It’s a strange experience to stand across the street from a Target and a McDonalds, only to find yourself in the midst of towering canyons and ancient sycamore groves less than two hours later. With my favorite hiking buddies along for the ride, that’s exactly what I signed up for at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. The reward was discovering Orange County’s only sandstone gorge, aptly named Red Rock Canyon.
We begin the day with loaded backpacks, essential water bottles and sandwiches in tow, at the Borrego Canyon parking lot in Foothill Ranch. Though today we are sticking to the 4-mile out-and-back for Red Rock, Whiting Ranch is comprised of an expansive trail network that’s popular with mountain bikers.
Our feet hit the trail at the perfect time. It’s a warm, January afternoon and many other people are out enjoying the weather too. A light breeze rustles the forest canopy and sunlight dapples the shaded creek bed that runs along the ravine. Bring your trusted hiking boots; you may have to ford your way once in a while. Everything is a lush green hue, thanks to recent rainstorms – a fact likely appreciated by the local property owners as well. On both sides, upon the hills, beautiful houses look out over the valley and surrounding mountains.
Up above the developments, the trail is flush with vibrant wildlife, so keep your senses sharp. With some close observation and a little bit of luck, you might even spot a burrowing Vole remodeling its underground home. Elegant Orangetip butterflies dance across the path, alighting on feathery green coastal sage bushes. Take a tip from them, pick some of the plants and crush it in your hands for a soft herbal aroma. As we continue, a fellow hiker spots a trio of deer silhouetted at the top of distant dreaded hill, grazing along its crown. If you’re so inclined, you could join them up there for the view, but we decide that’s a steep choice and worth another story.
We arrive at a junction for the trail system, but a well-marked sign keeps us pointed in the right direction. The footpath narrows, and with just over a half-mile to go, we encounter a subtle shift in the environment. The earth beneath our feet takes on a reddish hue, and prickly pear cacti sprout up from the scrub brush more consistently. We round the bend, and the mountains open up, exposing their rusty innards. I have to crane my neck back to take it all in; a smoothly contoured wall, naturally carved by eons of wind and rain rises sharply up the gully. The cliff face blushes a deeper orange as the setting sun kisses its flowing lines. It evokes the landmarks of Utah, beautiful formations I’ve only seen in pictures. But, I think, this gives those a run for our money. A hush resides over this natural amphitheater, even with several groups of hikers climbing to join us. It’s a brilliant place to unpack the snacks and just soak it all in, which is exactly what we did.
Red Rock Canyon
Distance: 4.2 miles round trip
Time: 2 hours. Sunset is best.
Elevation gain: 420 feet
Trailhead: 26701 Portola Pkwy, Lake Forest, CA, 92610
For trail conditions call: 949-923-2245