Butterfly Valley (Irvine Open Space Preserve)
- Location: 6400 Shady Canyon Drive, Irvine. From I-405, take the Culver Drive exit, go south (right if you’re coming from the north, left if from the south) for 2.6 miles and turn left on Shady Canyon Drive. Go 1.6 miles and turn into the lot. As mentioned below, this hike is available only by (free) online registration on days specified by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy.
- Agency: Irvine Ranch Conservancy
- Distance: 8.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,400 feet
- Suggested time: 4.5 hours
- Difficulty rating: PG-13 (distance, steepness, elevation gain)
- Best season: October – May; availability of days and times determined by Irvine Ranch Conservancy
- USGS topo map: Tustin; Laguna Beach
- Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat
- More information: Area trail map here
- Rating: 7
The lightly traveled Butterfly Valley Trail is located in the interior of the Irvine Open Space Preserve. As of this writing, none of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s guided hikes visit the Butterfly Valley Trail, making it available to hikers only on the park’s Wilderness Access days (usually the third Saturday of each month). The U-shaped hike described here offers a considerable workout with a variety of scenery. While the first half of the hike tends to be fairly crowded, you’re likely to have less company during the latter half on the Shady Oaks and Butterfly Valley Trails.
Try to get an early a start as possible. Wilderness Access Days are from 8am to 2pm and while itinerant hikers may only need 3 or 3 1/2 hours, those with families or who want to enjoy a more leisurely pace should allow 4 or 4 1/2 hours. The return features a long, steady ascent on largely exposed terrain and the area can get quite hot during the summer.
From the Cattle Ranch area, follow Bommer Canyon Road southeast to a junction. Turn left on a spur signed “To East Fork” which brings you to that trail (0.2 miles.) The East Fork Trail heads through a pleasant green meadow, passing a sandstone cave (0.5 miles). It then ascends into a pleasant grove of oaks which unfortunately represents one of the few bits of shade on the route. Passing the oaks, you begin the main ascent, steeply climbing to a junction with the Hogsback and Ridge Route Trails (1.5 miles.) As you grind up the hill, your efforts are rewarded with panoramic views to the north and at the top of the ridge, you can rest up and enjoy a great look at Old Saddleback.
Continue southeast on the Hogsback Trail, descending 0.6 miles to junction with the Upper Laurel Canyon Trail trail coming from Laguna Coast Wilderness Park (part of the 7-mile Bommer/Laguna Coast hike offered by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy). Stay straight and descend another 0.4 miles to a 4-way junction (2.5 miles from the start). To the right is the route to Camarillo Canyon; straight is the Serrano Ridge Trail (both part of a loop described here). To get to Butterfly Valley, however, turn left onto the Shady Oaks Trail.
Sadly, the Shady Oaks Trail offers little in the way of shade, although depending on the time of day and season, the walls of the canyon may block out the sun. The trail levels out, passes the Bobcat Spur Trail and then reaches another 4-way junction (3.5 miles). On the right, notice a trio of sandstone monoliths with small caves before continuing straight onto the Butterfly Valley Trail.
Though overhead power lines are hard to ignore, the Butterfly Valley Trail offers a virtually level stroll through an attractive meadow bordered by oaks, sycamores, green hills and sandstone outcrops. A pair of particularly attractive sycamores offer some nice shade (4.1 miles); this is a good turnaround point, although the trail does continue for another 0.2 miles before reaching an unceremonious end at a metal gate.
If you’re disappointed that there are no options for making the hike into a loop and that you have to return by the same route, consider that according to local rumor that rattlesnakes found on the Shady Canyon Golf Course are deposited into the area beyond the end of the Butterfly Valley Trail.
Text and photography copyright 2015 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.