One Cave, Two Names, Three Hikes: Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park

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Photo by David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A.
By David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A. / Special to LAist

It's known as “Dripping Cave,” for the way the sedimentary rock seems to drip from the ceiling, and also as “Robber’s Cave,” owing to its history as a hideout for gangsters. Whatever you call it, this cave in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park in south Orange County is well worth a visit, and there are three different ways to get there.

The easiest, most popular, and truthfully least interesting, is from the park's main entrance, on Alicia Parkway. Although veteran hikers might be underwhelmed by this route to the cave, it’s the best for families with small children or for those who are new to the outdoors.

A 1.5-mile walk down the park's main service road brings you to a junction the canyon. Here, head right (north) on the Wood Canyon trail, a dirt fire road. You will pass by the Meadows Trail (see below) and Cave Rock, a large outcrop that is home to several small wind caves. After three quarters of a mile on the Wood Canyon trail, turn left on the Dripping Cave trail. You follow the trail through a shaded canyon and soon arrive at the cave, which is tall enough to stand up in.

To get to the main entrance of Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, the trailhead for this route, take I-5 to Alicia Parkway. Go south (left if you’re coming from San Diego, right if from Orange County) on Alicia Parkway and drive four miles. Just past Aliso Creek, turn right into the park. Parking is $3 per vehicle on weekdays, $5 on weekends and $7 on holidays.

Another approach is from the West Ridge Trail, which leaves Alta Laguna Park. This is an example of a “reverse” hike (down then up), so remember to save your energy for the ascent. From Alta Laguna Park, follow the West Ridge Trail, a wide fire-road, north. On the way, you get great views of Laguna Canyon, the Santa Ana Mountains and more. In just over half a mile, head right on the Mathis Canyon Trail, which goes downhill steeply. At the bottom of the hill, look for the trail signed for Dripping Cave. You make a short climb and descent, arriving at the junction with the spur from the Wood Canyon trail. Head right and reach the cave in a few yards.

To get to Alta Laguna Park, take I-405 to Highway 133. Head south on Highway 133 and drive 8.5 miles. Just before you get to Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, turn left on Forest and go 0.3 miles (Forest becomes 3rd St.) Turn left on Park Avenue and drive 1.8 miles Alta Laguna. Turn left and park at the end of the street, and follow the signs for the West Ridge trail. Parking is free.

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Photo by David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A.
The least-traveled route to the cave is via the Meadows Trail. This is a reverse hike as well. From Moulton Meadows Park, head north on the Aswut Trail, a paved bike path. On the way, you’ll enjoy great views of the ocean and the Santa Ana Mountains. In half a mile, you come to an information board with a few benches. Here, the steep Meadows Trail branches off. Head downhill—descending over 700 feet in a mile—and turn left where the trail branches off, just before the service road. In another half a mile, it meets with the Wood Canyon Trail. Turn left and head north, as you would on the approach from Alicia Parkway.

To get to Moulton Meadows Park, take Pacific Coast Highway to Nyes Place (2 miles south of Laguna Beach and 7 miles north of Dana Point.) Head northeast on Nyes for 1.4 miles. Nyes changes its name to Balboa. Park on the corner of Balboa and Del Mar, by Moulton Meadows Park, and follow the Aswut Trail, heading north past some houses.

For more information about Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, visit their homepage.