Hiking, the Hills, and a Little Laguna History

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Before we begin this love letter to Laguna’s world class hiking trails, let’s first delve into some good ol’ town history.

Back in 1980, the Irvine Company attempted to develop the area around Laguna Canyon. The plan was to destroy the untouched hills in order to build housing for a growing demand. Wanting to do something to stand up against the cause, two local artists by the names of Jerry Burchfield and Mark Chamberlain, decided to combine art and activism (coined: artivism) as a way to protest this development. The two considered the canyon to be an integral component to their Laguna identities and, in an effort to preserve a part of their hearts, the Laguna Canyon Project was born.

This project evolved into many different phases, the final and most monumental being the creation of a 636-foot-long photographic mural titled The Tell -- which would ultimately inspire the community to give preservation a deeper thought. Burchfield and Chamberlain’s series of artivism projects succeeded and their goal of conserving the land in the canyon was granted. (In 2015 and 2016 the Laguna Art Museum curated an exhibition specifically about the various forms of art activism the project included. Check out their site for more details.)

This dedication to preservation is the reason Laguna Beach still has large areas of protected land which allow residents and visitors alike to hike, bike, and adventure. Volunteers with the Laguna Canyon Foundation maintain the trails, making sure they are safe and clean for everyone to enjoy.

While many of the trails begin in Laguna Canyon, some trailheads are actually mixed right along with Laguna’s neighborhoods, discreetly marked at the end of long winding streets -- a favorite being Dartmoor Trail.

Hidden in North Laguna, once you know where the trail is, it’s easy to find. Go up Dartmoor Street and find the beginning of the path where the street ends. (Please be respectful and quiet when parking, as homeowners are generously sharing their neighborhood.)

Each time you hike the trail you’ll notice something different. There is a sense of intangibility that comes from being outside, breathing crisp fresh air and working up a sweat. Perfect for an early morning hike or a sunset view, stepping foot on the trail promises to do wonders for your mind, instantly relieving stress and providing energy.

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The trail itself is relatively short but mostly uphill, making it a great workout to get your heart rate up. The top of the trail connects to other trails, allowing you to determine the level of intensity you desire. (You can even end up in Irvine if you walk long enough!)

The path ends at a bench overlooking Emerald Bay and North Laguna, putting the glistening Pacific Ocean on display. On a clear day there are panoramic views -- from the outline of Catalina Island to Dana Point on the left and Long Beach to the right. Seagulls soar overhead, and from this high up it’s easy to imagine Laguna from their point of view, looking at the sweeping sea below.

Right now the area around the trails are especially exciting, due to the amount of water we received this winter. Native plants are aplenty, the shrubs are large and green, and blooming flowers have appeared, showcasing pops of purple, lupine, and yellow. The Laguna Coast Wilderness Park offers guided hikes for people to learn more about the flora and fauna of Southern California (check out OC Parks for upcoming events and hikes). *Hot tip: a ‘super bloom’ is predicted this coming spring, which will be sure to bring additional color and smells to the hills.

When comparing Laguna Beach to other coastal towns which have allowed their hillsides to become developed, we realize how truly lucky we are to have activists like Jerry Burchfield and Mark Chamberlain who have changed the course of our city’s development. From the hills to the sea, there are endless adventures to experience every day in Laguna. See you on the trail!

Gemma Totten is a world traveler, but first and foremost, a Laguna local. Catch up with her on her dream (and beach)-worthy Instagram at @gemmatotten.

Photos by: Grant Puckett.