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