Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park Back Country
- Location: Foothill Ranch in eastern Orange County. From Interstate 5, take the Bake Parkway exit and head northeast (left if you are coming from the north, or right if from the south) and go 5.5 miles to Portola Parkway. Turn right and go 0.7 miles to Glenn Ranch. Turn left and go 0.9 miles to Saddleback Ranch. In a mile, you’ll come to Concourse Park, on the left side of the road. Park in the lot or on the street.
- Agency: Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park
- Distance: 7.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,100 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Steepness, elevation gain, distance, terrain)
- Suggested time: 4 hours
- Best season: October – May
- USGS topo maps: “El Toro”
- Recommended gear:hiking poles; sun hat; sunblock
- More information: here; Everytrail report here
- Rating: 8
Several of Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park’s lightly traveled back-country trails make up this figure-8 shaped loop. As challenging as it is, on clear, cool days, the scenery is some of the best in Orange County. The route described here, of course, doesn’t have to be followed exactly for the Whiting Ranch back-country experience.
From Concourse Park, descend on the fire road into the canyon. At the bottom, turn right on Whiting Road and enjoy some of the only shade you will get on the whole route. Soon you’ll head right on the Sleepy Hollow trail and again right on the Sage Scrub Trail. You climb out of the canyon–the first of six significant ascents on the route–and join the Vulture View Trail. It follows a ridge line in the back of the park, with views of the ocean and the Orange County coastal plain on the left and the Santa Ana Mountains on the right.
At 1.6 miles from the start, head left on the Santiago Ranch Trail, which heads steeply back down into the canyon. This joins the Cactus Hill Trail, which ascends gradually, arriving at Four Corners, 2.4 miles from the start. This scenic spot is a nice place to sit and relax before the next challenging part of the hike.
Head uphill on the short Whiting Spur trail, past the water tank, and take a left on the Billy Goat Trail. This route is infamous for its steep ascents and descents, but it’s also very scenic, providing dramatic views of Whiting Ranch’s characteristic red rocks. The trail drops sharply, passing through a pleasant forest, before climbing to a bump on the ridge. It then continues its steep descent (hiking poles will be handy here), before briefly leveling out and dropping more gradually to Mustard Road. This last section of the Billy Goat Trail is pleasantly quiet. Due to the strenuousness of the trail and the fact that it is only open to hikers, the Billy Goat is very lightly traveled.
When you reach Mustard Road, 3.3 miles from the start, you can head back uphill (left), or you can continue onto the vista point in the northwest corner of the park. Keep in mind that at this point, even if you turn around, you still have two more big climbs to do. If you decide to continue right (west), you’ll experience some more great views, but you’ll have to work for them.
Mustard Road heads west, through some shade, passing by the spur to Red Rocks (a nice detour if you have time) and the Borrego Trail, which leads to Portola Parkway. After leaving the canyon, Mustard Road begins a steep ascent, climbing more than 400 feet in less than half a mile. At 4.1 miles from the start, turn right on the Vista Lookout Trail and follow it along a ridge for 0.3 miles. At the Vista Point, there is a picnic table where you can take a well-earned break and look at the scenery, which includes the ocean, the San Gabriels, the Santa Anas and the rest of Whiting Ranch, including Dreaded Hill, Red Rocks and more. The vista point is similar to the one at nearby O’Neill Regional Park, but since fewer people visit this corner of Whiting Ranch, you have a good chance of having it to yourself.
When ready, descend down the spur to Mustard Road and retrace your steps. Where the Billy Goat trail branches off, stay on Mustard Road, which climbs 400 feet in 0.8 miles to arrive back at Four Corners. Here, you can shorten your return on the steeply descending Whiting Road trail, which meets up with the trail to Concourse Park in 0.8 miles. Turn left and walk the last 0.4 miles back to Concourse Park.
Text and photography copyright 2012 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.