Text and photography copyright 2010 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. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.
Ocean Vista Loop/O’Neill Regional Park
- Location: Orange County foothills, near Lake Forest and Rancho Santa Margarita. From I-5 in south Orange County, take El Toro Road northeast for about 6 miles to Cook’s Corner. Take a right on Live Oak Canyon Road (signed for the park), and drive 3 1/2 miles to the park entrance. The parking fee is $3 for a weekday, $5 for weekends and $7 for holidays.
- Agency: O’Neill Regional Park
- Distance: 4 miles
- Elevation gain: 650 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG
- Suggested time: 2 hours
- Best season: All year (hot in the summer)
- USGS topo map: “Santiago Peak”
- More information: here
- Rating: 6
Like a ship caught on a sandbar, O’Neill Regional Park rises above the suburbs of south Orange County–Lake Forest, Rancho Santa Margarita, Foothill Ranch et. al–and on clear days, hikers can look above the housing tracts and see the ocean to the south and the Santa Ana Mountains to the north. The park doesn’t have the isolated feel of Caspers Wilderness Park further south, or of the trails farther up in the Santa Ana Mountains, but it’s easy to get to and offers a lot of variety.
There are several different trails running throughout the park. A popular loop stars at the Oak Grove day use area and heads north on the Live Oak trail. You pass by the turnoff for the Spaulding Trail (another nice excursion), climb a ridge and drop back down again into the oaks. The trail crosses a service road as it makes a hairpin turn (there’s a particularly nice stand of oaks off to the right) and begins climbing. As you sweat it out, you will at least get some nice views of Old Saddleback for your troubles. Soon you will pass a junction with the Coyote Trail and then make its final steep ascent to the Vista Point (elevation 1492). The fire road levels out and starts to descend; at this point head right on a side trail and take another right and climb to the top.
After taking in the view, head across the summit on the signed Vista Trail, which descends along the slopes, passing by a lot of cacti and yuccas, and pick up a service road that parallels Live Oak Canyon Road. You can either follow this road all the way back to the park entrance and then to your car, or you can add to your trip by picking up the Hoffman Homestead Trail, which rejoins the Live Oak trail about half a mile north of the parking lot.