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The Deer Canyon loop route in Crystal Cove State Park explores the higher ridges and valleys of Orange County's coastal mountain range -- the San Joaquin Hills. Hikers should budget about four hours for the round trip of 7.1 miles, with a total elevation gain and loss of 1300 feet. Mountain bikers are welcome, too, at least those who don't mind occasional "technical challenges" in the form of some steep, severely eroded stretches of trail. If prior arrangements are made with park rangers (949-494-3539), it is even possible to backpack the route, with an overnight stay halfway around the loop at the Deer Canyon trail camp.

The starting point is Crystal Cove State Park's visitor center and backcountry trailhead, located about two miles north of Laguna Beach and just east of Pacific Coast Highway. You begin your hike or ride with a no-nonsense ascent on No Dogs Road, enjoying an ever-widening view of billowing hills ahead and El Moro Canyon below. That view is especially intriguing when the canyon bottom is filled with fog, as it often is on late fall and winter mornings. Stay left at the next two junctions (Poles Road and West Cut Across) and continue making your way north along the undulating ridgetop road called No Name Ridge Road. A vast area of new luxury homes comes into view on the left, completely contrasting with the empty, protected lands of the state park on the right.

At 2.4 miles, look for and follow the narrow, rutty "Ticketron" trail branching right. Ticketron makes a radical drop (at least for mountain-bike riders) toward the floor of shallow Deer Canyon, then settles into an easy grade as it approaches the trail camp, which features a picnic bench, a composting toilet, and sites to pitch a tent amid some scattered live oaks and sycamores.

Beyond the trail camp a short, steep climb leads to Redtail Ridge Trail, which is a fire road to the left (north) and a narrower trail to the right (south). You head south, following the top of the rounded ridge, and pass over an 844-foot knoll with a commanding ocean view. Then make a sharp descent to an old roadbed (Rattlesnake Trail) which continues downhill more moderately. You curl around Deer Canyon's small stream and meet the West Cut Across trail at 5.1 miles into the hike.

For the remaining 2 miles, descend West Cut Across to El Moro Canyon, follow the El Moro Canyon Road downhill to a trailer park (soon to be vacated and turned into a roadside campground), and return to the visitor center on the 0.4 mile trail link to the right.

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.

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