Water Tank to Willow Road Loop – Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
Hi everyone! Back again with another loop hike for Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
If you have read our Dartmoor-Emerald Trail Guide, then you know that we love Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Sure, it may not have the subalpine appeal of the San Gabriels, but if you don’t need every hike to have a peak to bag, or if you just love ocean views, then you could do a lot worse than Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. It is also worth pointing out that Laguna Coast Wilderness Park tends to be far less known, and therefore less crowded, than its two neighbors, Crystal Cove State Park and Top of The World.
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is nestled in the Laguna Hills, and provides amazing views of Laguna Beach just below, as well as some of SoCal’s larger peaks to the North and West. The park is primarily made up of fire roads running along the tops of ridges, which are bisected and connected by many winding, single-track trails cutting down into and across the valleys between them. The layout is great for short or long hikes, because you can link the trails together to create any number of loops at whatever distance you prefer your hike to be.
This hike starts off with a bang. The climb up from Poplar Street, while shorter, is far more intense than the climb from Dartmoor Street, which is itself no picnic. The first tenth of a mile is unbelievably steep, and still paved. At the .1 mile mark, the trail turns to dirt and continues onwards, up the impossibly steep hill for .4 more miles before finally leveling out. On this trip, the heavy rains from winter had the wildflowers in full bloom, creating bright yellow corridors along the way.
After 1.6 miles, Water Tank Road meets Bommer Ridge, and Laguna Bowl Road Diverges sharply back to the right. Continue onto Bommer Ridge for about 100 yards to find the intersection with Boat Road to your left, and Laguna Ridge Trail to your right. Take the right onto Laguna Ridge Trail and begin your descent!
(You could also start this hike by climbing up Laguna Bowl Road instead of Water Tank Road, but there is no convenient parking for this option.)
Laguna Ridge Trail offered some amazing views as we descended. Be warned though, it is very tight single track, rutted out so that it is not exactly kind to the knees and ankles. It descends for about a mile, before reaching the bottom right next to Laguna Canyon Road. Here, the trail takes a 90-degree left turn and follows along Laguna Canyon Road. Admittedly, this is one of the lowlights of the hike for me, as it is one of the only places in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park that doesn’t actually feel like the wilderness.
Follow the trail as it parallels Laguna Canyon Road for .4 miles and you will pass the turnoff to climb Big Bend on your left, and then reach the Big Bend Parking area a few hundred yards later. At the Big Bend Parking lot, the trail turns to Stagecoach. Stay straight on Stagecoach and continue on!
While Stagecoach still follows the Laguna Canyon Road, it somehow feels more lovable to me than the final stretch of Laguna Ridge. Follow it through its gentle undulations for just less than a mile, and it will deposit you in the Willow parking lot. Cross the parking lot, and stay left, following the signs for Willow Canyon Road.
Willow Canyon Road is nowhere near the violent climb that Water Tank Road was to start this hike, but it does remind you just how much elevation you lost coming down Laguna Ridge Trail. It climbs on for about 1.6 miles, passing turnoffs on the right for Laurel Spur and Bommer Spur, before dead-ending back on Bommer Ridge. Turn left on Bommer Ridge, and make your way back toward Water Tank Road, enjoying the views down into the Canyons and the Ocean along the way.
At this point, you are about 5.8 miles in, and the truly taxing portions of the hike are behind you. The next 1.8 miles follow Bommer ridge, passing turnoffs for Big Bend on your left, and Old Emerald on your right, and finally arrives back at the junction with Water tank Road.
(If you would like to add some distance and elevation to this climb, you could take Big Bend back down to the Big Bend parking lot, and climb back up Laguna Ridge trail. You could also turn right when Willow Road dead ends into Bommer, then take Emerald Canyon Road down into Emerald Canyon, and climb back up to Bommer via Old Emerald Trail.)
Back at Water Tank Road, take a right and follow it for the remaining 1.65 miles back to the start. Enjoy more great views down into the canyons and the ocean along the descent here, before a final knee busting final half mile.
Overall, this is a great hike, with several options to make it longer or shorter, or add elevation by tacking on other options like Big Bend, or a trip into Emerald Canyon. While the portion of the Laguna Ridge Trail along the highway is a bit of a downer, it is a short piece of an otherwise wonderful hike. Given it to do over again, I think I would actually prefer to do this loop backwards. My knees always prefer a shorter, steeper climb with a longer more gentle descent, which is exactly what doing this hike backwards (descending Willow Canyon Road and climbing Laguna Ridge Trail) would offer.
We hope you enjoyed this guide, and that it will prove helpful to you in the future! If so, or if you would like to see another guide in the O.C. or SoCal area, leave us a comment and let us know! And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook.
Gear We Used on This Trail
Altra Lone Peak 3
A great pair of lightweight, zero drop trail running shoes that are great for hiking. I first bought these shoes after I had injured my foot, and was looking for something with an especially wide toe box. I have loved these shoes for both hiking and the occasional run. If you have never tried zero drop shoes, they take a bit of getting used to, but I loved them so much I wish I could get backpacking or mountaineering boots that were zero drop!
Saucony Women’s Peregrine 6
Lightweight trail runners. If you are not ready to make the switch to zero drops, or if they just don’t agree with you, this is a great, neutral pair of trail runners. Michole has used these for fifteen plus mile hikes in rocky terrain with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, and loved them every step of the way.
Men’s Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec
Another pair of lightweight, adjustable, folding poles. I use these and feel that they are the perfect pole for me. I am confident that if/when these poles are retired, I will replace them with another pair of the same. If you would like to read my full review of these poles, you can find it here.
Black Diamond Distance FLZ Women’s Poles
A great, lightweight, adjustable, folding set of poles. Michole uses these poles and loves them. In fact, she wrote a full length review on them. If you would like more info on these poles, you can read it here.
Osprey Stratos 36
This is a great daypack, and will likely serve you on overnight trips, depending on how lightweight and compact your gear is. It features Osprey’s “Anti Gravity” suspension system. This lets more air flow to your back and, more importantly, shifts the weight of the pack from your shoulders and back to your hips. I love the “Anti Gravity” suspension so much, it’s hard for me to imagine ever buying a pack without it. I wrote a full review for this pack, you can find it here.
Osprey Manta AG 28
A great women’s daypack, the Manta is a dedicated hydration pack that comes with a 2.5 litre reservoir. This has been an extremely solid day pack. Like the Stratos, it features Osprey’s patented “Anti Gravity” suspension. The external mesh storage compartment, as well as several divided compartments with easy access make this a great pack for storing snacks, gloves, hats, or anything else you might want on the go.