When Jeff and I took the entire week of Thanksgiving off from work last November, we anticipated getting in a bunch of hikes that week in cool temperatures. While we did get to do a lot of hiking, we had to pull together a whole new set of trails at the last minute due to freakishly hot weather in late November. The Newport Back Bay Loop was one such last minute switch.
Despite being labeled as a “hiking” route, and close to home, the Newport Back Bay Loop has never been on our must-do list of hikes. It’s smack in the middle of busy Newport Beach, and much of the “trail” is actually sidewalk — with a segment running alongside traffic-heavy Pacific Coast Highway. But we needed a nice cool breezy hike that would offset the hot summer-like temperatures, one that was dog-friendly (which rules out Crystal Cove State Park and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park), and we wanted to get in at least 10 miles with each hike due to our year-end goal of 200 total hiking miles looming near.
Jeff and I were both pleasantly surprised by this urban hike. Yes, a good portion of it involved walking on a sidewalk alongside PCH, and then winding through residential neighborhoods. But, the sections of trail that explore the nature preserve and skirt alongside the coastal wetlands are pure peaceful nature-nerd heaven. Although we both agreed that this isn’t the type of hike we’ll probably do again in its entirety (again, the sidewalk stretches), we do look forward to visiting the nature preserve trail system again. And we certainly recommend this as a good hike to do in pretty much any season and any type of weather — except rain.
We chose the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and Ecological Reserve — part of OCParks — and particularly the interpretive center and its parking lot as our starting point for the hike. It is the northernmost point of the hike, located in a residential area at University Drive and Irvine Avenue. The parking lot is free and officially stays open until 4pm (close to sunset on the November date we hiked). Street parking is also available.
From the parking lot, head towards the big interpretive center sign and the trailhead. Follow the dirt walking path towards the bay (already great views!). When you hit the fork, veer left going south east a super short distance until you arrive at the interpretive center.
After visiting the center, head northeast following the path past the staff parking lot, where it hits the main “trail” — the Brown Trail — and turn right. The Brown Trail is actually a paved 2 lane bicycle and pedestrian path that runs alongside the bay to Jamboree Road. The Brown Trail is an extremely popular route for runners, walkers, and cyclists — a bit too crowded for our taste. So we opted to follow one of the short spur dirt trails down to the Nature Trail that runs right alongside the bay, which was much more to our liking. We followed the Nature Trail until it seemed to disappear, then found another spur trail returning us to the paved Brown Trail.
At the easternmost part of the hike, the Brown Trail hits Jamboree Road. The official trail turns right at Jamboree, paralleling that busy road until University Drive, separated from traffic by a cement divider.
Just prior to the intersection with Jamboree, Jeff and I spotted another small dirt trail to the right, which we followed. The trail heads down to the part of the bay — literally right to the water — that runs under Jamboree Road. This spot offers a pretty cool view of the bay not visible from up on the street. We had hoped to find a way to cross the water and catch the trail on the other side, but couldn’t find any safe way across. So, we opted to climb up a steep dirt trail that reunited us with the Brown Trail and Jamboree Road.
Despite hiking right alongside one of the busiest roads in Orange County, the views from Jamboree are quite spectacular. And since, when driving, one never gets more than a few quick glances at the surrounding scenery, this was indeed pretty cool.
When the Brown Trail (aka Jamboree Road) intersects with University Drive, you will see a big wooden sign once again marking the estuary. Make a right here — this is where University Drive becomes Eastbluff Drive. Prominent visible signs assure you that you are still on the right trail…both the Back Bay Trail, and now the final leg of the 22-mile Mountains to See Trail.
After just a short walk along this sidewalk section of trail, you will hit Vista Point, located where Eastbluff Drive intersects with Back Bay Drive. Vista Point is a great spot to take a break, sit for a spell, and enjoy a snack or lunch. There are cement benches (but no shade), and a telescope to take in the sweeping views of the bay and wetlands. This is a common turn-around spot for folks who just want to do a short there-and-back version of the hike.
If you’re continuing on for the entire Back Bay Loop hike, head due west on Back Bay Drive. Back Bay Drive is your route for the entire long, scenic, eastern border of the hike. This stretch too is quite popular with runners, walkers, and cyclists…and cars (but, they’re at least restricted to one-way traffic).
Big Canyon Inlet is a small park situated about half-way down Back Bay Drive. It provides parking on the eastern side of the bay, and has a vista outlook with interpretive signs, as well as vault toilets.
Near the final leg along Back Bay Drive, you start making your approach to the Back Bay Science Center, which, like Big Canyon Inlet, is another jumping-on point to catch the Back Bay Loop Trail. Here you will find the official trails-end (or start, depending on your direction) for the 22-mile Mountains to Sea Trail.
Just past the Science Center, your trail becomes sidewalk, winding past a residential neighborhood on our right and luxurious hotel resort and country club grounds on your left. You will also pass one of the entrances to Newport Dunes just before the trail joins up once again with Jamboree Road, which dumps you on to Pacific Coast Highway at its southernmost border.
At this point, the official trail overlaps with Pacific Coast Highway, on a sidewalk adjacent to the oftentimes crowded scenic beach drive. Take a little detour on the paved path through Back Bay View Park, before trekking past the ultra-touristy Newport Dunes. You’ll pass a luxury mobile home park, then walk along an overpass that crosses over the bay, before reaching the intersection with Dover Drive.
At the intersection of PCH and Dover Drive, head right on Dover Drive. Keep following the blue “Back Bay Loop” markers stamped into the sidewalk.
Castaways Park is a quaint little municipal park filled with scenic views of the bay. It marks the spot of Newport’s official founding — Newport Landing — back in 1870.
From PCH, you turn right on to Dover Drive for the western leg of the Back Bay Loop Trail. This stretch of “trail” is all sidewalk, clearly marked with circular big blue “Back Bay Loop” trail markers stamped into the sidewalk and posted on light poles.
Shortly after turning on to Dover Drive, you encounter a paved ramp trail that takes you up to Castaways Park. It wasn’t clear to us if Castaways Park is an actual part of the trail, but the views make the detour worth visiting, and there are a couple of paved routes that drop you back down to Dover Drive and the Back Bay Loop Trail. We asked several residents if we should stick to the bay-view resident park paths (sidewalk, in front of the bluff-view homes), or if those sidewalks dead-ended before returning to the Back Bay Loop Trail. No one could give us a good answer, so we opted to take one of the more obvious routes back down to Dover Drive, which dropped us off adjacent to the parking lot for the Harbor Lutheran Church.
A bit further along our hike, we encountered what we’re pretty sure must be another route down to Dover Drive has we opted to continue along the bluffs from Castaways Park past all of the nice homes up top.
Shortly after you pass Mariner’s Park, Dover Drive intersects with Irvine Avenue and becomes East 19th Street. Swing a right on Irvine Avenue to progress along yet another residential neighborhood.
Just past its intersection with Santiago Drive, the sidewalk stretch along Irvine Avenue returns you to the rolling dirt trails of the Nature Preserve. The views along the bluff trails are spectacular. We had to rush, for fear of the parking lot closing, but otherwise, allow for ample time to explore all of the little side trail spurs here.
Following the main northbound trail returns you to the Interpretive Center parking lot. Even once the lot closes at sunset, parked vehicles can still exit unencumbered. Inbound traffic, however, is blocked by a chain across the lot entrance.
Our hikes always go a bit slow, because we love to stop, soak in the beauty, and take a ton of photos — this hike progressed at an even slower pace because the Back Bay is so stinking gorgeous and photo-worthy. But, considering the spectacular sunset views of the Bay the we got to experience, our slow pace was totally worth it!
View the Newport Back Bay Loop Hike in a larger map