Quail Hill Distance Hike (Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks)


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  • Location: Quail Hill Trail Head, 34 Shady Canyon Drive, Irvine.  From I-405, take the Sand Canyon/Shady Canyon exit and go south for 0.6 miles on Shady Canyon, through the small roundabout. The signed trail head will be on the right. Park in the lot and check in with the docents from Irvine Ranch Conservancy.
  • Agency: Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks
  • Distance: 13 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,900 feet
  • Suggested time: 5-6 hours (most hikes are conducted at a brisk pace with a few short breaks and one long one)
  • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain, steepness)
  • Best season: Year round as offered by Irvine Ranch Conservancy (hot during the summer); click here for scheduling
  • Dogs: Not allowed
  • Cell phone reception: Good for most of the route; weak to fair in some spots
  • Water: Available at the trail head and at the Nix Nature Center (fountains, restrooms)
  • Restrooms: Full restrooms available at the trail head and at the Nix Nature Center
  • Camping/backpacking: None (nearest available camping is at Crystal Cove State Park)
  • Recommended gear: Hiking poles; sun hat; sunblock
  • More information: Description of the event held on July 14, 2018 here; Map My Hike report here
  • Rating: 7

Updated July 2018

This challenging hike is one of the longest treks offered by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, exploring the hills above Irvine and Newport Beach. The hike is scheduled once or twice a month, usually called a “Distance Hike.” The route described below is one of several possible variations on the hike, using both private lands overseen by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy and public trails. As with docent-led hikes, navigation will not be a problem, although with almost 10 miles of this route on public trails, keeping the group together – and avoiding mountain bikers – are additional challenges.

Begin by following the Quail Trail for 2.5 miles, picking up almost 600 feet of elevation gain. The trail weaves in and around several tracts of multi-million dollar homes and takes in some nice views of Old Saddleback and suburban Orange County before reaching a junction with the single-track Cattle Crest Trail. This is the starting point of the loop portion of the hike, and the entrance to private land. (If you want to do an alternate version of the hike, you can bypass the private portion of the hike by continuing on the Quail Trail, which merges into the Serrano Trail. You can then fashion a loop with the Camarillo Canyon, Stagecoach and Little Sycamore Canyon Trails and retrace your steps for a 12-mile “lollipop” hike with 1,800 feet of elevation gain.)

The Cattle Canyon Trail weaves among cacti and sandstone outcrops, passing above the Shady Canyon golf course before dropping down to the canyon floor. You then climb steeply to the Fox Run Trail which leads to the Shady Oaks Trail (where there is neither shade or oaks). Another ascent and descent brings you to a junction with the Butterfly Valley Trail, which can be explored on open-access days for Bommer Canyon. You have now come about 4.7 miles.

The route then makes a short but steep climb up the Monkey Flower Trail, which in turn drops back to rejoin the Shady Oaks Trail, which is now a fire road. The Shady Oaks Trail, which now features some actual oaks, climbs steadily to meet the Serrano Ridge and Camarillo Canyon Trails, 5.9 miles from the start.

Now back on public lands, you descend the Camarillo Canyon Trail, a popular route with mountain bikers. The trail drops into a scenic, oak-dotted meadow before reaching a junction with the Stagecoach Trail. This route climbs about 300 feet in half a mile before dropping down to the Nix Nature Center (8 miles from the start). This spot is ideal for a break, with restrooms and water fountains for washing up and refilling.

The next leg of the hike is the steep but scenic Little Sycamore Canyon Trail, a single-track which brings you back up to the ridge. A few sandstone outcrops on the north side of the canyon add visual interest and when you turn around to catch your breath, you’ll get a panoramic view of Laguna Canyon. At the top, turn right on the Serrano Ridge Trail and follow it north back toward the starting point. At 10.5 miles you come back to the junction with the Cattle Crest Trail. From here it is a fairly easy 2.5 miles back to the Quail Hill Trail Head with only 150 feet of elevation gain.

Quail Trail, Irvine, CA

Old Saddleback as seen from the Quail Trail

Cattle Crest Trail, Irvine, CA

View from the Cattle Crest Trail

Cattle Crest Trail, Irvine, CA

Geology on the Cattle Crest Trail

Cattle Crest Trail, Irvine, CA

View from the Cattle Crest Trail

Cattle Crest Trail, Irvine, CA

Small cave on the Cattle Crest Trail

Shady Oaks Trail, Irvine, CA

Footbridge on the Shady Oaks Trail

Camarillo Canyon Trail, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

Oaks on the Camarillo Canyon Trail

Little Sycamore Canyon, Orange County, CA

Looking down from the top of Little Sycamore Canyon

Text and photography copyright 2018 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.

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1 reply »

  1. This is a great training/workout/mountain bike routine. Close to home for local Irvinites. If you are mountain biking, please where a bell so hikers know you’re speeding up from behind.

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