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On many a late fall and winter morning, a damp, opaque layer of air a few hundred feet deep lies over the low-lying Southern California coast. By 9 or 10 in the morning, the sun "burns" through this marine-layer fog, ushering in a fine day of mild sunshine. Sleepy-eyed hikers never know what they're missing unless they seize the moment and get an early start on any coastal or not-too-far-inland hiking route that pokes above the clouds.

Southern Orange County's Laguna Bowl loop hike is perfect for such cloud walking. It begins just one-half mile from the beach, right at the edge of the city of Laguna Beach. Find a curbside parking spot at or near the east end of Poplar Street, in a neighborhood overlooking Irvine Bowl (where Laguna Beach's "Pageant of the Masters" exhibit takes place every summer).

Squeeze through a gate at the east end of Poplar Street and start up a very steep paved road. After 0.1 mile, the paved road enters a fenced water-tank and antenna facility, but a steep bypass trail skirts the fenced area on the right and keeps climbing. Soon that bypass trail joins a dirt roadbed, the so-called Water Tank Road. You continue climbing, but more moderately. At about 0.4 mile and 550 feet of elevation, you enter Laguna Coast Wilderness Park property, open weekends only for now, and soon to be open 7 days a week. The early-morning boundary between fog and clear air often lies at about this level. If that is the case when you're there, then the next couple of miles will be an absolute delight.

Right at the boundary between clear air and cloud, look westward (opposite the rising sun) and you may see the upper arc of a colorless rainbow -- the "white rainbow" -- that results from sunlight refracting through water droplets much smaller than those of falling rain. Another remarkable spectacle, called the "glory" or "Specter of the Brocken," is visible whenever you can manage to cast the shadow of your own body onto a bank of fog. The ghostly specter is that of concentric rings of colored light at the spot exactly 180 degrees away from the sun. The right conditions and optical geometry may exist during the first hour or so after sunrise.

At 1.5 miles you arrive at the junction of Bommer Ridge Road (to the left) and Laguna Bowl Road (to the right). Turn right, head south along the top of the ridgeline, and enjoy vistas of the blue ocean ahead, or of tendrils of fog below, depending n the atmospheric conditions. At 2.2 miles the road forks; take the right branch, staying on Laguna Bowl Road. Soon afterward you commence a quick, steep descent that takes you past the fenced Irvine Bowl outdoor amphitheater and down to Laguna Canyon Road.

To complete the loop you must follow city streets. Turn right, follow the sidewalk of Laguna Canyon Road for one-quarter mile, turn right on Acacia Drive, and immediately go right on High Drive. Follow High Drive for one-quarter mile, and turn right on Poplar Street to return to your car.

Your hike has stretched 3.6 miles with an elevation gain and loss of 950 feet. You've worked up an appetite, so treat yourself to breakfast in Laguna Beach.

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