Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park consists of over 4200 acres of shallow canyons, sandstone rock formations, narrow strips of oak and riparian woodland, and hillsides draped with aromatic sage-scrub vegetation. Subdivisions press against the park’s long, narrow boundary, so this “wilderness” is wild only in a relative sense. A grand, looping ten-mile tour of the park can be fashioned mainly out of trails that reach deeply into Wood Canyon and travel along its rim, featuring a view of the Pacific Ocean.
You may start at the park’s primary trailhead, a large parking lot alongside the AMWA (Aliso Water Management Agency) Road, just west of Alicia Parkway in the city of Laguna Niguel. Adjacent to this lot, the Orange County Natural History Museum offers visitors a modest introduction to the area’s plants, wildlife, and geology.
The sole trail departing the parking lot takes you subtly downhill along the wide floodplain of Aliso Canyon. You follow the shoulder of the AWMA access road for about 0.7 mile, then diverge on a trail that stays within a short distance of the road. The glimpses you get of weathered outcrops of 15-million-year-old sandstone on hillsides to the north are intriguing. You’ll see more of that type of sandstone later at close range.
At 1.4 miles you arrive at a major junction, with restrooms and benches, where the two canyons — Aliso and Wood — join. Head north on Wood Canyon Trail and you soon spy, on the left, Cave Rock, a series of “wind caves” pocking a sandstone ledge. Check that out, then continue north on the Wood Canyon Trail until, at 2.2 miles, you find and follow the side trail on the left leading to Dripping Cave. This impressive overhang, tucked into a narrow ravine, was the supposed hideout of 19th-century stagecoach and livestock thieves. Holes bored into the cave’s walls once held pegs used to hang supplies, and the black color of the cave’s ceiling is evidence of past campfires.
Retrace your steps for a few paces and veer left on the narrow trail going northwest. You contour across a steep hillside, pass some elaborately sculpted sandstone formations on the far side of a ravine, and drop precariously onto the flat floor of shallow Mathis Canyon. Turn left on the Mathis Canyon Trail and stay right at the next split. A 500-foot, no-nonsense climb atop a narrow ridge ensues. This may be eased by the pauses you take to admire the ever-widening views of Wood Canyon — an island of green and gold amid an endless suburban tapestry spreading inland.
At 3.8 miles, the sweaty ascent ends as you reach the West Ridge Trail, a wide, graded fire road coming down from Laguna Beach’s “Top of the World” neighborhood. Turn right (north) and enjoy fine views of the sharp gash of Laguna Canyon to the left and the more gentle watershed of Wood Canyon on the right. At 5.2 miles, find and follow the narrow Lynx Trail on the right (very steep in a couple of spots) down a ridge and into upper Wood Canyon.
At the bottom of the Lynx Trail, turn right on the Wood Canyon Trail. Close ahead, veer right on the Oaks Trail, a parallel trail down the canyon for hiking-only traffic (if you are on a mountain bike, stay on Wood Canyon Trail). Following a narrow strip of oak woodland along the Oaks Trail, and later the Coyote Run Trail, you reach — after nearly two miles of travel in shady Wood Canyon — Mathis Canyon Trail. Veer left to cross Wood Canyon’s tiny creek and to hook up with the Wood Canyon Trail again. Continue south to the Aliso-Wood canyon confluence, and from there return to the Alicia Parkway trailhead 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.
Aliso and Wood Canyons
Take a comprehensive hiking or mountain-biking tour through Orange County’s Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 75 miles
Hiking or biking length: 10 miles
Difficulty: moderately strenuous