If you had to guess where we took the picture above, what would say? Somewhere in Southern Utah, maybe Northern Arizona? Or maybe even the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada? Well, surprise, it’s none of those! This red rock canyon is about two miles off a busy road in Lake Forest, California. Driving by, you might not even notice the small parking lot for the Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, which has over 17 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.
Where to Park
Day parking in the small lot for the Red Rock Canyon Trail in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park costs $3 at the pay stations. Parking is fairly limited, so get there early, or go later in the day. The park is open from 7 am until sunset.
Hiking in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park
The hike to the Red Rock Canyon in Whiting Ranch is just one of a handful of hikes in this small wilderness area surrounded by suburbia. After hiking in, you’ll occasionally notice the houses that line the Borrego Canyon edge, but you really do feel like you’re out and away without going far at all.
Other popular hikes include the Dreaded Hill Trail (don’t let the name scare you away, it’s not the steepest hill in the park) and Mustard Road up to Vista Lookout Road (leads to one of the best lookouts in the park). See here for a map of all 23 trails in the park.
Red Rock Canyon Trail
The Red Rock Canyon Trail is easily the most popular trail in Whiting Ranch. And when you see these pictures, it’s obvious as to why. I was surprised to learn that Orange County had its own Red Rock Canyon and that I didn’t have to drive ten hours to Southern Utah to enjoy this type of colorful terrain. This easy hike is about four miles roundtrip, mostly flat which makes it great for kids, and takes about two hours at an easy-going pace.
Start on the Borrego Canyon Trail that leads directly from the parking lot (it’s the only option). Even though this part of Southern California has been parched with almost no precipitation this winter, the area was surprisingly green. I was expecting the grass and bushes to still be dried and brown, but bright green grass lined the sandy creek banks. This trail goes through a few stream beds, which I’m assuming may run when the area starts getting rain. Part of it looked (and felt) like you were trudging through a sandy wash, so I’m sure the trail is a bit rough after a big storm.
There’s a beautiful oak grove about a mile into the trail, which would be a convenient place to stop if you’re hiking on a warm, sunny day. We continued on the Borrego Canyon Trail for about 1.5 miles, which is a one-way biking trail as well, so we had to pop out of the way a few times for bikers coming up from behind.
The turn-off onto the Red Rock Canyon Trail is well-marked, so you shouldn’t miss it if you’re looking out for the turns at about the 1.5-mile mark. This portion of the path is a narrower, hiking only trail. Once you turn off onto this trail, the red rocks start coming into view.
We did this hike on a weekend evening in January, and we only shared the trail with a few mountain bikers and hikers. Though we typically like to start our hikes early in the morning, this makes the perfect sunset hike. The red rocks glow and look even more magical when the sunset turns the sky pink. The trail is wide and mostly flat with no steep sides, so it’s pretty easy to navigate when it starts to get dark. The park closes at sunset, but we didn’t have any problems when we got back to our car about 30 minutes after the sun went down. Plus, it was fun walking in the dark with our flashlights to a chorus of madly croaking frogs.
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