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What Are The Most Beautiful Scenic Drives in Orange County?
Southern California probably has some of America’s most varied and spectacular scenic drives. These stretches of roadways are rarely dull, and there’s always something for everyone. Orange County especially has some of the most beautiful scenic roads in the state that can make driving an enjoyable and memorable experience, at least for a while. Combined with California’s love of cars, picking the correct route becomes a key part of moving around the state.
These scenic roads in Orange County will show you there are still parts of the county that are relatively calm and offer a respite from the hustle and bustle of the metro area.
The Top Scenic Drives in Orange County
You’re never far from a road that can lead to a nice afternoon with the family for a picnic on the beach, or maybe you just want some extra time to drive around and enjoy your car for a while, taking in the sights.
You don’t need to own an exotic super car to enjoy a spin on these top scenic drives in OC, but it’s a lot more fun if you do!
The Ortega Highway is one of the most iconic in Orange County. Finished in 1933, it takes you from near the coast of San Juan Capistrano to Lake Elsinore in about an hour. Running 32 miles, the first 17 completely in OC, the highway is named after the Spanish explorer Jose Francisco Ortega. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, even by today’s standards. You climb quickly to 2,700 feet while crossing the Santa Ana Mountains, then passing through the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. Afterward, you go through San Juan Canyon, and along the way, enjoy the sight of sweeping curves, small canyons, and even a historic Candy Store in the Ortega Oaks campground.
During the rainy season, trek for a mile up the road and start the trail to Ortega Falls. It’s a 10-minute walk that’s worthwhile for the 35-foot falls. After this last stop, the road starts to descend towards Lake Elsinore.
Modjeska Canyon is only a few miles long but offers a lot. There’s the scenery, picturesque homes, and even a wildlife sanctuary. Creeks run throughout the drive during and after the rainy season, adding charm to the homes along the hillsides. The most popular of these homes is the Modjeska House among the large oaks. At the end of the road lies the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, with an educational center and nature trails that teach you about the local environment. There’s the Harding Truck Trail to Modjeska Peak for those looking for a tough hike. Try entering the canyon through Modjeska Grade Road, a narrow but exciting drive that can also lead you to a great mountain bike route; the Santiago Truck Trail.
Live Oak Canyon Road & Trabuco Canyon Road
Driving east and up the mountains from Lake Forest, take the right turn from the famous biker bar Cook’s Corner and onto Live Oak Canyon Road toward O’Neil Regional Park. You’ll be treated to a tunnel of 100-year-old oaks that will motivate you to slow down and take it all in (although you’ll have to slow down anyway because of the narrow road). The community has fought hard to preserve the road and the trees, even after decades of population growth in Orange County has led to more cars on the road. After the magical drive, you’ll be at O’Neil Regional Park, with picnic areas and hiking trails. You can either continue down Trabuco Canyon Road or head back down to the metro area.
Pacific Coast Highway
The longest state highway in California, and the second-longest in the country, passes right through Orange County and is your ticket to a stunning drive along the coast. Beginning (or ending, depending on how you look at it) at the junction of Interstate 5 in Dana Point, PCH runs for 35 miles under different official names (Highway 1, Coast Highway, and Pacific Coast Highway). The Coast Highway requires some patience or at least the expectation that it’s meant to enjoy and vibe with the coast, not get anywhere particularly fast. There are close to 75 traffic lights along it and several stop signs.
You’ll encounter harbors, including Newport and Huntington, shopping districts, restaurants, beautiful coves, stunning beaches, more restaurants than you’ll be able to count, and even wildlife estuaries and reserves. Don’t miss Bolsa Chica, where there’s a stretch of unobstructed views of the ocean, with a nature reserve on the other side of the highway with trails along a tidal zone, making for a breathtaking drive. As mentioned, some urbanism along the coast is also enjoyable, like in Main Street Huntington Beach, with resort hotels and shopping.
It doesn’t matter if you’re visiting or a resident, driving up and down Pacific Coast Highway is a must to live in OC.
Carbon Canyon Road
Carbon Canyon Road will provide you with very scenic travel, going through Chino Hills State Park and linking Brea in Orange County with Chino Hills in San Bernardino County. You’ll even pass through the town of Sleepy Hollow, with several cabins that date back to the 1920s. The town has about 400 residents and still preserves its small-town feel (despite some of the newer mega mansions hidden from sight). Carbon Canyon Road is especially scenic during the wetter winter and spring months when the land turns green.
A nice drive from the bustling 405 freeway in Irvine to Laguna Beach awaits you through Laguna Canyon Road. It’s a four-lane highway (two on each side) for the most part, and it takes you through several ponds, the biggest being Barbara’s Lake, which is the reason for the road and area’s name. You’ll pass by the Nix Nature Center, which offers bathrooms, exhibits, and the starting point for the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. The Park stretches to the coast with oak woodlands and more than 40 miles of hiking and biking trails. By the time you approach the beach, Laguna Canyon Road narrows to just two lanes. Don’t miss the opportunity to walk up the hillside for beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean once you stop at one of the two parking lots for trails at the left end of the road near the coast. To the right is the entrance to trails in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.
Avenida La Plata
This new road runs parallel to the 5 Freeway in the hills above San Clemente and offers a connection between the city and San Juan Capistrano without the highway. It’s a nice way to explore the entire south county area, both the coast and inland. If you head south to Avenida Pico and turn there to the beach, you’ll get to The Outlets at San Clemente for a pleasant seaside shopping experience. As a bonus for car enthusiasts, the outlets also host the South OC Cars and Coffee on Saturdays.
Overlooking most of Irvine and Lake Forest are the hills you drive over with Santiago Canyon Road. It takes you through Silverado Creek, near Irvine Lake, Modjeska Canyon, with Santiago Peak above it. Going south on it you’ll be able to access Silverado Canyon, a California Historical Landmark home to former silver mines, and where you can marvel at marine fossils in its sandstone cliffs. You can divert to other side roads, like Black Star Canyon’s hiking trailhead, where the Maple Springs Visitor Center is at the end of a gravel road. On Santiago Canyon Road again, another fine stop is the Cowboy Canyon Winery, with a weekend tasting room open. You’ll eventually end up south in Cook’s Corner, where our earlier recommendation of Live Oaks Canyon Road begins.
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