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Trabuco Canyon Loop

Significant hiking feats can be accomplished in the “wilds” of Orange County, especially in the upper elevations of the Santa Ana Mountains, which define the county’s east border. A case in point is the 10-mile, 2700-foot-elevation-gain hike from Trabuco Canyon to the so-called “Main Divide” of the Santa Anas.

From Trabuco Canyon Road, at the easternmost end of O’Neill Regional Park in Rancho Santa Margarita, turn east on the rough, unpaved Trabuco Creek Road. Drive all the way to the end of the road, nearly six miles, to the Trabuco Canyon Trailhead. Be sure to post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car.

Begin by hiking upstream along the oak- and bigleaf-maple-dotted Trabuco Canyon stream, which will flow with reasonable vigor during the next month or two. Check out the spring wildflowers, which will likely include bush lupine, matilija poppy, paintbrush, wild sweet pea, red and sticky monkeyflowers, prickly phlox, mariposa lily, wild hyacinth, and penstemon.

At 1.8 miles you come to a signed junction where the West Horsethief Trail branches left. Earlier, you probably spotted switchbacks carving up the treeless slope that now lies east of you. After following a canyon bottom for a short while, the West Horsethief Trail begins climbing in earnest, zigzagging through chaparral. During the coolness of the morning, diligent effort will get you to the top of this tedious stretch fast enough; later in the day this could be a hot, energy-sapping climb.

After 1100 feet of elevation gain the trail straightens, begins to level out along a ridge, and enters a vegetation zone dominated by manzanita and blue-flowering ceanothus. Cooler air washes over you, perhaps bearing the scent of the pines that lie ahead.

At 3.3 miles from the Trabuco Canyon Trailhead, the Horsethief Trail joins Main Divide Road in a sparse grove of Coulter pines. Turn right and follow the dirt road east, then south, for an easy, meandering, viewful 2.5 miles.

At 5.8 miles, amid a patch of Coulter pines and incense cedars, you come to Los Pinos Saddle. At the northwest corner of a large, cleared area in the saddle itself, find the old roadbed (Trabuco Canyon Trail) angling downward along the shady slopes of Trabuco Canyon’s main fork. Stands of live oak and big-cone Douglas fir keep this part of the trail well shaded. Flowering currant and ceanothus shrubs at the trailside brighten things up in the spring.

One mile below the saddle, the trail veers left, crosses a divide, and begins descending along a tributary of Trabuco Canyon. You walk by thickets of California bay (bay laurel), which exude an enigmatically pleasant/pungent scent. After crossing the tributary ravine twice, the trail clings to a dry and sunny south-facing slope. Down below, in an almost inaccessible section of the ravine, you may hear water trickling and tumbling over boulders half-hidden under tangles of underbrush and trees.

Before long, you arrive back at the junction of the Horsethief Trail in shady Trabuco Canyon. From there, continue downhill to the Trabuco Canyon Trailhead.

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.

Trabuco Canyon Loop
Climb to the Main Divide of the Santa Ana Mountains for far-ranging views of Riverside County, Orange County, and the ocean.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 85 miles
Hiking length: 10 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous

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Significant hiking feats can be accomplished in the “wilds” of Orange County, especially in the upper elevations of the Santa Ana Mountains, which define the county’s east border. A case in point is the 10-mile, 2700-foot-elevation-gain hike from Trabuco Canyon to the so-called “Main Divide” of the Santa Anas.

From Trabuco Canyon Road, at the easternmost end of O’Neill Regional Park in Rancho Santa Margarita, turn east on the rough, unpaved Trabuco Creek Road. Drive all the way to the end of the road, nearly six miles, to the Trabuco Canyon Trailhead. Be sure to post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car.

Begin by hiking upstream along the oak- and bigleaf-maple-dotted Trabuco Canyon stream, which will flow with reasonable vigor during the next month or two. Check out the spring wildflowers, which will likely include bush lupine, matilija poppy, paintbrush, wild sweet pea, red and sticky monkeyflowers, prickly phlox, mariposa lily, wild hyacinth, and penstemon.

At 1.8 miles you come to a signed junction where the West Horsethief Trail branches left. Earlier, you probably spotted switchbacks carving up the treeless slope that now lies east of you. After following a canyon bottom for a short while, the West Horsethief Trail begins climbing in earnest, zigzagging through chaparral. During the coolness of the morning, diligent effort will get you to the top of this tedious stretch fast enough; later in the day this could be a hot, energy-sapping climb.

After 1100 feet of elevation gain the trail straightens, begins to level out along a ridge, and enters a vegetation zone dominated by manzanita and blue-flowering ceanothus. Cooler air washes over you, perhaps bearing the scent of the pines that lie ahead.

At 3.3 miles from the Trabuco Canyon Trailhead, the Horsethief Trail joins Main Divide Road in a sparse grove of Coulter pines. Turn right and follow the dirt road east, then south, for an easy, meandering, viewful 2.5 miles.

At 5.8 miles, amid a patch of Coulter pines and incense cedars, you come to Los Pinos Saddle. At the northwest corner of a large, cleared area in the saddle itself, find the old roadbed (Trabuco Canyon Trail) angling downward along the shady slopes of Trabuco Canyon’s main fork. Stands of live oak and big-cone Douglas fir keep this part of the trail well shaded. Flowering currant and ceanothus shrubs at the trailside brighten things up in the spring.

One mile below the saddle, the trail veers left, crosses a divide, and begins descending along a tributary of Trabuco Canyon. You walk by thickets of California bay (bay laurel), which exude an enigmatically pleasant/pungent scent. After crossing the tributary ravine twice, the trail clings to a dry and sunny south-facing slope. Down below, in an almost inaccessible section of the ravine, you may hear water trickling and tumbling over boulders half-hidden under tangles of underbrush and trees.

Before long, you arrive back at the junction of the Horsethief Trail in shady Trabuco Canyon. From there, continue downhill to the Trabuco Canyon Trailhead.

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.

Trabuco Canyon Loop
Climb to the Main Divide of the Santa Ana Mountains for far-ranging views of Riverside County, Orange County, and the ocean.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 85 miles
Hiking length: 10 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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