Whiting Ranch is a popular Orange County wilderness park located in Lake Forest between Foothill Ranch and Santiago Canyon. Although it’s surrounded on two sides by subdivisions, once you hike into the park, you’re transported to another time and place. There are oak-linked valleys, red rock canyons, lung-busting climbs and vistas across Orange County.
This journey starts and ends at the Portola Ranch Wahoo’s (map). The great thing about this location is that there is plenty of parking on evenings and weekends, and you have a ready-made aprés-hike eatery (you will have earned that cerveza, amigos). The parking lot borders Serrano Creek. Follow the paved bike path under Portola Parkway and into Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park on the Serrano Creek trail.
At the one mile mark, you’ll bear left and begin to climb Dreaded Hill. The double-track trail climbs steadily, and you ascend about 600 feet in one mile. I’m not sure why it’s called Dreaded Hill frankly, as it’s not the steepest or hardest hill around by a long shot. But it does intimidate people that probably should think twice before hiking it.
From the summit of Dreaded Hill, catch your breath and enjoy the views. You’ve got great views of the local mountains, and out over much of Orange County. On a clear day, you can even see Catalina Island!
Continue on the trail downhill. Just past the summit you’ll reach a junction. Water Tank trail continues on the ridge, but you’ll turn right, heading east to Four Corners.
You can’t miss Four Corners — there is a bulletin board with park notices, and a water fountain. If you’re hiking with others, this is a good point to meet up at, as there are several trails that all come together here. Note that this area is also a popular gathering and rest point for mountain bikers. Be alert as you’re on the trail.
From Four Corners, head west down Mustard trail. As you reach the bottom of the canyon, a trail marker pointing the way to Red Rock Canyon.
Follow the creek bed upstream, watching for signs of a well-traveled path. Parts of this trail can be tricky to follow, and you’ll have to do some scrambling, but you’ll be rewarded with the unique geology of Red Rock Canyon. This distinctive canyon is two mile, out-and-back option.
The last optional leg of this trail is up to the 1500′ Vista Lookout. Follow Mustard and when you reach the Vista Lookout junction, head uphill. This innocently-named trail is on par with the incline of Dreaded Hill, but much less popular. It’s a great escape from the more crowded trails, and the views are even better.
Retrace your steps back to Mustard, then head uphill and back to Four Corners. You’ve got two options to head back. Start heading south down Whiting trail — a wide double-track. You can follow this all the way back to Serrano, and return to the trailhead, or you can bear left at the first single track trail no more than 30 yards down the trail. While this was my choice, know that this twisty single-track is also popular with mountain bikers. If you’re uncomfortable with that, stick with the Whiting trail.
Both trails end up at the Sage Scrub trail — a rolling double-track that follows the dry Serrano Creek back towards your trailhead. There are several trail options you’ll encounter. They all head south-east and end up at the Serrano Creek trail. For the most direct route, choose the options closest to the creek bed.
When you get back, stop in for a fish taco and a cold cerveza. Wahoo’s always has a Beer-of-the-Month listed for $1.99. My recommendation? Order a #1, with a charbroiled fish taco, brown rice, black beans and extra salsa. Salud!
Whiting Ranch Trail Map
Whiting Ranch Photo Gallery
Click on any photo to view a larger version. You can also leave comments on any photo.
Whiting Ranch Hiking Tips
- Like all of the Orange County Wilderness Parks, Whiting Ranch closes for several days during and after rainfall. This is to protect the trails from damage. Check with the Park Ranger if in doubt: (949) 923-2245.
- This area is somewhat infamous as the location where a mountain biker was mauled by a mountain lion. If this worries you, don’t hike alone.
- The park hours are 7am to sunset.
- If you hike here early in the morning, you might catch a glimpse of deer grazing near the Sorrento Creek.
- While you can hike here year-round, it gets hot and dry in the summer. I prefer to hike here in the cooler months, and springtime is especially beautiful.
More Whiting Ranch Resources
- Official Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park web site
- Printable Whiting Ranch trail map (PDF)
- History of Whiting Ranch
- An alternate and easier route to Red Rock Canyon – Greene Adventures
Traci Lehman says
Lovely photos! My sister “made” me hike Whiting during a heat wave, once. It was nice hiking under the relatively flat trails and oak canopy, but as soon as we climbed those exposed ridges look out. I was giving her the stink eye at that point. Are the hills still this green or are these photos from earlier in the year?
Jeff Hester says
Thanks, Traci. These photos were from back in March. The landscape looks much more brown and golden (depending upon the time of day) now.
And you make a good point — those hills have a lot of sun exposure. Best tackled when it’s cooler (early or late in the day, or fall/winter/spring).
I hiked this with my nephews on Memorial Day and we had a great time. Your directions were easy to follow, thank you! We are fairly new to hiking and did struggle with some parts, but overall it was great. I experienced some heat stress toward the end though. What are your tips for warm-weather hiking? I think it’s going to be a particularly hot summer this year.
I thoroughly go through your site each week researching new trails! Im considering sticking to an OC one soon and this is catching my eye. Is there a parkign fee of any sort to start this specific trail from your starting point mentioned here? Thank you!
Jeff Hester says
Philip, if you park in the lot at the shopping center mentioned, there is no fee for parking. As a rule and as a matter of etiquette, I suggest being a customer at one of the establishments there as “payment” for using their parking. Wahoo’s is my personal favorite.
Sarah Eitzen says
Wondering how long it takes to walk from where you park to the red rocks? Looking to do a photoshoot there but didn’t know how feasible it was! Any idea?
Francis Kane says
Parked in the lot off Portola and Market, and started my hike at Borrego Canyon. This road is 1.3 miles, and before it ends you hit a link up to the Red Rocks trail. Turned to Mustard, then took Whiting and Serrano all the way down. It took me about 3 hours to finish, and was not too strenuous of a hike. Definitely hot though! Also, there are a ton of bikers on this trail, and they fly down it at certain parts. You should certainly keep your ears open for them coming and jump out of the way, because they come fast. The scenery on this hike was very unique. Lots of creepy looking trees, and parts with sand on Borrego. All in all, it was a fun hike!
Eric Thrillson says
Just hiked Whiting Ranch yesterday and it was great. Parked at the Wahoos as recommended and started on Serrano to Dreaded Hill. From Dreaded Hill we took the Billy Goat trail towards Red Rock. Billy Goat meets back up with the Mustard trail and it was a fun part of the hike with no mountain bikers. We Then took the Borrego trail back to the official park parking lot on Portola HWY. Taking Borrego back means you do not have to double back over Dreaded hill but you are then left with a 1 mile walk down Portola HWY to the Wahoos.
mortise Londyn says
Better than the original
Preston L. Bannister says
I live in Foothill Ranch, so Whiting is my regular hike.
I generally start from the trailhead near the Ralphs off Portola, near Bake. The trail follows a narrow little valley, and is quite pleasant year round.
On hot days, I would not recommend climbing Dreaded Hill from the direction you took. The route is very exposed to the sun, and hot. The health benefit to hiking this route comes from the elevation change, which is the same from either direction. There is no health benefit to added heat stress.
Especially for newer or casual hikers, no need to make the hike less pleasant.
SoCal Hiker says
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this park on hot days! At the very least, start and finish early when the temperature is cooler. This area is really beautiful in the spring, and the temps are much more mild.
Thank you for your trail guides. I discovered so many new hikes through your site. I am a big fan of GPX files. I use it on my Garmin Fenix 3. I was able to successfully download and use a few of your GPX files, but for some reason, I’m unable to use the GPX file for Whiting Ranch. It might be user error, but I just wanted to let you know. I’m planning on doing this hike on Sunday as long as the park doesn’t close due to rain.
Are service dogs allowed on the Red Rock Canyon Trail?