signs of smoke from campfires on the ceiling. When you’re done, return back up Wood Canyon Trail to where you started.
Did everyone come out itching to know more about the infamous local bandit Juan Flores? You can read all about him on his here.
By Karin Klein