A ‘grand’ experience

Michael O’Connell, president and CEO of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, describes his favorite hikes in the Irvine Northern Open Space Preserve.

Michael O’Connell

We asked Michael O’Connell, president and CEO of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, to describe his favorite hikes in the Irvine Northern Open Space Preserve.

1. Limestone Canyon: Limestone Canyon Road to The Sinks

One of my favorite trails on the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks is The Sinks, also known as Orange County’s mini-Grand Canyon. I love bird-watching, and Limestone Canyon never disappoints, especially during the spring and fall migrations. Most people don’t know that most of the hawks you see perching in Irvine hatched here in the old-growth oak woodlands. The trail is 8 miles round trip, but it’s not too steep and is completely worth it.

2. Saddleback Wilderness Trail

One of my new favorite hikes is OC Parks’ Saddleback Wilderness. The IRC team helped construct a tremendous viewing area with 360-degree views of Orange County and the Irvine Northern Open Space Preserve. The new trails at Saddleback Wilderness are great for beginners and offer a new perspective on the land for seasoned visitors. On a clear day, you can see the Hollywood Hills!

3. Black Star Canyon: Helo Road to Baker Single Track Trail

In OC Parks’ Black Star Canyon during a monthly self-guided Wilderness Access Day, I love taking the Helo Road to Baker Single Track loop. After climbing the first hill, you are greeted with an amazing view of the iconic Red Rocks formation. As you gain elevation, you experience the ecological transition from coastal sage scrub to chaparral – and the entire plant community changes. Bring your phone to hear a free, guided audio tour.

4. Weir Canyon: Rifle Range to Upper Blind Canyon

If you’re looking for a hike that showcases the history of Orange County, this one is for you. Native Americans lived here and harvested acorns, processing the flour in grinding stones. Much later, bandits preyed on travelers using the canyon wagon trail to San Juan Capistrano. During World War II, the U.S. military established a shooting range there. Hiking through the canyon surrounded by hundreds of years of history and shady oak woodlands is a magical experience.

5. Fremont Canyon: Coal Mine Trail

Fremont Canyon is a critical wildlife corridor, so this backcountry area is teeming with wildlife. My favorite hike is the docent-led hike to Coal Mine, which travels along the canyon’s rim to the remains of a small surface mine from the 1800s. You have a great chance of spotting deer down in the canyon or hawks flying above.


The Irvine Ranch Conservancy helps public landowners manage over two-thirds of the 57,500 acres of open space on The Irvine Ranch, including the Northern Irvine Open Space Preserve.

To learn more about these hikes and others, visit letsgooutside.org.