Hiking Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park

Hiking Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park

If you are looking for a fun, winter activity in Orange County, a leisurely hike through Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park will satisfy your festive spirit. The cooler weather rolling through Orange County coupled with the wooded expanse of the park is the perfect reminder of the reason for the season.

It is hard to believe that Christmas is just a few days away. As I get older, time seems to slip away more quickly, which I know is the case for so many others, but for some reason during the holidays, it is felt even greater. Being present helps me appreciate the value of each and every day that passes. Moments shared with family and friends, like the hike my husband and I took in Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park, are the ones I hold closest to my heart.

No matter how hard my husband and I try to simplify our schedules this time of year, we always seem to be busier than we would like. When it came time to get in our weekend hike this past Sunday, we knew we wanted to venture somewhere different, but still close to home. We use to live in Rancho Santa Margarita, which is just a stone’s throw from Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park. We had yet to hike there so decided to take try something new and venture out along its network of trails.

Entrance to Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park

The park is fairly small and if you hike every trail within its bounds it would total about 5 miles. We planned to do just that, but before we got to the park’s main trailhead, we checked out the butterfly sanctuary garden that is right next to the parking area. Walking along the paths there totalled 1/4 of a mile and the quick journey made for some lovely pictures.

Butterfly Sanctuary Garden

Once we exited the garden, we took the same path that leads outward from the parking area toward the main trailhead. There are two options to start off your hike through Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park from this direction: Oak Canyon and Vista Ridge Trail. If we had taken a path going right from the parking area, instead of left, it would have brought us to the head of Wagon Wheel Canyon Trail, which connects back to Vista Ridge and Oak Canyon. Wagon Wheel Canyon Trail and South Wagon Wheel Canyon Trail go out of the park in opposite directions and, if you haven’t had your fill after hiking the trails within Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park, those two trails keep continue out of the park and along neighboring communities.

Path Leading to Main Trails

We choose to start our hike on Vista Ridge Trail. This trail is the reason this hike is moderate instead of easy, as it is a steady incline until you hit Skink Vista Point. Vista Ridge Trail connects to Oak Canyon on one side and Mule Deer Trail on the other side as you make your ascent. Once you reach the end, you have to head back down for about 1/2 a mile to connect to those other trails. We knew from reading what other hikers have said that the views from Skink Vista Point are the best in the park. We couldn’t wait to see for ourselves, which is why we started our hike by going up Vista Ridge Trail.

Vista Point Trail

Skink Vista Point

Deer Spotting along Oak Canyon Trail

See what I mean about the views? Aside from just being another stunning, lookout point, Skink Vista Point is unique because you can see five of Orange County’s peaks from the top. We got another treat from Mother Nature as we made our way back down Vista Ridge Trail. After making a right on Oak Canyon Trail, we spotted a deer jumping across before joining a herd grazing along the ridge. We watched their quiet movements as we continued hiking, with no one else in sight and no other sounds but the brisk wind rushing through the nearby trees and our feet meeting the ground.

Horned Toad Trail

There are a few trail loops that extend off of Oak Canyon Trail: Horned Toad Trail and Sycamore Loop. Horned Toad Trail has another lookout point and Sycamore Loop is thick with trees and wooded landscape. Oak Canyon Trail is picturesque onto itself, however, both these trail loops were lush with vibrant, green terrain: one of the bonuses of hiking Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park during Orange County’s rainy season.

Horned Toad Vista Point
Sycamore Loop

Oak Canyon Trail eventually curves back around to the park’s entrance. After going up Vista Ridge Trail, down Oak Canyon, and traversing along Horned Toad Trail and Sycamore Loop, our trip only clocked in at 3 miles. We weren’t ready to leave the beautiful weather and bright colors of the park so we hiked back to the main trailhead, but this time turned left down South Wagon Wheel Canyon Trail. We continued along that trail for another mile until it ended at a local water reservoir. With that last out and back leg our hike came in at 5 miles.

South Wagon Wheel Canyon Trail

Recent world events have been plaguing my mind as of late and those worries make it difficult for me to be present in the here and now. This is exactly the reason why I hike: to step away from the chaos of daily life and gain clarity. I use to think of hiking as an escape from reality, and I still do. Recently, however, instead of using it as a tool to escape the real world, I rely on hiking to better understand it. Being in the presence of nature allows me to be present even when it feels like everything is falling apart. For that reason, I will always, always be a hiker and lover of the outdoors.

Did you hike Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park? If so, I would love to hear your comments below as well as why you hike!

In Love, Peace, and World Understanding ~ xo


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Hi there! Chasing Belle is where I share my favorite hikes, healthy living tips, and love of the outdoors! The world is a big, beautiful place and I plan on chasing down every square inch of it :)

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