Trail Review: El Moro Canyon, Crystal Cove State Park, CA

Trails: 16 named trails

Miles of Trails: Around 17 miles total

Cost: $15 for an All Day Parking Pass


It’s a tradition in my wife’s family that we go to Newport Beach, CA for a week each summer, and it’s been that way as long as I’ve known her (going on 13 years now). After welcoming a new baby into our family just a month before the scheduled trip in 2011 we were unable to go last year, but the year before was my first trip to Newport Beach as a runner. In fact, it was only my 2nd or 3rd week of running, and I bought my first pair of “minimal” shoes while I was there (Nike Free 3.0s). During my stay on the beach, I ran the boardwalk a total of three times for a grand total of maybe 10 miles my entire vacation. Being a much stronger runner than I was then, and having discovered trail running as well, I was determined to not spend all my time running a concrete boardwalk that never turns, ascends, or descends. I was sure that there had to be some great trails in a place as beautiful as Orange County, so I set to work searching for some online and stumbled into Orange County Trail Runners, who graciously has a map on their website with great trails all over the area.

A look at the canyon’s hills from the parking lot

What I found was Crystal Cove State Park, and more specifically, El Moro Canyon, which is just across the PCH from the oceanside park. The two areas of the park really couldn’t be more different. The oceanside park has several miles of flat-ish trails winding through scenic oceanfront vegetation, tide pools, and beachside cliffs. Across the street there are canyons, river trails, bluffs, and ridges waiting, along with picturesque vistas as you run towards the ocean. Unlike the oceanside trails though, they come with a price: the trails can consist of some very tough climbs, with a low-point of around 50 ft above sea level and a high-point nearing 1100 ft.

Nice smooth trails in El Moro Canyon

Guessing (hoping?) that the trails would be much smoother than those here in Las Vegas, all I packed for the trip were my Altra Samsons, a lightweight, minimalist running shoe with a flat rubber bottom and not much in the way of padding. Luckily my guess was correct, with the trails mostly being sandy and smooth, with patches of large exposed rock that was closer to concrete than any rocks you’ll find on a trail in Las Vegas. The lone exception was around the Lower Moro Campground on Moro Ridge where what used to be a road is just a mess of decaying asphalt for about 1/4 mile.

I parked at the lower parking lot and chose a route of the following trails, in order:

  • Moro Canyon
  • West Cut Across
  • Rattlesnake
  • Fence Line
  • Missing Link
  • Moro Ridge
  • B.F.I.

The total mileage was just shy of 8.9 miles with an ascent and descent of about 1,200 ft. each. The toughest climbs were up West Cut Across, with an ascent of around 300 feet in just shy of half a mile, as well as the connecting trail to and first part of Rattlesnake, with an a total ascent of 500 feet and descent of 100 feet, in just over a mile.

A look at the single track Rattlesnake has to offer

Other than the two climbs (which were challenging but fun) the trails were fairly easy and an absolute breeze. I may have actually squealed at times because I was having so much fun. I definitely had a trailgasm. Rattlesnake is easily one of the most fun trails I’ve ever ran, with lots of turns and elevation changes, gorgeous views, and vegetation on both sides of the trail over my head at times, making it almost like running through a tunnel.

Moro Canyon trail is a wider trail that looks like it may have been an access road at one point (or possibly still is) and runs along Moro River, which is apparently next to the trail but completely covered in bushes during the entire mile I was one it. The vegetation alongside the trail was a lot of large trees and bushes and surprisingly pretty dry. Up West Cut Across was very similar, with the large trees and bushes giving way to mostly dry grasses and bushes. Once on the connecting trail to Rattlesnake, all the way through Moro Ridge trail, the vegetation was lush and very colorful. There was a lot of wildlife the entire run, with several very large birds gliding over the canyon the first time I ran it, and a swarm of hundreds of bees flying over my head at one point. My run finished up with a run down B.F.I., which if I understand the acronym correctly, it’s better to run down the trail, than vice versa. There are parts that are really, really steep, but I happen to love going kamikaze-mode down steep inclines and just turned up the speed. Your experiences may vary though.

Looking down Moro Ridge towards the Pacific ocean.

Overall, I enjoyed the trails immensely and they are in the list of my favorite trails of all time. I hope to get back down to El Moro Canyon sometime before next summer’s vacation, and I eventually want to run the Whoo’s in El Moro 50K. If you’re in the Orange County area of Southern California and enjoy running you could do much, much worse than a run through the canyon. Oh, and make sure you stop at Ruby’s Shake Shack just north of Crystal Cove State Park along the PCH on your way out.

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