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The Best Places to Explore Orange County Outdoors

Orange County, California, may be best known for the fantasy world of Disneyland and outrageously out-of-this-world reality TV shows. But for locals, there’s far more to explore beyond the Magic Kingdom. In fact, Orange County has magical forests, stunning sandstone canyons, enchanting wetlands, beautiful beaches, and much more within reach.

If you’re hoping to make the most of your enchanted Disneyland family vacation, or if you’re seeking fresh (air) alternatives to spending your entire Orange County trip inside theme parks and shopping malls, we have some ideal locations for you to head outside, enjoy a great hike, discover some of California’s best beaches, and do much more.

Yes, Orange County Has More to Explore Beyond the Magic Kingdom’s Gates

A wave splashes onto shore at Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

When you fly into Orange County (or OC), it feels like you’re entering into a concrete jungle of office parks, strip malls, and cookie-cutter suburban developments. When you reach Disneyland, you might wonder whether the concrete jungle is all this region of California has to offer. That actually can’t be any further from the truth.

Though the area immediately surrounding Disneyland is very built out, go ahead and look to the north, then look to the east. There may not be gold in those hills, but you will find golden opportunities to experience a very different side of Orange County — one that’s wild, rugged, and verdant. Farther south and southeast, you’ll find gorgeous beaches that crush your preconceived notions of “California Beach Culture.” While there are plenty more outdoor treasures to hike, bike, and simply explore in Los Angeles and San Diego, here are some fantastic OC outdoor playgrounds that make for more convenient day trips from the Disneyland Resort area.

Here Are Some Close-ish Hiking Spots in North Orange County

Ralph B. Clark Regional Park and the Coyote Hills

A view of the Coyote Hills from Ralph B. Clark Park in Fullerton, California.
Photo by Coyote783, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

The Coyote Hills comprise one of the last stretches of open space in North Orange County. You can start your exploration of this ruggedly beautiful terrain at Ralph B. Clark Regional Park, where you’ll find a stocked fishing pond, shaded picnic areas, a sports complex, and an interpretive center with a paleontology museum that explains life in prehistoric Orange County. You’ll also discover multiple hiking trails, including some that connect to the West Coyote Hills region. On the other end of Coyote Hills, the Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve offers more chances to spot native California flora and fauna, and the Nora Kuttner Trail offers panoramic views of the San Gabriel Mountains, Downtown Los Angeles, and Catalina Island on clear days.

The Coyote Hills used to house oil drills, but these hills are where rare and threatened bird species like California quails, white-tailed kites, western bluebirds, Bell’s sage sparrows, and coastal cactus wrens have always called home. Real estate developers and local environmentalists have sparred over the future of this region for decades, but the City of Fullerton has recently begun to implement its plan to preserve more of this area as permanent park land.

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Carbon Canyon Regional Park

The coastal redwood trees at Carbon Canyon Regional Park in Yorba Linda, California.
Photo by Ron Reiring, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr

When we think of Southern California, we usually don’t think of redwoods. Yet when we head north from Disneyland, we reach Carbon Canyon Regional Park near Brea and Yorba Linda. Sure, this 124-acre park includes grassy picnic areas, a four-acre lake with two fishing piers, and sports facilities. But when you step into the undeveloped expanse of the park, you encounter something that may be as magical as anything you’ll find inside Disneyland.

If you park on the east end of the park, you’ll find a trailhead that will take you to OC’s only grove of coastal redwoods. How on earth did this happen? In 1970, a local bank offered redwood seedlings to new customers as a promotional deal. Five years later, park rangers planted seedlings here to celebrate the opening of the new park. In addition to the redwoods, you’ll discover plenty of native wildlife and sweeping hillside views that might make you forget you came to Orange County to visit a theme park.

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Oak Canyon Nature Center, Weir Canyon Nature Preserve, and Santiago Oaks Regional Park

A view of the mountains at Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange, California.
Photo provided by OC Parks

As you stroll through Disneyland, you might assume that Anaheim revolves entirely around a family of anthropomorphic mice. Yet when you venture east on the SR-91 freeway, then exit and follow the winding roads uphill, you reach Oak Canyon Nature Center, and you soon realize that Anaheim is not all about theme parks. In this leafy nature preserve, you’ll find a forest full of native oak trees, a year-round stream, an interpretive center, and an amphitheater.

If you’re traveling with children, this is a great park to enjoy a family-friendly hike. If you’re traveling solo, or solely with fellow adults, you can easily connect to the Anaheim Hills Walking and Riding Trail, which will guide you into the larger Weir Canyon Nature Preserve. Here, you will experience one of OC’s largest and healthiest oak woodlands, and you can connect to Santiago Oaks Regional Park for more mountain views, a mature forest, a meandering creek, and even an orange grove.

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They’re a Little Farther, But These Parks and Beaches Are Definitely Worth the Journey

Black Star Canyon

View of a dry creek bed at Black Star Canyon in Orange County, California.
Photo by Ken Lund, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr

Nestled in the Orange County portion of the Cleveland National Forest east of Disneyland, Black Star Canyon is rich in wildlife, landscapes, and history. According to local legend, Black Star Canyon is a haunted land due to its alleged past involving cult activities, supernatural beings, and paranormal happenings. In reality, the Tongva-Gabrieleno Native American tribal community called this place home for centuries, an armed conflict between Tongva residents and white American trappers turned bloody in 1831, and the Black Star Mining Company launched a coal mine here in 1879 that operated intermittently until the early 20th century.

Despite the tall tales and scary stories, Black Star Canyon is a safe and family-friendly patch of wilderness that provides stunning views of red rock cliffs above and Irvine Lake below, along with a pathway to one of the region’s most beautifully elusive waterfalls. The waterfall only flows when areas upstream receive ample rainfall, so the waterfall may not be very active if OC’s experiencing another prolonged dry spell. Still, the overall scenery is so gorgeous that it merits a mention here.

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Bolsa Chica Wetlands and State Beach

A bird at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, California.
Photo by Corey Seeman, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr

Heading south of Disneyland and into Huntington Beach, we reach the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and Bolsa Chica State Beach. On the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), the Ecological Reserve — also known as the Bolsa Chica Wetlands — constitutes the largest saltwater marsh between Monterey and San Diego. You can enjoy five miles worth of trails that are open from sunrise to sunset, and these trails will lead you through a welcoming 1,400-acre landing spot for 321 bird species, including Canada geese, blue-winged teals, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, great horned owls, Anna’s hummingbirds, and barn swallows.

On the ocean side of PCH, Bolsa Chica State Beach offers three miles of wide, sandy coastline that’s ideal for surfing, fishing, beach volleyball, walking, and sunbathing. Even better, Huntington Beach has an eight-and-a-half-mile-long paved coastal trail that more adventurous hikers and bikers can use to head south to the pier and Huntington State Beach.

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Red Rock Canyon and Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park

Sandstone bluffs at Red Rock Canyon in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, Orange County, California.
Photo by Carl Glover, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr

Not to be confused with Las Vegas’ Red Rock Canyon, Orange County’s own Red Rock Canyon sits perched above the seemingly sleepy suburb of Lake Forest, and it’s conveniently close to the SR-241 toll road. Situated inside Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, a nearly 2,500-acre natural park full of riparian and oak woodland canyons, the Borrego Trail goes one and a half miles before it meets the Red Rock Trailhead. From there, it’s only another half mile before you reach Red Rock Canyon.

Here, you will find remarkably beautiful sandstone formations that would feel right at home in one of Arizona’s or Utah’s famed national parks were it not for all the native California vegetation surrounding them. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, take the narrow trail up the creek bed for even more jaw-dropping views.

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Crystal Cove State Park

The historic village of cottages at Crystal Cove State Park in Newport Beach, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

When you’re approaching Crystal Cove from Newport Beach, it totally looks like that place where Real Housewives build outrageous mansions and start even more outrageous drama. But once you enter the park, all that made-for-TV manufactured reality melts away as you’re transported to another world of calm, tranquility, and harmony with Mother Nature. If you need a good, long hike, head towards the Laguna Beach side of Crystal Cove and take the El Moro Canyon Trail, which starts near an elementary school and takes you uphill. From there, you’ll head through wildflower fields, then you’ll reap the rewards of sweeping coastal views at the higher elevations.

If you’re more in the mood for a day at the beach, the Newport Beach side of Crystal Cove features a historic village of cottages that date as far back as the 1920s, when neither those outrageous mansions nor television even existed. If you head onto the beach and walk south, you’ll discover vibrant tide pools, azure ocean waters, and an entire undersea park offshore. If you’re feeling hungry and/or thirsty, The Beachcomber has you covered with a full menu of great grub and strong cocktails. If you’re in the mood to extend your stay, many of the cottages are available to rent for up to seven nights — but make sure to book ahead, as cottage reservations tend to fill up fast.

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Salt Creek Beach, Strands Beach, and the Dana Point Headlands

A view of the Dana Point Headlands from Strands Beach in Dana Point, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Finally, we venture farther from Disneyland and deep into South Orange County, where we find Salt Creek Beach and Strands Beach in Dana Point. At Salt Creek, a small offshore reef makes for the best swells in the entire region, so you’ll definitely want to visit if you’re an avid surfer or an ocean photographer. Heading south from the main beach, you’ll find an incredibly scenic set of tide pools that add to the picturesque charm of this stretch of OC coastline.

On the other side of the tidepools, you’ll hit Strands Beach, which may be the only beach in the entire state that has its own funicular (or inclined elevator) that connects the beach to a parking lot above. At the end of Strands Beach, you’ll reach the Dana Point Headlands, or that place that famed lawyer, author, and anti-slavery activist Richard Henry Dana declared “the most romantic spot on the coast.” In addition to the dazzling ocean views, you’ll find about three miles of trails, over 150 species of native California plants and animals, and prime whale watching opportunities from November to May. If you’re feeling extra courageous, head down to the beach (but only during low tide!) to explore a unique set of sea caves that will give you a better sense of how Richard Henry Dana viewed this stretch of California coastline when he first arrived in 1835.

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