It’s known as the “Dripping Cave,” for the way the sedimentary rock seems to drip from the ceiling, and also as the “Robber’s Cave,” as it once lent its shelter to a band of outlaws, who used the cave as a “home base” from which to rob the stagecoach line passing between Los Angeles and San Diego, during the 1800’s. The historic landmark is the park’s largest rock-shelter.
The invention of I-5 made stagecoach robbery obsolete, although presumably the robbers were caught long before the internal combustion engine became king. The Dripping Cave sheltered Native American hunter-gatherers, who once used it as a temporary refuge from foul weather during their pursuit of game.
Later, the infamous Juan Flores “gang” reportedly used the shelter. Along with the round peg holes made in the rock to hold their gear you can also still see the black smoke stains from their campfires. Nowadays, the shelter gets its name from rainwater dripping from the upper lip of the sandstone rock. Whatever you decide to call it, this cave in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park in south Orange County, is well worth a visit.
First viewed by Europeans of the Portola expedition, the land was incorporated into the 1842 Rancho Niguel Mexican land grant and served as a sheep and cattle ranch. Ownership of the ranch changed several times during the early 1900s. Portions of the ranch were sold in the 1960s and are now part of Leisure World, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel and Aliso Viejo communities. The Mission Viejo Company purchased the land in 1979 and opened it as a public park in 1990, offering recreation opportunities to hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers.
The park’s natural features are rich in human history. Aliso Creek formed the boundary line between two modern day Native American tribes, the Acajchemem (Juaneno Mission) and the Tongva (Gabrieleno Mission). The region’s abundant wildlife, regular water sources, access to the ocean, large acorn masts, and built in shelters from nearby caves assured that both tribes would be able to live a rich and stable lifestyle. Some of the park trails are given native Juaneno names, such as Aswut (golden eagle), Toovet (brush rabbit), Alwut (crow) and Hunwut (black bear). The Acajchemem people were hunter-gatherers and made up many small family groups related by marriage and language. Their annual migration from the coast in winter to the Santa Ana Mountains in summer kept them close to plentiful food sources and fresh water.
There are several points of interest in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness area. The park is roughly 4,200 acres and has over 30 miles of trails. The main trail through the park is flat and is a very easy hike. There are also more challenging trails available in the park that have significant elevation gain.
This could easily be an all day adventure, because of the variety of trails available, you can make your hike as easy or as strenuous as you would like.
The Coyote Run Trail, which passes through beautiful groves of oaks alternating with open, grassy meadows is a really beautiful stretch of trail, and it’s one of the areas in the park where the evidence of human development is not in evidence. At the junction with Woods Canyon Trail, you will step into a cool, green corridor of oaks and sycamores alongside a perennial creek.
The least-traveled route to the Dripping Cave is via the Meadows Trail. Most hikers choose to begin from Moulton Meadows Park, north on the Aswut Trail, which is also a paved bike path. We hiked the trail in reverse, only because it was the fastest way back to the car. As we left the Dripping Cave we walked a long stretch of flat trail along one of the service roads toward the bottom of the Meadows Trail. The Meadows Trail wastes no time in beginning its steep climb, ascending up into the canyon over 700 feet in a mile! It’s a tough climb, but on the way, you’ll enjoy great views of the ocean and the Santa Ana Mountains. In addition to the great views, keep an eye out for some interesting sandstone geology on the canyon wall.
On a sunny, summer day, this will be a long, tough climb, and it’s best to have some water handy, as there will be none along this stretch of trail. At the top, you’ll come to an information board with a few benches. Here, the steep Meadows Trail branches off to the Aswut Trail. As you walk along the you’ll enjoy views of Crystal Cove State Park in the distance.
One caution when hiking here is there are a lot of mountain bikers who use the park, so be on the lookout while you are on the trails. There are also signs posted warning about the possibility of mountain lions in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, however I seriously doubt there are any because the South Coast Wilderness is not big enough to support a mountain lion population for any extended period of time.
Aliso and Woods Canyons Regional Park in Aliso Viejo features riparian woodlands, grassy meadows, rolling hills, views of the Santa Ana Mountains and Laguna Canyon, and sandstone caves all within a short drive from most of Orange County and northern San Diego County. This 11-mile loop is an all-day adventure that showcases the variety and beauty of the canyons.