Horsethief Creek via Cactus Springs Trail

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Cottowoods at Horsethief Creek, Santa Rosa Mountains

Cottonwoods above Horsethief Creek

View on the Cactus Springs Trail, Santa Rosa Mountains

Desert vegetation and clouds, Cactus Springs Trail

Horsethief Creek via Cactus Springs Trail

  • Location: Santa Rosa Mountains on Highway 74, 15.5 miles southwest of Highway 111, 8.8 miles east of Highway 371 and 21.2 miles southeast of Highway 243. Look for the Cactus Springs Trailhead sign and head south (turn right if you’re coming from the west or left if you’re coming from Palm Springs) onto Pinyon Flats Transfer Station Road. Follow it a short distance to the Cactus Springs Trail Head parking lot, on the left.
  • Agency: Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
  • Distance: 4.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 900 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season:  November – April
  • USGS topo map: “Toro Peak”
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock; hiking poles
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Inland Empire
  • More information: here; plant guide here; trip descriptions here and here (includes additional distance past Horsethief Creek)
  • Rating: 8
Cactus Springs Trail Head en route to Horsethief Creek, Santa Rosa Mountains

0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Set in the transitional zone between the Santa Rosa Mountains and the Coachella Valley, this hike provides a huge variety of scenery, including geology, canyons, creeks and desert flora. Adding to the appeal is the area’s historical interest; Horsethief Creek takes its name from the legend of gangsters that supposedly used the canyon as a hideout.

Cactus Springs Trail, Santa Rosa Mountains

0:05 – Information board; Cactus Springs Trail leaves Sawmill Road (times are approximate)

The hike follows the upper portion of the 22-mile Cactus Springs Trail, also signed as 5E01, which continues through the Santa Rosa Wilderness and descends into the Coachella Valley. From the parking area, follow the rightmost of the two trails, reaching a junction with the dirt Sawmill Road, which begins its long ascent toward Santa Rosa Mountain. Bear left onto the Cactus Springs Trail, passing by an information board and trail register.

Cactus Springs Trail crosses Deep Creek, Santa Rosa Mountains

0:14 – Crossing the Deep Creek stream bed

Continue eastward through a landscape of pinyon pines, agave and cacti, with Asbestos Mountain towering to the north. At half a mile, trail drops toward the headwaters of Deep Creek, climbs up the other side and passes an abandoned dolomite mine. The trail makes a few ups and downs, reaching a sign indicating the entrance to the Santa Rosa Wilderness at about 1.2 miles, the approximate halfway point.

Sign at the entrance to the Santa Rosa Wilderness, Cactus Springs Trail

0:31 – Entering the Santa Rosa Wilderness

Past the sign, you descend through an attractive valley dotted with cacti and other flora to another tributary of Deep Creek and then climb to a saddle (1.8 miles) with a panoramic view of Horsethief Canyon. Soon after you’ll notice the cottonwoods lining the bottom of the canyon and the trail makes a steep descent, negotiating switchbacks to arrive at the creek.

Descending to Horsethief Creek on the Cactus Springs Trail, Santa Rosa Mountains

0:54 – Beginning the descent to Horsethief Creek, about 1.8 miles from the start

On the opposite side of the stream, which may be dry late in the year, a short spur leads to a flat area beneath a grove of cottonwoods, the turnaround point. Here you can sit and relax before making the steep climb out of the canyon.

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Cottonwoods in Horsethief Creek, Santa Rosa Mountains

1:10 – Cottonwoods at Horsethief Creek

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Mt. Wilson/Devore Camp Loop

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View from near the top of the Rim Trail, Mt. Wilson

View from near the top of the Rim Trail, Mt. Wilson

Stream crossing in the Angeles National Forest

Stream crossing on the Gabrielino Trail between West Fork and Devore Camps

Mt. Wilson/Devore Camp Loop

  • Location:  Just below the summit of Mt. Wilson.  From I-210, follow Highway 2 (the Angeles Crest Highway) northeast for 14 miles to Mt. Wilson/Red Box Road.  Turn right and follow Mt. Wilson/Red Box Road 4.2 miles.  Legally, you are required to turn right on Mt. Wilson Circle (a one-way street) and follow it 0.6 miles as it circles the antennas before arriving back at Mt. Wilson/Red Box Road and the signed Kenyon Devore Trail Head.  Several parking spots are designated on the left side of the road.  If parking is unavailable here, you can park farther up at the large lot below the Cosmic Cafe and start the loop from there.  A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) is required. Click here to purchase.
  • Agency: Angeles National Forest, Los Angeles River District
  • Distance: 11.5  miles
  • Elevation gain: 2,900 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: R (Distance, elevation gain, trail condition, terrain, navigation)
  • Suggested time: 6.5 hours
  • Best season: Year-round, depending on conditions (hot during the summer, potentially treacherous after rain, possible snow during the winter)
  • USGS topo map: “Mt. Wilson”
  • Recommended gear: Hiking Poles; Insect Repellent; long sleeved shirts and pants
  • Recommended guidebook: Trails of the Angeles
  • More information: Trip reports here and here
  • Rating: 8
Kenyon Devore Trail Head, Mt. Wilson

0:00 – Kenyon Devore Trail Head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This loop offers a different perspective on Mt. Wilson from the approaches from Chantry Flat, Sierra Madre and Altadena.  Starting from just off of the summit, the hike drops down to the West Fork of the San Gabriel River via the Kenyon Devore and Gabrielino Trails and returns via the Gabrielino and Rim Trails, creating a prime example of a “reverse hike.”  Although the elevation gain isn’t as big as the hikes from below, terrain and sometimes navigation add to the challenges.  Many sections of the trails have been washed out, requiring extra caution, and the stretch between the two trail camps requires multiple potentially tricky stream crossings.  You will also need to keep an eye out for poison oak and poodle dog bush.  Despite these difficulties, this hike is a very enjoyable one, exploring some of the lightly traveled country of the San Gabriels and providing an excellent workout.  Adding to the appeal is the fact that the majority of the route is shaded.

Rope to help cross a creek, Angeles National Forest

0:45 – Rope to help navigate a creek crossing on the Kenyon Devore Trail (times are approximate)

From the Kenyon Devore trailhead, follow the trail downhill, heading generally north.  There are a few sudden switchbacks that may be easy to miss; keep in mind that if the navigation and terrain become too difficult, you have probably lost the trail and should back track.  You follow the contour of Strayns Canyon and as you descend the pines and black oaks give way to alders and maples.  There are a few spots where fallen trees can make the route a little bit obscure, but it never strays too far from the canyon.

1:12 - Bear right on the Gabrielino Trail

1:20 – Bear right on the Gabrielino Trail

At about 2.8 miles, bear right on the Gabrielino Trail.  Follow it into a meadow where you will see Mt. Baldy and its neighbors to the east.  The going is fairly easy, although you will want to keep an eye out for poodle dog, which grows in abundance during this stretch.  The trail leaves the meadow and heads back into the shade for a little bit before dropping down to the West Fork Trail Camp (4.2 miles.)  Just before reaching the camp, you’ll make a tricky hairpin turn to the left–not helped by the fact that the trail has been washed out, likely requiring use of hands as well as feet–and that there’s a fair amount of poison oak.

West Fork Trail Camp

2:10 – West Fork Trail Camp

From West Fork, look for the sign indicating the continuation of the Gabrielino Trail.  You cross the stream bed and follow the trail farther down the canyon of the West Fork.  Although there’s not much elevation change here, this is one of the tougher parts of the hike: much of the trail becomes over grown and the spots where the trail crosses the stream aren’t always obvious.  Expect to do a little bit of bushwhacking.  After several crossings, the trail rises to the north side of the canyon, staying above for a little while before dropping back down.  One final stream crossing brings you to the Devore Trail Camp (5.5 miles.)  Here you can sit at a picnic table and rest up for the major ascent that now awaits you.

Bushwhacking deep in the Angeles National Forest

2:20 – Bushwhacking after the first creek crossing past West Fork Trail Camp on the Gabrielino Trail

Continue southeast on the Gabrielino Trail which rises quite steeply at first and maintains a steady incline for the next mile, when it climbs about 900 feet to cross Rincon Red Box Road.  On the opposite side, switchbacks bring you up another 400 feet in half a mile to reach a junction called Newcomb Pass (7 miles from the start.)  Here you can sit at another picnic table and relax before starting the final leg of the hike.

Stream crossing in the Angeles National Forest before Devore Trail Camp

2:55 – Another stream crossing, shortly before Devore Trail Camp

Follow the Rim Trail, which climbs more gradually, heading west toward Mt. Wilson.  On the way, you get some nice glimpses of the Angeles National Forest to the north and as you climb higher, you can see the San Gabriel Valley to the south; if visibility is good you can see Old Saddleback.  Other than a few short open stretches, the Rim Trail is shaded, mainly by black oaks.

Devore Trail Camp

3:10 – Devore Trail Camp

The incline becomes a little more noticeable as you near Mt. Wilson.  As you climb you’ll spot antennas between the trees.  At about 10 miles, you’ll see the first of several golf ball-shaped telescopes.  The Rim Trail skirts along the north side of the broad Mt. Wilson summit, finally reaching the paved road at 10.6 miles from the start.  Bear right and follow the road to the large parking area by the Cosmic Cafe, where you can get your best view of the hike from a picnic table.  Though it’s not a 360-degree panorama, pending good visibility, you can see Catalina Island, the Santa Monica Mountains, downtown L.A. and more.  (If you have time and energy, you can walk up to the observatory for an even better view.)

Newcomb Pass, Angeles National Forest

4:00 – Newcomb Pass

From the parking lot, follow the paved road just over half a mile back to the Kenyon Devore trailhead.  If you were wondering, Kenyon Devore (1911-1995) was a former L.A. County employee and Angeles National Forest volunteer.

North view from the Rim Trail, Angeles National Forest

5:10 – Looking north from the Rim Trail

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Skyline Park, Mt. Wilson

6:15 – View from Skyline Park, summit of Mt. Wilson

Sunset Hills/Woodridge Loop

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Through the meadow on the Woodridge Loop

Through the meadow on the Woodridge Loop

Morning view of Bard Lake, Sunset Hills/Woodridge Loop

Morning view of Bard Lake, Sunset Hills/Woodridge Loop

Sunset Hills/Woodridge Loop

  • Location: Erbes Road, Thousand Oaks. From the south, take the 23 Freeway to Sunset Hills Blvd.  Turn right and go 0.2 miles to Erbes Road.  Turn left and go 0.7 miles and park in a large dirt lot on the left side of the road (if you reach the freeway, you’ve gone too far).  From the north, take the 23 Freeway to Olsen Road.  Turn right and go 0.4 miles to Erbes Road.  Turn left and go 0.7 miles to the trail head, which will be on the left side of the road shortly after you cross under the freeway.
  • Agency: Conejo Recreation and Parks District/Conejo Open Space Foundation
  • Distance: 5.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season: October – May
  • USGS topo map:  Newbury Park
  • Recommended gear: sun hathiking poles; insect repellent
  • More information: Area trail map here; trip description here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 5
0:00 - Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This loop isn’t as scenically varied or secluded as some of the other hikes in the Lang Ranch area, but it does offer a good workout, conveniently located to the Thousand Oaks/Simi Valley area.  On clear days, the vistas include the Santa Monica Mountains, Santa Susanas, Simi Hills and more.

0:26 - "Y" Junction near the top of the ridge; bear left (times are approximate)

0:28 – “Y” Junction near the top of the ridge; bear left (times are approximate)

From the trailhead on Erbes Road, follow the switchbacks up the ridge.  After a quarter mile, a trail branches off to the left, heading downhill; this is the start of a small loop that can be added to the hike.  Continuing uphill on the main route you pass the other end of the loop and the trail then bends right, heading southeast.  You get a good view of Bard Lake (also known as Wood Ranch Reservoir) on the left and the Santa Monica Mountains on the right.

0:35 - Beginning of the loop

0:35 – Beginning of the loop

After briefly leveling out, the trail runs up along side a fence and makes a steep ascent, climbing over 200 feet in about 0.3 miles.  Bear left at a Y-junction on the way up.  At the top of the ascent (1.1 miles from the start) you can enjoy a 360-degree view before descending.

1:00 - Cross the road and continue on the paved trail opposite

1:00 – Cross the road and continue on the paved trail opposite

At 1.4 miles, you reach a T-junction; the start of the main loop.  It can be hiked in either direction; by going counter-clockwise as described here, the ascents are slightly more gradual.  Take a hard right and descend to residential Sunset Hills Blvd.  Cross the street and turn right, following it briefly to a parking area where the trail continues (1.8 miles.)

1:12 - End of the pavement; bear left

1:12 – End of the pavement; bear left

This brings you to one of the more attractive legs of the hike.  You ascend to a meadow with panoramic views, heading first south then east, meeting up with a service road at 2.5 miles.  Cross it and continue east, now on a paved path that leads around the backs of some homes.  When the paved path ends, bear left and head into a field.  On the opposite hill, you may notice hikers descending on the Lang Ranch Loop.

1:20 - Left turn; heading uphill toward the saddle

1:20 – Left turn; heading uphill toward the saddle

At an intersection, head left and uphill (the right fork takes you to Lang Ranch, an option if you want to extend the hike.) A short climb brings you to a saddle where two oaks stand on opposite sides of the trail.  A paved road descends; you can use it, but to make the hike more interesting, follow a trail on the right side of the road, which briefly climbs before making a twisting descent, taking in some good views of Simi Valley, soon rejoining the road.  (A few trails branch off to the right; they head toward the Long Canyon area of Simi Valley.)

1:23 - Oak tree at the top of the saddle (bear right on the single-track)

1:23 – Oak tree at the top of the saddle (bear right on the single-track)

After crossing the road (3.3 miles), pick up the trail on the opposite side, passing by some sandstone boulders.  The trail climbs gradually, following a ridge in back of some homes, before completing the loop (4.3 miles.)  Retrace your steps back to the trail head on Erbes, enjoying some good views to the north and west.

1:25 - Sandstone boulders on the opposite side of the service road

1:25 – Sandstone boulders on the opposite side of the service road

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:50 - Heading back along the ridge, completing the loop

1:50 – Heading back along the ridge, completing the loop

Tapo and Chivos Canyons

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View from the ridge line at the top of the second loop

View from the ridge line at the top of the second loop

Oaks in the bottom of Tapo Canyon

Oaks in the bottom of Tapo Canyon

Tapo and Chivos Canyons

  • Location: Foothills north of Simi Valley.  From the 118 Freeway, take Tapo Canyon Road exit and head north (turn right if you’re coming from the east; left if from the west.)  The trail head will be on the right side of the road at 1.5 miles, shortly before the intersection with Lost Canyon Drive.  Free parking is available in a small dirt lot.
  • Agency: Rancho Simi Recreation and Parks Department
  • Distance: 7.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,550 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: October – May
  • USGS topo map: Simi Valley East
  • Recommended gear: sun hathiking poles
  • More information: MeetUp description (first loop only) here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Trail head on Tapo Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head on Tapo Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

For a hike that starts just beyond the edge of the suburbs, this double loop often feels pleasantly secluded.  After leaving Tapo Canyon Road behind, for most of the trip, the sights and sounds of civilization are near nil.

0:22 - Heading through the oaks after the first junction (times are approximate)

0:22 – Heading through the oaks after the first junction (times are approximate)

In the foothills north of Simi Valley, numerous hiking trails and fire roads run through several adjacent parcels of open space.  The route described here is one of many possible trips that can be taken in this area; it’s a scenic, moderately strenuous workout that can easily be shortened or expanded as desired.

0:37 - View from the saddle after the first ascent; beginning of the first loop

0:37 – View from the saddle after the first ascent; beginning of the first loop

From the Tapo Canyon Trailhead, follow the fire road northeast for a pleasant 0.9 miles, gradually climbing about 200 feet.  Several large oaks dot the rolling hills in a terrain that resembles that of nearby Palo Comado/Cheeseboro Canyons.

0:43 - Starting the descent toward Chivos Canyon

0:43 – Starting the descent toward Chivos Canyon

At 0.9 miles, head right at a junction and continue through more shade before making a short, steep climb to a saddle (1.4 miles.)  Here you get a good view to the east of the area where you are about to hike.  It’s the start of the first loop, which is best hiked in the clockwise direction; that way you have a partially shaded ascent on your return.  To do this, turn left and continue to climb for 0.2 miles to a T-junction where you can enjoy a panoramic vista before heading right and descending into the canyon on a single-track.

1:07 - Left turn to head into Chivos Canyon

1:07 – Left turn to head into Chivos Canyon

You drop 300 feet, closing the first loop at 2.4 miles from the start.  Continue your descent to a T-junction where you’ll turn left and begin your ascent into Chivos Canyon.  As you climb, you get views of the sandstone-striped hills across the valley.  The trail climbs about 300 feet over the next half mile to reach another junction, the start of the second loop.

1:25 - Junction; start of the second loop (stay straight then bear right)

1:25 – Junction; start of the second loop (stay straight then bear right)

Continue straight, bearing right at another junction and climb around the northwestern side of a hill.  At 4 miles, the trail tops out at a ridge where you get good views southeast toward the Simi Hills.  Turn right at a T-junction and follow a ridge with views of Las Llajas Canyon to the left and Chivos Canyon to the right.  Just before the trail begins its descent, you can take a short climb to the left to reach the highest point on the ridge.

1:50 - Looking southeast from the ridge at the top of the second loop

1:50 – Looking southeast from the ridge at the top of the second loop

The trail descends to an X-junction.  Bear right and continue your descent back toward the start of the loop, passing by an abandoned water tank.  At 4.9 miles, you complete the loop.  Retrace your steps back toward Tapo Canyon, this time staying left at the Y-junction (5.5 miles.)  The fire road climbs through an attractive oak grove before making an exposed push back to the saddle.  From here, simply follow the roads back down to the trail head.

2:00 - Bear right at the "X" junction

2:00 – Bear right at the “X” junction

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

2:30 - Ascending through oaks back to the saddle, completing the first loop

2:30 – Ascending through oaks back to the saddle, completing the first loop

Big Sky Loop (Simi Valley)

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Looking southeast from the Big Sky Trail toward the Simi Hills

Looking southeast from the Big Sky Trail toward the Simi Hills

BSL Southwest

Southwest view from the Big Sky Trail

Big Sky Loop (Simi Valley)

  • Location: Simi Valley.  From the 118 Freeway, take the Erringer Road exit and head north (turn right if you’re coming from the east; left if from the east).  Go 0.6 miles and park in a small lot on the right side of the street, just before the intersection with Falcon St.  If the lot is full, you can park in another small lot on the northwest corner of Falcon and Erringer, diagonally opposite.
  • Agency: Rancho Simi Recreation and Parks Department
  • Distance: 4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 650 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season: October – June
  • USGS topo maps: Moorpark
  • Recommended gear: sun hathiking poles
  • More information: Description here; video of a mountain biker riding the trail here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 5
0:00 - Start of the hike on Erringer Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike on Erringer Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This hike offers a good workout with several ascents and descents and if visibility is good, the views are quite panoramic.  The trail winds through some residential neighborhoods of Simi Valley and while the sights of civilization are never far away, it’s far enough from any major roads that traffic noise is not likely to be too loud.  The Big Sky Loop is a short drive from the San Fernando Valley and even L.A. and West Side residents might find it to be worth the drive, especially on cool, clear winter days.  Movie and TV buffs may be disappointed, however, to learn that this trail bears no relation to the nearby Big Sky Movie Ranch.

0:07 - Start of the loop (times are approximate)

0:07 – Start of the loop (times are approximate)

The trail may sound a little convoluted, but navigation is easy; the various segments are well signed and the correct route should be obvious.  From the parking lot, walk north on Erringer Road for a few yards and turn right on the signed Big Sky Trail, which curls around the backs of some houses.  After a quarter mile, you reach a split; the start of the loop.  By hiking clockwise, as described here, you can save the more scenic portion of the trip for the return.

0:21 - Crossing Legends Drive

0:21 – Crossing Legends Drive

You ascend gradually for about half a mile before dipping into a pocket of oaks (don’t get used to it; there’s minimal shade on the trail.)  You then cross Legacy Drive and continue threading your way between the residential streets.  At one mile, you cross Legends Drive and at 1.3 miles, you reach Young Wolf Drive.  Pick up the trail, now fenced in like a bridle path, on the opposite side.  A short but steep ascent brings you to a junction where you head left (the right fork is an option if you want to shorten the loop) and follow the trail around the curve of the ridge.  By now you get some good views of Whiteface, a tall, cliff-like hill to the north.

0:32 - Stay left at the junction (Whiteface in the distance)

0:32 – Stay left at the junction (Whiteface in the distance)

Another ascent brings you to a junction (1.8 miles.)  Make a hairpin right turn and head south, following a bumpy ridge to the high point of the loop (2.1 miles.)  Your view can extend as far as Oat Mountain to the east, the Santa Monica Mountains to the south and Mt. Clef to the west if the air quality is good.  You also get a panoramic view of Simi Valley–and intrepid hikers can peer over the edge of the trail, which drops off nearly vertically.

0:48 - Looking off the cliff from the top of the ridge

0:48 – Looking off the cliff from the top of the ridge

Descending from this ridge, you reach a junction where the shortcut trail mentioned above rejoins the loop.  Take a hard left and follow the trail to the end of Swift Fox Court, where (as of this writing) new residences are being built.

The trail picks up again on the opposite side of Swift Fox and makes one final ascent (3.1 miles) where you can enjoy another panoramic view before completing the last leg of the hike.  Follow the ridge downhill, closing the loop, and retrace your steps to the parking lot on Erringer.

1:05 - Left turn; descent toward Swift Fox Court (note the continuation of the trail in the distance)

1:05 – Left turn; descent toward Swift Fox Court (note the continuation of the trail in the distance)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:28 - Heading down hill to complete the loop

1:28 – Heading down hill to complete the loop

Stair Steps Trail (Laguna Beach)

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Descending the Stair Steps Trail

Descending the Stair Steps Trail

Geology on the canyon wall as seen from the Stair Steps Trail

Geology on the canyon wall as seen from the Stair Steps Trail

Stair Steps Trail (Laguna Beach)

  • Location: Laguna Beach. As of this writing, parking is available in a vacant lot on the south side of the Canyon Animal Hospital, 20732 Laguna Canyon Road.  The hospital is 5.2 miles south of the 405 Freeway on the left side of the road (just past the main entrance to Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.)  It is 3 miles north of Pacific Coast Highway.  Note: The city plans on developing an artist residence on the site of the lot, which may influence whether parking is available.  For more information about the project, click here.  The Stair Steps Trail can also be done in reverse (down then up) starting from the West Ridge Trail of Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.  This requires a longer hike starting from the northern entrances to the park (Hollyleaf or Canyon View Park) or from the south, via Alta Laguna Park.
  • Agency: Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park; City of Laguna Beach
  • Distance: 1.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 600 feet
  • Suggested time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: PG
  • Best season: All year (Hot during the summer)
  • USGS topo map: Laguna Beach
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat
  • More information: Writeup on a mountain biking site here; video of mountain biking down the trail here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 6
0:00 - Start of the hike, Laguna Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike, Laguna Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Popular with mountain bikers – at least in the downhill direction – the Stair Steps Trail climbs the east side of Laguna Canyon, linking Highway 133 to the West Ridge Trail in Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.

0:03 - Right turn on Phillips St (times are approximate)

0:03 – Right turn on Phillips St (times are approximate)

Assuming you park in the lot next to Canyon Animal Hospital, follow Laguna Canyon Road north for a short distance (there’s no sidewalk but a reasonably wide shoulder).  After less than 0.1 miles, turn right on an unsigned street, marked as a private way.  Google Maps lists it as Phillips St.  The paved road ascends steeply, passing by some private homes before reaching a gate by a water tank, about 0.4 miles from the start.

0:12 - Sandstone cave on the Stair Steps Trail

0:12 – Sandstone cave on the Stair Steps Trail

This is the “official” beginning of the Stair Steps Trail, which branches to the left.  The steep ascent continues.  You pass a large boulder with a cave cut inside; this can be a good place to stop and rest, enjoying panoramic views of the canyon below.  After this landmark, the grade lessens slightly.  At about 0.6 miles from the start, you reach a junction.  The Stair Steps Trail continues steeply uphill; an alternate trail branches off to the right, ascending at a more moderate grade.  Though still fairly steep, this trail can be a more enjoyable route to the top.  While this trail isn’t listed on park literature, it is smooth and easy to follow and has clearly been in regular use by mountain bikers and hikers.  Follow it for about a quarter mile to the West Ridge Trail.

0:17 - "Split" (Main trail heads steeply uphill to the left; alternative trail heads right)

0:17 – “Split” (Main trail heads steeply uphill to the left; alternative trail heads right)

Here you can enjoy an excellent view of both Laguna Canyon and Wood Canyon; you can also see most of inland Orange County up to the Saddleback.  Given time and energy, you can extend your trip on the West Ridge Trail in either direction, providing access to Aliso & Wood Canyon Wilderness Park’s interior.  However, if you want to call it a day, return either via the more moderately graded route you climbed or by the signed Stair Steps Trail.  Keep in mind that while it’s only about 0.1 miles back to the junction from on the Stair Steps Trail, the grade is very steep and rocky; exercise caution, especially since your legs may be tired from the rigorous climb before.

0:24 - Old Saddleback as seen from the West Ridge Trail, top of the Stair Steps Trail

0:24 – Old Saddleback as seen from the West Ridge Trail, top of the Stair Steps Trail

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

William Heise County Park (Julian)

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Vista from Glen's View, William Heise County Park

Vista from Glen’s View, William Heise County Park

Dusk on the Nature Trail, William Heise County Park

Dusk on the Nature Trail, William Heise County Park

William Heise County Park

  • Location: Eastern San Diego County, near Julian.  On Highway 78, about 35 miles east of Escondido and a mile west of Julian, at the town of Wynola, head south on Pine Hills Road, signed for the park. After a mile, turn left on Deer Park Road, go 2.1 miles to Frisius Drive and turn left.  Follow Frisius Drive to the park.  Day use parking is $3.  From the main entrance, follow the road about half a mile to the Canyon Oak day use area, shortly before Group Camp 2 and Camping Area 3.
  • Agency: William Heise County Park (San Diego County Parks and Recreation)
  • Distance: 3.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 700 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season: Year-round but hot during the summer and possible snow during the winter; plan accordingly
  • USGS topo map: Julian
  • Recommended gear: hiking polessun hat
  • Recommended guidebook: Easy Hiking in Southern California
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here (Canyon Oak trail only); Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Canyon Oak Trail Head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Canyon Oak Trail Head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Located on the outskirts of Julian at nearly a mile above sea level, William Heise County Park offers dramatic mountain and desert views as well as secluded woodlands.  Despite damage from the 2003 Cedar Fire, the park is still home to an impressive collection of trees including black oaks, pines and incense cedars.  William Heise is perhaps best known as a camping destination, featuring both camp sites and log cabins, but it also features 10 miles of hiking trails.  The 3.5-mile loop described here uses the Canyon Oak, Desert View and Nature Trails, sampling the best of the park’s scenery.

0:03 - Interpretive plaque in the woods (times are approximate)

0:03 – Interpretive plaque in the woods (times are approximate)

From the day use area, the Canyon Oak Trail ascends a natural staircase through a grove of oaks  and pines where an interpretive plaque describes the history and effects of the area’s wildfires.  From here you enter an open area where you briefly descend, taking in views of North Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to the south.  After passing by Group Camp 1 (half a mile from the start), stay left as another trail merges in from the right.  The trail then climbs through a fire-ravaged landscape on a westward facing slope, reaching a vista point with a bench where you can catch your breath while enjoying a panoramic view.

0:15 - Junction on the Canyon Oak Trail

0:15 – Junction on the Canyon Oak Trail

At about 1.3 miles from the start, you reach a junction with the Desert View Trail.  Turn left and begin a steep climb up a manzanita-covered hill side.  The good news is that the views are even better than from below.  You follow a ridge, briefly descend and then climb again to a junction where a spur leads to Glen’s View (elevation 4,940).  Here you get the best view of the hike, including the desert to the east, the Palomar Mountains to the north, the Cuyamacas to the south and if the air is clear, the ocean to the west.  A view-finder points out some of the spots of note, including Toro Peak and Rabbit Peak in the Santa Rosa Mountains, the Salton Sea and more.

0:30 - Start of the Desert View Trail

0:30 – Start of the Desert View Trail

After taking in the vista, head back to the Desert View Trail which begins a steep descent, sometimes over rather rough terrain.  At a T-junction (about 2.7 miles from the start) you can extend the hike by heading left on the Nature Trail, which drops into an attractive woodland.  A few interpretive plaques describe the plant life, which includes incense cedars and sagebrush.  The Nature Trail ends at a paved road near Group Camp 2.  Follow the road a short distance back to the day use area.

0:55 - Looking east toward Granite Mountain and the Anza-Borrego Desert from Glen's View

0:55 – Looking east toward Granite Mountain and the Anza-Borrego Desert from Glen’s View

In case you were wondering, William Heise was a local businessman who donated the land for this park back in the 1960s.

1:20 - Junction with the Nature Trail (turn left)

1:20 – Junction with the Nature Trail (turn left)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:38 - Paved road at the end of the nature trail leading back to the day use area

1:38 – Paved road at the end of the nature trail leading back to the day use area