Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hiking Crystal Cove

Crystal Cove is one of those rare gems tucked away in Orange County that gets less press than the parks in the OC Interior (Irving/Whiting/Some Old Dutch Name/Etc.). However, this park is huge and popular with the OC crowd and well worth the drive from LA or wherever you reside in SoCal.

First of all, how lucky are we that our state is bordered by the Pacific Ocean?

I mean, really? Now, while Crystal Cove offers beach access along several points of the PCH, you are here for the hiking and the hiking for the most part is in the interior away from the beach. I structured my hike so after hiking all the trails in Crystal Cove (save the lower half of Moro Canyon and the East Cut Across) I came down the Moro Ridge Trail, which will knock your socks off with views of the Pacific. However you hike Crystal Cove, it offers loops and outs and backs that will give ya whatever you are looking for.

Since I went on 86.6666666% of the trails in Crystal Cove (its Science Fact!), I have broken down my general impressions of each segment of the trail I hiked. I list them chronologically so if you follow along with the map I link to below, you will see I did one big loop with lots of little loops within the loops. I was all Cirque Du Soleil up in there!

I started off on an unmarked trail which went up to the official visitor's center. Along the way, and what was clearly the theme of the day, was rabbits.

They are there in force for your amusement all along the trails.


First of all, how cute is that there is "no name" for this trail system?

No Dogs starts on the Westsiiiide of the park and goes slow and steady up to the top of the Western ridgeline. The trail is wide and your typical SoCal fireroad/canoe trail.

The elevation gain isn't too bad (more on elevation later) but it gets you up and looking around at the nice scenery without breaking too much of a sweat.


This is an aptly named trail. This is a significant uphill/downhill jaunt that follows telephone poles as they go down into the Crystal Cove valley. God help you if you are hiking this trail East to West (or uphill) because then you will definitely be leaning on your hiking poles to help you get up this sucka.

(why do my photos never look more vertical than they truly are?)


Crystal Cove is basically a giant horseshoe with significant ridgelines bordering either side of the U and then in the middle there is some valley floor along with other ridges in the middle. The bad thing about this setup is that if you go anywhere in the middle of the park you are going to be losing elevation and then you will have to make it up somewhere because in hiking "whatever goes down must go up again".

This became immediately apparent going down the steep Poles Section with the distinct knowledge I would have to go immediately up on W. Cut Across. At least the track was wide with purty flowers to smell along the way.


By FAR my most favorite track in the entirety of Crystal Cove. After trekking on wide/canoe trails, Rattlesnake is a small/kayak trail that runs the length of a smaller ridgeline in the middle of the park which gives you a few summits and fewer people.

The track winds its way along like...a rattlesnake


and then goes up and up. What is fascinating about Crystal Cove is how much of the trail has been worn down or goes over exposed rock. It is not all of the park but much more than I have seen here in SoCal.

The flowers and shrubs along the trail get up close and personal with you on this trail so take some time to admire their handiwork woulda?

There are several "summits" meaning high points that are clear

for you to look at stuff.


There are many scenes in movies that are cut from the final version that we seen in theater or on TV screens. As I was going up the switchbacks (seriously switchbacks? The highest elevation on this trail is like 800 feet) at the end of this trail, I was wondering if the switchbacks were what made Michael Bay drop the character Ticketron from his latest Transformers movie.

Other than those switchbacks, this is a fine trail and introduces you to one of several campgrounds in the Crystal Cove park.

This was the only campground I saw people at, probably due to the other campgrounds having high grass and bare bones amenities. I am a fan of camping out but have yet to run across many campgrounds in my travels. To see campgrounds in the backcountry of the OC did my heart good.


In order to keep up my appearance of a loop, you have to go on some OCParks trails which are part of the Laguna Wildnerness and get rave reviews from other outdoor enthusiasts. I was less than impressed by the trails that border Crystal Cove. They are wide to a fault

and have guardrails, guardrails!

The less we speak about this trail (including the Boomer road which connects the backside of the park) the better but I do have to mention one thing. Crystal Cove is clearly one of the busiest parks I have run across so far. That being said, I cannot tell you how many cars I saw parked on the OC streets near this park so hikers/bikers could access the trails for free. Crystal Cove charges $15 a car (or if you support the CSPF, its free! what are you waiting for?) which is steep yes and maybe they should reduce that some but man, Cali Parks are in trouble! Could you OC'ers suck it up once in awhile and pay some park fees?


True to its name, this short track gets off the OC canoe trails and back into the CC park proper following a fence line. Its a tight little trail favored by runners and a good tromp by us hiker-folk.

I would also like to take a second to talk about the excellent signage at CC. At every trail junction, CC has a sign showing you exactly where you are and thus what your options are.

True to form, the only time I got lost was on the trail junctions between the Laguna Wilderness and CC.


Yes, this trail hewed closely to its name. It is really the only flat track within CC. That being said, it made me really depressed when I started to go downhill. Oh no! Wait, the ridgeline is going up and I am going down, this can't be good. Especially with a trail named "Elevator" coming up for me to get back up and on track.

I was actually muttering to myself as I went downhill, trying to eyeball the elevation difference and not liking what I was seeing.

The SNE trail and the Moro Canyon trail (at least the portion I was on) are fine enough. Wide trails that let you see more of the valley between the ridges. However, if you are heading back up the ridges on Elevator, all I can say is be prepared, there is nothing fun about this downhill.


As I approached Elevator in the distance, my heart began to sank. I can go up and down with the best of em but it was clear that all the trails I had trod this day were taking their toll on me. All my uphill gains were consistently lost by steep downhill saunters only leading to more inevitable uphill climbs.

So when I saw this in the distance

I was not looking forward to it. I have been starting to experiment with an electrolyte replacement named Vitalyte. I have been noticing leg cramping on long hikes (this one was 12.75 miles) and wanted to obviously decrease physical pain. I am not sure how it all works but I took 3-4 minutes to gulp as much water-infused-Vitalyte as I could before rounding the bend. But rounding the bend, what did I see?

Hahaha 2 trails? One with a more genteel elevation gain? Sign me up for trail to the left (which ended up being Elevator, me read maps good). Hopefully though you can actually see the severe upslope being asked from the trail to the right before you call me out. Elevator was still pretty kick ass even though it was .3 miles it gained like 800 million feet in elevation in those .3 miles.

Your reward at the top? A rather disappointing summit marker.

OC!!!!! (shakes fist in rage)


Another tight, small trail which stays within the CC park and gets you over to the Moro Ridge trail. This portion of the park is much more cactus-y which, if you have to step out of the way of a biker, could be a prickly situation.

Let me also take a moment to discuss my ever evolving thoughts on bikers on the trails. Today there were numerous bikers but everyone was super nice and there were no major incidents. Unlike some other parks that allow bikers, CC allows bikers on all the trails, some of which have blind tight turns which could lead to bad consequences if both bikers/hikers don't have their head on a swivel. It reminds me a bit of LA. The LA you see today was built up in the 20s and 30s when there were still trolleys and cars were not the predominant mode of transportation. Then came the freeways and many, many more cars which has lead to both sides of the street having cars parked which forces oncoming traffic to do a wait and see dance with the other cars. It is a maddening situation given how many cars there are in LA and the same is true for trails.

These trails were developed for hikers first (aka the trolley). Now bikes are everywhere but some of the tracks can't support both hikers and bikes at the same time and each have to do the slowdown dance when they come into contact with each other. I think the solution should be, there are some trails bikes just can't go on. Hikers and bikers have a mutual respect but on the narrow trails with poor sightlines, something different has to go down before some gets hurt.


There isn't much to say about this track. Its rather a straight shot back to the parking lot

with a few ups and downs and many, many people. This is a popular, popular trail with 3x times the people on this trail than the other trails combined. Nothing much more to say....oh WAIT, yes, that's right, the PACIFIC!

Hike this trail East to West, its the only way to do it. After seeing the backcountry of OC, to see the beautiful views of the Pacific makes the last 4 miles worth it.

Wrap Up

This was one of my favorite hikes of the year for 2 reasons, the Rattlesnake Trail is worth the price of admission and so are the views of the Pacific. The up and down of the way I hiked this puppy is a bit draining no question but you could knock this park off 5 miles at a time to reduce the leg burn.

A hike at CC would not be complete without a stop to the Shake Shack (which is now Ruby's Shake Shack but no matter). The parking is atrocious and so are the lines but if you like shakes, you HAVE to try the Date Shake. The burgers/fries are fine but the shakes are the true stars. Just North of CC on the PCH, it is well worth your time.

Here is the Park Map, it is much better than most: http://crystalcovestatepark.com/parkareas.htm


  1. Welcome to our neck of the woods! Nice post! We used to hike Crystal Cove until getting a dog, which are not allowed on the trails (hence, our boycott). Give adjacent Laguna Coast Wilderness park a try sometime too. Equally nice ocean views. But, since it too bans dogs, we don't hike it anymore.

    -- Colleen @ GreeneAdventures.com

  2. Really finely written - informative, genuine, and warmly humorous. Thank you!


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