A kid-friendly hike along the Horseshoe Loop Trail in Irvine Regional Park

Hike-At-A-Glance


Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Trail

Date Hiked: April 30, 2011 and March 15, 2009
Best Season: Autumn Spring Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Irvine Regional Park (714)973-6835 or (714)973-3173
  • Distance: 3.75 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 151 feet
  • Route Type: Loop
  • Trail Type: Dirt and Pavement
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Irvine Regional Park is one of Orange County’s most valuable outdoors treasures.  As the oldest park in the county, it has a long fascinating history — but, I’ll save that for a more in-depth post profiling just the park.  I have never visited the park at a time when it hasn’t been packed with families, but most people tend to congregate in the main more Disneyland-like parts of the park.  We like to hit the trails and escape the crowds.

The longest trail inside the park — Horseshoe Loop –is only about 3-3/4 miles long, however there are trails that connect with nearby Santiago Oaks Regional Park if you want to up your mileage.  What’s so nice about Horseshoe Loop Trail is that it gets you out into the less crowded areas of the park, and gives you the best introduction to the beautiful scenery that makes up Irvine Regional Park.  It’s short enough to do a a scenic mid-week after-work hike, and also short enough to keep the kids interested (also, packed with geocaches).

Jeff and I like to begin this trail from the parking lot at the eastern end of the park.  I can’t remember the lot number or name, but, once you pay for parking, turn right and follow the road past the crowds in the busy center of the park, all the way until it dead-ends in a nice shady lot.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

We like to park in the lot at the furthest eastern end of the park (anytime we visit, not just for this hike). It's much less crowded than the main lots, and close to great shady picnic spots.

The first time we did this hike, we actually took the reverse loop route.  But our preference now is to do the hike as described in this write up because the route we describe below puts the steepest elevation climb at the start of the hike instead of the end.  And even that isn’t very steep — but on a hot sunny day, we like to do the flat stuff last.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

From the east parking lot, head southwest along the park road you just drove.

From the parking lot,  retrace that road, on foot, a short distance until you reach a junction with another road (which looks like a service road that heads out of the park) that is signed as the access point to the Harding Nature Trail.  Turn left (heading south) on this service road.  Although the trail that points this direction from the main road indicates that the Harding Nature Trail is up this way (very confusing!), you will almost immediately see a trail off to your right with a trail post marker indicating it is the Horseshoe Loop Trail.

This little junction is the only real confusing spot of the trail.  We mistakenly missed that left turn to catch the Horseshoe Loop trailhead (because the only sign visible from the main road is marked Harding Nature Trail), so we turned around and retraced our steps after about a quarter mile (our mileage noted above includes the wrong turn). The road we started to follow would have still met up with the right trail, but we would have missed a big chunk of the hike and the best views of the park.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

The trailhead can be a bit confusing. You want to follow what looks like a service road off the to the left. You'll find the Horseshoe Loop trail post sign just past that first grove of trees on the right.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Jeff marks the coordinates of the Horseshoe Loop trail post marker with his GPS.

This stretch of Horseshoe Loop makes a gradual climb up to a scenic overlook with a covered bench that provides a convenient spot to sit and rest, if needed, while taking in the best views of the park.  From here, you can see nearby Santiago Oaks Regional Park, and watch the rolling foothills take shape into the Santa Ana Mountains.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Don't be fooled. This hike starts out in shade, but 90% of the trail is fully exposed.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

A sheltered bench at the scenic overlook up on top of the trail provides excellent views of the entire park and its surroundings.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

The trail is mostly single track as you descend back down to the park floor.

From the scenic lookout, hike down to the park floor, where the trail disappears and dumps you on to  a paved road that leads to the park entrance (where you paid for parking) and the ranger station.  You do have to follow the paved road for quite a while here, as it cuts across the park and heads to the horse stables, but you can at least do so from the soft shady grass that blankets the side of the road.

Continue to follow the park road until it starts to narrow and intersects with the Santiago Creek Trail.  Cross Santiago Creek Trail, and look for the Horseshoe Loop Trail sign off to the left (prior to the creek crossing).

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

And it dumps you out on a road near the entrance at the west end of the park.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

The second stretch of the hike requires walking alongside one of the roads that cuts through the middle of the park and leads to the stables.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Yep, that's right...that's a peacock running alongside the road.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

The road narrows and becomes off limits to cars as it crosses the perpendicular Santiago Creek Trail. Look for the Horseshoe Loop trail sign off to the left.

Once back on the hiking portion of Horseshoe Loop, the trail immediately cuts across Santiago Creek, which is dry throughout most of the year.  You should be able to easily spot where the trail picks up again across the creek.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Here the Horseshoe Loop Trail ones again becomes a real hiking trail, and cuts straight across Santiago Creek (dry most of the year).

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

This is what Santiago Creek looks like most of the year, at the section where Horseshoe Loop cuts across it.

Irvine Regional Park

This is what the same section of Santiago Creek looks like after heavy rains like we've had the last couple winters (Dated: Dec. 22, 2010, courtesy of OC Parks).

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

And just like that, Horseshoe Loop Trail resumes on the other side of the creek.

After crossing the creek, you get to enjoy my favorite stretch of trail, which runs mostly parallel to Santiago Creek along the rolling hills in the northeastern area of the park.  It almost feels like a different park here, because it is so much less crowded and noisy (although the sounds of kids playing are never out of earshot).  This part of the park gets extremely hot and dry during summer.  But even in late spring, you can still spot little trickles of water in the creek.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Still some wildflowers! Although not as many as prior years.

Irvine Park Hike (March 2009)

Wildflowers from our first hike, March 15, 2009

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Most of the stretch of hike on this side of Santiago Creek runs parallel to the creek, and you can still catch occasional glimpses of water.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

The northestern stretch of trail (across Saniago Creek) is my favorite part of Irvine Park. It is so peaceful and much less crowded than the main park.

As you approach the eastern edge of the park and climb back down to the park floor, you can see the 241 toll road in the distance.  The dirt trail suddenly dumps you back on to a paved service road, that (if you follow to the left) will cross the creek one last time and return you to the parking lot.  I encourage you, however, to take a short detour to the right first to check out the coolest rock formation in the park, then retrace your steps to where the Horseshoe Loop Trail dropped you off on the service road.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

You can see the 241 toll road come into view as Horseshoe Loop Trail starts to wind its way back to the main park.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

The trail dumps you on a paved service road that runs around the park.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Although you're supposed to turn left on the paved "trail" to get back to the parking lot, we swung a right to check out this cool rock formation that is always a popular spot for kids and kids at heart.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Continue heading southeast (retracing your steps if you took the rock detour) on the service road, which will cross back over Santiago Creek.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Again, still a few signs of water in Santiago Creek this time of year.

Once you cross the creek, you are home free back to the parking lot.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Continue following the paved service road back to the parking lot.

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

Or, do like we usually do, and follow this spur off the right to use the facilities (flush toilets straight ahead).

Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop Hike

We opted to cut across the shady grassy picnic area between the bathrooms and the parking lot, to allow our dog some time to run and play before leaving.

If you can brave the crowds, drive over to the main part of the park before heading home and grab a cold post-hike ice cream at the concession stand.

View Irvine Regional Park: Horseshoe Loop in a larger map

Irvine Park Horseshoe Loop 4-30-11

Elevation chart for Horseshoe Loop (click for a larger view).

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