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Three South County hikes for those who like to stretch their legs on a scenic trail.

by Ed Neely

(Originally written for Doheny State Beach South Swell e-magazine) 

A walk along the beach with the sound of the surf, the lapping of the waves on the shore and your toes in the sand is a great experience; and to be sure, Doheny State Beach provides a long length of beach on which to ramble.  From the harbor jetty to passed south day-use area, a stroll in the Doho sand in the early morning calm; in the midday excitement of surfers, swimmers, volleyball players and sun worshipers; or to watch a fiery sunset and perhaps catch the green flash is a wonderful experience any time of year.  But just outside our park, only a short car drive away, are other wonderful hikes to be had amongst the wonders of this coastal community.  As with all hikes, appropriate preparations are important: good shoes suitable for the terrain (all three of these hikes are good with tennies), water, sunscreen and a hat.  Optional items to carry along in a fanny or backpack are binoculars, camera, snacks and (depending on the weather) a sweatshirt or jacket.



Approximately 3.5 miles round trip

You may want to time your hike so you’ll be at the tidepools in the two-hour window surrounding low tide.  Check at the Visitor Center, with the Lifeguards or at the entrance kiosk for tide times.  Those wishing to skip the walk along Dana Point Harbor Drive can motor or bike to and park at the Ocean Institute or in public parking nearby.  This hike should be avoided during extreme high tides with large surf running.  Dogs are not allowed on the beach or in the tidepools.

This is a hike you can start in the State Park, no driving required.  At the entrance to the State Park, walk west (left) along Dana Point Harbor Drive (DPHD) to the entrance of the Ocean Institute, about 1.2 miles.  Along the way, you’ll pass the harbor village, the bridge that crosses to the island, Baby Beach (favorite launch site for outrigger canoes, stand-up paddlers and kayakers), and the good ship “Pilgrim”.  DPHD ends at the entrance to the Ocean Institute’s parking lot.  Continue walking through the parking lot, on the hill side of the Ocean Institute and out to the breakwater jetty. 

This is a great spot for a break and to take in the beauty that surrounds you.  To the south is the outer channel leading to the entrance of Dana Point Harbor, and beyond that, the coastline down to San Mateo Point in San Clemente.  On a clear day, you can see all the way to the La Jolla peninsula.  In front of you (west) is a beautiful stretch of California shoreline; a sight Richard Henry Dana called the only romantic spot on the California coast.  The three large rocks just beyond the breakwater are home to numerous tidepool critters: sea stars, limpets, chitons (ki / tons), barnacles, muscles and more.  Depending on the season and the tide, you can climb on the first rock.  The rock furthest out often provides the daytime haul-out for “Sammy”, a local harbor seal.  The large rock island far out off the headlands is San Juan Rock, also noted  by Dana in his book, Two Years Before the Mast.  On most days clear, you can see Santa Catalina Island on the horizon and just south of that, the hilltops of San Clemente Island. 

If you look carefully at the farthest headland cliff visible from this location, you’ll see an Indian’s profile, “The Whale Watcher”.  One local historian tells us the local Acjachemen Indians had a story that the Whale Watcher would keep look out for whales off the coast and call them when whales were close enough to hunt.  The Acjachemen were not great whale hunters, but they did bring some in, probably gray whales.  The Whale Watcher provides a service to us today.  As interesting as the tidepools are closest to the jetty, the really good ones start down by “The Whale Watcher,” and just get better the further out you go.

At the base of the jetty by the cliff is a caged covered staircase down to the beach.  The first piece of ground to cover on this stretch is across the sand, no problem.  Where the sand ends and the rocks begin is a trail at the base of the cliff that leads out along the headlands and eventually (a bit more than half a mile) to the entrance of “The Pirate’s Cave.” In places, the trail becomes a bit tricky as you’ll be walking on round rocks rather than dirt.  Getting down to explore the tidepools requires care as well, as the rocks are round and once in the intertidal zone, wet and slippery.  Either on your way out to the cave or on your way back, do take time to explore the tidepools.  They are much different than the tidepools at Doheny.  While exploring, remember the Good Tidepooler Rules: 1) Never remove critters, shells or rocks; 2) Don’t pull critters off rocks or poke them; 3) Walk gently taking care not to step on plants or animals; 4) Never turn over rocks.

The trail turns northwest at the end of the headlands.  There’s a sandy beach here, affectionately known to some as “Golf Ball Beach”.  You will often find golf balls in these tidepools that have been washed down from a local golf course after the rains.  This stretch of sandy beach ends with large rocks and you’ll need to find the trail again at the base of the cliff.  Where the trail dead-ends, you’ve reached the entrance to the Pirate’s Cave; a large crack in the hillside wall. Depending on the tides, the weather and the waves, the entrance can be dry and easy or wet and a bit of a challenge.  Once through the entrance tunnel, the cave opens into a large cavern with an opening to the sea.  Although called the Pirate’s Cave, real pirates probably never used it.  There are stories, however, that rumrunners may have stashed their contraband here during Prohibition on ocean runs between Mexico and Los Angeles.

For most of us, this is the end of the trail and we’ll be heading back the way we came.   For those more adventurous, at the right time of year and the right tide, this hike can be extended.  It needs to be done during very low tides occurring in late November, December, January and early February.  With a low tide of negative one foot or more, hikers can go through the cavern’s opening and around to Dana Strands Beach, passing two smaller caves and an arch along the way.  You can backtrack your route to return, or see the return route below in the Dana Point Headlands Hike.  The piece from the Pirate’s Cave to Dana Strands Beach can be difficult, as you will be climbing over large rocks and outcroppings. 

For those of you reading on-line, here are two YouTube videos of the Pirate’s Cave.  The first will show why, although fun, you’ll probably not want to take this hike at high tide. The second will show you why low tide is best.





Approximately a 4-mile loop

(No dogs or bikes are allowed on the trails)

A map of this trail is available in PDF format at


This is a loop trail across the Dana Point Headlands and through coastal sage scrub, along Dana Strands Beach, city parks and with striking ocean and coastal views.  The trail and turnouts on the headlands are grand locations for whale watching in the winter months.  This hike also gives you the opportunity to ride a funicular railway.   The trail’s creation was the result of many years of grassroots, local efforts to preserve the last of the open space headlands on the California coast for public access and enjoyment.

You will probably want to drive the 1.5-mile route to the trailhead at the Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center (NIC).  From the entrance of Doheny State Beach, turn left (west) onto Dana Point Harbor Drive going about 1 mile to Cove Road; a right turn takes you up the steep and not pedestrian friendly hill to Scenic Drive.  Turn left on Scenic Drive, which dead ends at the NIC parking lot.  You can park in the lot or on the street (parking lot gates are locked just after sunset).

Before hitting the trail, take time to visit the NIC, open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 AM – 4 PM.  Inside you will find wonderful historic, geologic, geographic, animal (land and sea), and vegetation exhibits giving you a good background on the area you are about to traipse through.  There are knowledgeable docents and a colorful mural of the 1840’s headlands during the hide trade era along the California coast.

The trailhead is behind the NIC and leads out into the coastal scrub of the headlands.   On the southeast side (your left), you’ll see San Juan Rock and the coastline from Dana Point down into San Diego County.  Ahead on a clear day is San Clemente Island, and north of it and much closer, Santa Catalina, the southern most islands in the Channel Island chain.  Just offshore of the headlands is “Annabelle”, a large red channel buoy giving off the occasional toot to warn sailors there are rock reefs on the inside they should avoid.  You’ll probably hear the barking of sea lions that use Annabelle as a haul-out to rest on during the day.  To the northwest on a clear day, you can visually follow the coastline up to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The headlands trail winds along to exit onto Dana Strands Road.  Walk passed the apartments (wouldn’t you like to have one of those, eh?) and a short distance further down the road until you reach the entrance to the switchback stairs leading down to Dana Strands Beach.  At the bottom of the switchback is a wooden raised walkway heading northwest along the beach.  On your left is beautiful Dana Stands; on your right are some spectacular homes (forget the apartments, I’ll take one of these).  The waves along this stretch of beach are hard breakers.  If perchance you decide to take a swim, be forewarned that it doesn’t take much to get hammered into the sand.

The walkway ends at a lifeguard tower and a wide paved path heads up the hill.  Just a short distance away is some real fun, a chance to ride a funicular railcar to the top of the hill.  The funicular runs during the summer and on weekends during other seasons.  It’s a free ride.  Your other choice is to walk up the stairs, a walkway known locally as “1000 Steps”.  On-line readers can take a trip down the funicular on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6idbHEWZ8Iw

Exiting the funicular or arriving at the top of the stairs, turn right and walk along the sidewalk of the parking lot    through Strands Vista Park.  At the War Memorial, head out to Selva Road and look to your right across the street for the pedestrian / bike path heading up the hill.  Reaching the top of this path, you are at the private entrance of the housing tract on Shoreline Drive by Pacific Coast Highway.  Cross Shoreline Drive to the entrance into Hill Top Park and its walking path.  When you reach the point on the path where there are apartments on your left, you’ll also reach an intersecting path on your right leading up the hill.  This is a side trip well worth the climb as it takes you to the highest point on the coastline with a spectacular 360-degree view of the coast from San Diego to Palos Verdes and the Santa Ana Mountains behind you.  In the winter when there’s snow capping Saddleback at sunset and the sun settles into the Pacific, it’s a breath-taking sight.  Now back down this side trail and continue along the Hill Top Park path to a stairway leading down to Green Lantern Street. 

At the bottom of the stairs, turn right to head back towards the NIC.  Along the way and on your left just passed Cove Road is another short side trip trail (1/4 mile) through  Harbor Point Park leading to the cliffs above the Ocean Institute and the jetty.






The distance you hike is up to you: good for an hour, good for all day.

These trails are popular with hikers, dog walkers, runners and off-road bicyclers.  They have many connecting trails for you to choose from, none better than another: all a delight.  In warm weather, trail users should be aware that this is wild land, thus home to rattle snakes.  Don’t pick up a stick unless you know it really is a stick.  Keep an eye on whatever Rover may be investigating.

The San Juan Hills Trails stretch along the ridgelines and canyons of the backcountry in San Juan Capistrano.  These trails are actually part of a larger network reaching from SanClemente and San Onofre in the south and inland to the Ortega and the Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy. Hiking is on well-defined trails: some wide, some narrow, some flat, some steep, but all hard pack except after a rain.  Then, unless you enjoy pounds of adobe mud caked to your shoes; you should probably avoid the hike until things dry out.  The views from trails are spectacular encompassing the coastline and Dana Point Harbor, Talega Valley on the San Clemente side of the hills and the breath of the Capistrano Valley as far back as the entrance to Trabuco Canyon at the base of Saddleback and the Santa Ana Mountains on the other side and to the east.  There’s vegetation a plenty with a variety of sage, reeds, wildflowers, wild artichoke thistles and grasses.  As with most hill hikes in Southern California, the best time of year stretches from the first rains of the wet season when the hills turn green with fresh vegetation through mid-spring as the hillsides are just turning brown again.  Summer hiking is rewarding as well, only not as colorful with vegetation and the need to keep a look out for snakes that maybe lounging on or near the trails.

The Las Ramblas Trailhead is the closest entry to the San Juan Hills Trails from Doheny State Beach, less than a 3-mile drive from the park’s entrance.  Turn right onto Dana Point Harbor Drive and right again on to Pacific Coast Highway; move into the left lane.  The road rises towards the Interstate 5 on-ramps and passes beneath the freeway bridge.  At this point, the road becomes Las Ramblas.  Stay on Las Ramblas all the way to the top where it dead-ends at the Las Ramblas Trailhead.  There’s easy parking on both sides of the road.  The entrance to the trail is on your right as you walk up the street.  Once through the entry gate onto the trail, head to the top of the ridge.  The main trail is on your left but there are a few smaller trails going off up the hills on either side of you.  I suggest, on your first time through, go with the main trials.

My current favorite San Juan Hills hike with my grand-dog Charlie is up the Las Ramblas Trail until it is intersected by the Harbor View Trail on the left.  Up the hillside at the top of Harbor View is the beautiful sight of the coast and the harbor, and across the canyons and ridges.  On the way back down the Harbor View Trial, you’ll see a smaller trail on the hill to your left.  This is the easier path than the steep Delgado main trail, taking you across the ridgeline to connect with the Patriot Trail.  Along the Patriot Trail is an American flag that has proudly flown since 9/11.  It’s a good destination.  Making this hike and back to the Las Ramblas Trailhead is about an hour and a half or so, allowing plenty of time for Charlie to sniff around and leave his doggie pee-mail for others to find, and for me, of course, to stop and enjoy the view.


You can access a PDF map of the San Juan Hill Trails at http://www.sanjuancapistrano.org/index.aspx?page=457 . The Las Ramblas trailhead is on the bottom right side of the map.

Photo Credits

Except for the following, photos by Ed Neely

The Pirate’s Cave                Franz Zhilmahn

The Nature Interpretive Center        City of Dana Point

Looking Northwest to Dana Strands Beach                  Steve Behmerwohld

The Funicular      Orange County Register

Stairway to St. of the Green Lantern               City of Dana Point


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