This five-mile loop combines four trails to visit two canyons in the mountains between Laguna Beach and Irvine. Little Sycamore Canyon is framed by a big wall of pocketed sandstone that makes it an interesting destination. The high end of the hike along Serrano Ridge Trail offers broad inland views toward the Santa Ana Mountains. There is 500 feet of total elevation between the low and high points of the loop, but the elevation change will feel more like 800 feet because there is a second climb along the way. While hiking the loop over Little Sycamore Canyon Trail, Serrano Ridge Trail, Camarillo Canyon Road, and Stagecoach South Trail, you will get a great taste of the sagebrush terrain in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, a 7,000-acre section of the South Coast Wilderness Area. The hike starts from the Nix Nature Center, where you can find park rangers and information about the area’s plants and animals.
This loop can be hiked in either direction (of course) and the directions are simple. If you start on Little Sycamore Canyon Trail, turn left at every junction for a counterclockwise loop. If you start on Stagecoach South Trail, you should turn right at every junction for a clockwise loop. In this direction, you will hike 1.4 miles over Stagecoach South Trail, 1.1 miles up Camarillo Canyon Road, 1.5 miles across Serrano Ridge Trail, and 1 mile down Little Sycamore Canyon Trail.
The hike starts from a parking area near the Nix Nature Center on the west side of Laguna Canyon Road, just north of the 73 Tollway. Little Sycamore Canyon Trail heads up a canyon just past the nature center that is framed by sandstone walls with interesting pockets. You will find the start of Stagecoach South Trail along the left side of the parking lot. Stagecoach South Trail ascends southwest up a sage-covered ridge. After just under a quarter mile, you will reach a level point where you can get a good look back toward Little Sycamore Canyon and east across Laguna Canyon Road toward Barbara’s Lake, a small lake that is the largest natural lake in Orange County. (If you want to see Barbara’s Lake up close, you can hike east from the nature center on a trail that passes below Laguna Canyon Road.)
A string of switchbacks will bring you up to another landing with even broader views. From here, Stagecoach South Trail takes a level course along the side of the ridge. After 0.8 miles, the trail turns downhill and begins descending into Camarillo Canyon. You will give up all the elevation that you’ve already gained (about 225 feet) and then some, dropping 275 feet to the low point of the loop in Camarillo Canyon. As you begrudgingly descend, there will be views across the wide grassy canyon toward Laguna Canyon Road and the 73 Tollway.
At the bottom of Stagecoach South Trail, 1.4 miles from the start, you will see an obvious trail marker (#44). Turn right here toward Camarillo Canyon Road. After a few hundred feet, stay right at a split (marker #43) to continue up Camarillo Canyon.
Camarillo Canyon Road crosses a grassy field at the bottom of the broad canyon. After another third of a mile, you will pass through a grove of live oaks where you can pause to enjoy some elusive shade. Just ahead, and 2 miles from the start, you will reach a sudden bend in the road. Straight ahead, an old section of the trail is closed for reconstruction, so follow the new trail to the right as it weaves up the side of the canyon. You will gain a nice view back over the grassland you just left, graced by a grove of oaks.
Next you will meet the steepest section of the hike. Press up the wide dirt road, confident that relief will come once you reach Serrano Ridge Trail. In all, 375 feet of elevation are gained over 1.1 miles on Camarillo Canyon Trail. When you reach Serrano Ridge Trail, turn right and head north across the top of the undulating ridge.
Serrano Ridge Trail rolls over crests and dips in the ridgeline, offering views in all directions. To the northeast, you’ll get a good perspective of the interesting sandstone formations along the opposite wall of Little Sycamore Canyon, followed by the higher peaks of the Santa Ana Mountains.
As the trail curves to the right, wrapping around the top of Little Sycamore Canyon, you will find views to the left over Irvine. The ridge is draped with with sagebrush and prickly pear cacti that allow for open views. The rolling Serrano Ridge Trail ascends 125 feet to the high point of the hike (850 feet above sea level), before easing down the top of Little Sycamore Canyon Trail. Turn right down this single-track to complete the loop.
Little Sycamore Canyon Trail moves quickly down the side of the canyon, dropping about 175 feet in a quarter mile. Below the sagebrush-covered slopes you will enter riparian thickets of taller brush. After you cross three footbridges, the trail will turn briefly uphill and crosses the west wall of the canyon. The trail widens for the last half mile as you hike beneath the pocketed sandstone wall that frames the canyon. Below the trail there is, as you might expect, a line of sycamores. Go straight through a junction with Mary’s Trail (a short nature trail circling the gardens at the bottom of the canyon), passing Nix Nature Center to complete the loop.
One of the unique feature of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is that there are painter’s easels spread throughout the park to highlight the natural elements. An easel at the bottom of Little Sycamore Canyon Trail includes a seasonal tableau and this quote:
Shaped perhaps by the shallow layer of soil over sandstone bedrock, the “little” sycamores of this canyon nevertheless form significant woodland. In addition, grasslands merge with scrub oak chaparral and coastal sage scrub to create a diverse and complex landscape. Ancient sandstone cliffs and caves reveal the canyon’s ten million year old past when the sea covered the entire region. Rare plants take hold here, rooted in lichens and mosses.
Fire scars offer evidence of more recent change. The 1993 Laguna firestorm swept through this canyon and 90% of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. The land is recovering, each year showing change as “fire follower” plants are replaced by secondary growth. The scrub oaks in the upper canyon withstood the fire and are thriving today.
Dogs are not allowed on this hike. Mountain bikes are allowed on Stagecoach South Trail, Camarillo Canyon Road, and Serrano Ridge Trail, but are not allowed on Little Sycamore Canyon Trail. A good alternative for bikers is to continue riding north on Serrano Ridge Trail past the top of Little Sycamore Canyon Trail. Stay to the right past a junction with Quail Trail, and turn right on Stagecoach North/West Canyon Trail to loop back to the nature center. Bring along a copy of the trail map. There is a $3 Orange County Parks fee to park at the trailhead near Nix Nature Center in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, but no permit is required, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From the 405 Freeway, drive south on Laguna Canyon Road (Route 133) for three miles and turn right into the parking area for Nix Nature Center. It is a tenth of a mile from the road to the trailhead staging area. Stagecoach South Trail will be on the left. From PCH in Laguna Beach, it is 4.8 miles north up Laguna Canyon Road to the turnoff for Nix Nature Center, which is 1.2 miles north of the Route 73 Tollway.
Trailhead address: 18751 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Trailhead coordinates: 33.607746, -117.763248 (33° 36′ 27.88″N 117° 45′ 47.69″W)
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