Alex and I spent National Trails Day in Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve (Google Maps will tell you it is a Regional Park, but it isn’t), which is owned and maintained by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. Access to the preserve is limited to scheduled programs only — and having National Trails Day coincide with an Access Day event in Limestone Canyon meant Alex and I could make it to an area called “The Sinks”. This area is Orange County’s only National Natural Landmark.
Talk to hikers in Orange County and the surrounding area and you’ll hear even the most seasoned hikers saying that this hike is one of the ones they’ve been trying to cross off of their list for some time now. You see, the preserve is only open to the public (equestrians, hikers, and mountain bikers) for a few hours during the first Saturday of every month. You may be able to get in during other times, but you’ll be required to stay with a guide/docent the entire time. This weekend’s event allowed the public access to several trails without guides and activities for families with small children.
The big draw to this area is a geological feature known as “The Sinks”, which is fondly referred to as the “mini-Grand Canyon of Orange County” which is kind of cute considering it’s nothing like the Grand Canyon. I will say, it is nice to know that there is something to see at the end of the trail after spending several miles on a relatively flat trail early on a Saturday morning.
The trail does not have much cover, so I suggest doing this trail as early in the morning as you can (the parking lot opens at 8:00 a.m.) to avoid hiking/riding during the heat of the day. The beautiful oak trees somewhat line the trail, but they’re far enough back that they’re not much help. June in California means June Gloom — overcast and chilly in the mornings and clear and warm in the afternoons. Alex and I enjoyed the relatively-empty trail with plenty of cloud cover, but on our return trip, the crowds were certainly awake and the sun was out.
There are a handful of trails and trail spurs throughout the area to make your limited time in the reserve worthwhile. You can take the Shoestring Loop, you can take the direct route straight to the sinks, or you can add on a spur (like Raptor and Cactus Canyon) to increase your distance.
We took the most direct route we could to The Sinks, which is almost 8 miles, out and back. The trail is unpaved, relatively no elevation gain, and is a double-track so there is enough space for mountain bikers to go around you (hypothetically, there were some mountain bikers who unapologetically ran hikers off of the trail. There were also hikers walking 2 -3 abreast and not making proper room for mountain bikers. This is why we can’t have nice things) and for you to give enough room to the equestrian trail users.
Once you reach The Sinks, there is a viewing platform that allows you to get close to the edge safely. Some volunteers were available to answer questions and to take photos of groups, if needed. Every volunteer was so happy to greet visitors and were thrilled to answer questions and engage in conversation about the beautiful area. There isn’t much room on the platform, but the turnover was high when we arrived (one mountain biker commented on how fast we made it out there), so we were able to check out the views of the canyon without a lot of hassle. After a quick water break, Alex and I headed back to the parking lot.
If we go back out to this area, I hope the East Loma trail is open so we could make a much larger loop around the preserve with some possible views of the ocean. I highly recommend this hike (or the other options within the preserve) to anybody in the area looking for something different and a little more “exclusive” since you can only gain entry through special events.
Tips for visiting Limestone Canyon:
- Create an account on LetsGoOutside.org so you can register for events like this
- Keep an eye on the Irvine Ranch twitter account so you know when events are coming up
- Go early and carpool – the parking lot isn’t as large as needed (for good reason) and carpooling is better for the environment
- Bring plenty of water – there is no water provided at the event (it’s Orange County, some folks expect branded bottles of water available at a moment’s notice)
- Have some snacks ready – we had some dates and fruit rope for the trail and Alex packed some homemade spring rolls ready for us once we got back to the car
- Stay on the trail – there are rattlesnakes in the area and has restricted access for a reason, many habitats are in need of restoration after years of cattle farming and for raptor breeding
- Don’t forget to check out! Those fun badges you receive when you begin your hike need to be returned as you check out. No, you cannot keep them for Project Life, I already asked