Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is a spacious Orange County preserve covering several thousand acres of natural landscape adjacent to Laguna Beach. Emerald Canyon, one of its finer natural features, carves its way down a three-mile linear course from the crest of the San Joaquin Hills toward the ocean. There is no practical or legal access to the canyon from the bottom (city of Laguna Beach) side, but topside a fire road turned recreation trail will get you there via a route entirely on park-owned land.
Hikers and mountain bikers can follow the 8.4-mile round-trip route as described here, which is entirely on fire roads or wide trails. As a somewhat more lengthy option -- either on the way out or the way back -- hikers and bikers can choose to follow the single-track, semi-overgrown Old Emerald Trail.
Begin at the Willow Canyon Trailhead, which is located on the west side of Laguna Canyon Road, 0.7 mile south of the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road (Highway 73). On foot or by bike, take the dirt road signed Willow Canyon Road 1.5 miles to a turnoff to Laurel Canyon on the right. Stay straight (south) and climb 0.1 mile to an intersection with Bommer Ridge Road. Turn right, proceed 0.1 mile to a dip in the road, and turn left onto Emerald Canyon Road. That "road" -- essentially a wide trail -- descends along the top of ridge for a mile, through growths of sage, encelia, and monkey flowers blooming in shades from orange to yellow this time of year.
After a mile on the descending ridge, you arrive on the canyon bottom, at a place where the narrow Old Emerald Trail obscurely branches left. The next 1.5 miles of travel down-canyon is along a more moderate grade, and the scenery is simply gorgeous. Gnarled oaks and sycamores -- survivors of repeated firestorms -- line the trail, and dense willow growth flanks the canyon's seasonal stream. About halfway down this easy stretch, note the spacious cave pocking a large sandstone outcrop on the left, across the canyon bottom.
At 4.2 miles from the start, you arrive at a place where the trail curls sharply downward and a 20-foot-high waterfall lies to the right. This waterfall is more like a "dry fall" in most years, and comes truly alive only with sustained heavy rains. This is a good spot to take a break, and afterward return the way you came.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.