When most people visit Irvine for the first time, they see a suburban landscape filled with plenty of shopping, dining, and community parks but what they often miss is the sprawling open space that has been permanently gifted to the community by Irvine Ranch. The land was declared a National Natural Landmark in 2006, the first in all of California. Today nearly 40,000 diverse acres are protected as part of the Irvine Ranch National Natural Landmark. If you are looking for place to stretch your legs, ride a bike, or just enjoy Southern California's natural beauty, consider exploring one of these scenic spots.

Limestone Canyon Wilderness Area

Limestone Canyon

Located in the countryside behind Irvine, a visit to Limestone Canyon is an ideal way to escape the urban hustle and bustle without having drive more than 20 minutes. Thick oak woodlands, streams and year-round springs keep things cool in some portions of this park which is rich in wildlife. The star of the show is Orange County's own mini-Grand Canyon, the Sinks. The Sinks are a sandstone geological formation thought to be carved by a landslide caused by an earthquake or major storm. When you stand in their presence, you can't help but feel for a moment like you have set foot in one of Utah's National Parks.

Quail Hill

Quail Hill

If you are visiting Irvine with your favorite four-legged friend, Quail Hill is a great place to enjoy. The 2 mile Quail Hill Loop Trail is conveniently located at the end of Sand Canyon Road, just off I-405, making it a nice place to go for a walk after spending all day stuck in meetings. During the spring, purple lupines and coast gold field add splashes of color to the rolling green hillsides.

San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and Newport's Back Bay

Newport Back Bay

Most of Southern California's marshlands have long been bulldozed over to make room for homes, roads, and retail but luckily, the wetlands of the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and Newport's Back Bay are protected and thriving. Grassy marshes are a birder's paradise and miles of natural trails allow hikers and bikers to get some exercise while watching an egret catch its afternoon snack. Kayaking is popular on the Back Bay and guided tours are offered by the Newport Bay Conservancy on weekends.

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

A quick 7 minute drive from the bustling Irvine Spectrum Center into Laguna Canyon provides yet another natural escape from the pavement and people. Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is home to Orange County's only natural lake (briefly home to an escaped hippopotamus named Bubbles), massive boulders carved by centuries of erosion into cool caves, and sycamore woodlands. The Laurel Canyon Trail takes hikers high up to the top of Willow Canyon before plunging down into the green and shady Laurel Canyon, passing rocky caves and rare coastal sage scrub habitat along the way.

Sharlene Earnshaw is the Editor in Chief of Trekaroo

All pictures are by the author.