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Development continues in the remaining open spaces of southern Orange County -- so fast that a few years ago Orange County bumped San Diego County from its former rank as the second most populous county in California. Both counties are now near 2.9 million inhabitants, with Orange County maintaining a small lead. But as bulldozers have reshaped vast tracts of the San Joaquin Hills and cookie-cutter houses have spread across artificial terraces, an arc of protected open space, 19,000 acres in all, has managed to take root between the cities of Newport Beach and Laguna Niguel. It is known as the South Coast Wilderness.

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is probably the finest gem in the entire South Coast Wilderness area. It was for several years accessible to the public only by docent-let tours. Now, anyone can visit without a guide, but on Saturdays or Sundays only, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. For a superb introduction to the park, on foot, try the following 3.2-mile Laurel Canyon loop hike.

Begin at the main parking lot/park office, on the west side of Laguna Canyon Road, 0.7 mile south of the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road (Highway 73). Pay the $2 parking fee at the lot and visit the office, where you can chat with a park ranger or volunteer, pick up a self-guiding leaflet for the trail, and sign a guest book. Beyond, follow the Willow Canyon fire road as it goes up into the hills, gaining nearly 600 feet of elevation in the next 1.6 miles. Wildflowers were blooming profusely along this stretch last month. Recent late-season rains should assure a good display of them into early June.

At 1.6 miles, turn right on the first intersecting pathway. Traverse a grassy meadow, and then follow the trail as it plunges down through thick growths of chaparral toward the narrow bottom of Laurel Canyon. As you lose elevation, you also lose sight and sound of the nearby toll road. Once you arrive in the canyon bottom, don't miss the turn onto the narrow trail that branches right and goes down, not up, the canyon.

Graced with gorgeous oaks and sycamores (and copious growths of poison oak), Laurel Canyon is still recovering from the October 1993 Laguna Beach fire. After a few minutes of walking in the canyon, you pass near the lip of a dramatic declivity -- a seasonal waterfall, silent except after heavy rains -- and swing to the left side of the canyon bottom. You descend along a dry, south-facing slope and after a few more minutes emerge in a grassy meadow (green and golden at the moment) flanked by cavernous sandstone outcrops. The path through the meadow swings alongside busy Laguna Canyon Road, and soon you arrive back at your parked car.

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