Rancho Santa Margarita, or RSM as it is known by the locals, is a tiny community nestled in the hill country around the Santa Ana Mountains. RSM is primarily a hiking town, a place to escape the hustle and bustle of civilization. Wherever you are in the town you’ll have spectacular views of the Saddleback Mountains beyond.
Take a trip to one of the many beautiful parks, canyons, and trails around the town before cooling down with a cold beer in one of Rancho’s great bars.
If you get tired of the hill country, you are only ever a short car ride from surfer’s paradise.
Here are the 13 best things to do in and around Rancho Santa Margarita.
1. Follow the Trail at O’Neill Regional Park
A popular campground and hiking spot, O’Neill is set in the foothills around the Santa Ana Mountains. Bobcats and mountain lions weave through this scrubby Mediterranean-like landscape.
Over 80 campsites are located around this valley, which is a popular place to set up BBQs and picnics. Horse rentals are common and you will find many facilities for riders. Scouts also come here to learn survival skills.
If you need a break from all the hiking, the Trabuco Canyon Steak House is at the foot of the park and once served Richard Nixon one of its excellent steaks.
2. Relax by Lago Santa Margarita
Lago Santa Margarita is a manmade lake and picnic spot. Mount Modjeska and Mount Santiago tower above the lake and cast reflections across its tranquil waters. This is the town’s most popular relaxation spot and there are many great restaurants and bars on the lake’s edge.
You will find a friendly community vibe here on warm summer evenings when it is bustling with diners and drinkers.
Hire a bike and take a ride around the water’s edge or simply take a load off and enjoy the scenery.
3. Follow the Trails at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park
This patch of open wilderness, directly north of RSM, is the best place to spot wildlife in the surrounding area. Lizards and deer live here in abundance and some people spot the occasional cougar hunting in the rocky heights.
This 17-mile space has many trails to explore, but the number one for first-timers is the Red Rock Canyon walk, popular for both its range of scenery and ease of access. Beautiful oak forest leads you towards canyons of twisting red sandstone, carved out of the rock by millennia of wind and sun.
Come here early in the morning to see dusty sunrises illuminating this monumental landscape.
4. Scale Santiago Peak
The highest point in Orange County, this walk is not for the faint-hearted and makes for a steep climb. From the top, you can see the Pacific Ocean so it’s well worth the trek if you are fit enough.
The Holy Jim Trail, as it is known, is the shortest route to the top. It starts at Santiago Creek and finishes 5,689 feet up. Prepare for some extremes of temperature, it’s both freezing cold and volcanically hot here, depending on the time of year.
Try the gentler trail up to Mount Modjeska peak if you want to tackle something a bit easier.
5. Explore the Florence Joyner Olympiad Park
On the edge of RSM in neighboring Mission Viejo, the Florence Joyner Olympiad Park is named for the famous Olympian, known colloquially as Flo-Jo. Famous for breaking several women’s world records, a statue of her can be found in the middle of the park. Many features in the park are dedicated to promoting the Olympics and athleticism in general.
A great place to bring kids, the park has an extensive playground for young ones. With a small secluded garden, picnic area, and baseball fields, it’s a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
6. Rent a Bike
Rancho Santa Margarita is first and foremost a place to get outside and into nature. The town has many lovely cycle routes to explore, flanked by wild landscapes on three sides.
Try renting an electric bike from the local Pedego store. This company offers short term rentals as well as week-long packages. They will even give you advice about where to try out your wheels.
Take your bike anywhere around the Trabuco Canyon, which makes up the foothills of the Santa Ana mountain range. Alternatively, the center of town has lots of wonderful little parks to ride around, including the perfectly manicured Central Park and the popular Arroyo Park.
7. Visit the Sinks
Head just west of RSM to get to the Sinks, the Limestone Canyon Preserve which is part of Irvine park. Its unusual geological features have made it popular with tourists and serious walkers.
The park’s vast landscape is filled with dramatic bowels and sprawling peaks and is known locally as the Orange County Grand Canyon.
Over 40 million years old, this sandstone formation is truly wild and great hiking country. Head up to the viewing deck to get the best views.
8. Head to the Beach
No trip to Orange County would be complete with an attempt at surfing, or at least an attempt to watch other people surf while you laze in the sand nearby.
Although RSM is nestled away from beach country, it still only takes 20 minutes by car to get to the coast. The most famous beach around here is Laguna Beach which is always buzzing and sits in a grand arch of surf-shops, cafes, and artsy galleries.
For a quieter spot, only a short distance from RSM, try Treasure Island Beach. Alternatively head out to Dana Point, where the Salt Creek and Crystal Cove beaches offer soft sand, great surf, and endlessly instagrammable picture-perfect views.
9. Get an Ice Cold Margarita at Carmelita’s
Winner of the 2020 Traveler’s Choice Award, this Latin American Restaurant is beloved by both locals and tourists alike. It is generally busy, so make sure you book ahead.
Serving up classic Mexican, and Mexican-Fusion fare, perhaps the best thing is to get a taco selection with a frosty margarita. Their freshly made guacamole is the subject of much local praise.
Popular for its brilliant location on the edge of Santa Margarita Lake, sip a cocktail here and watch the sunset over the water.
10. Catch a Film at Cinepolis
Once you are suitably exhausted from all the physical activity you’re likely to do in Santa Margarita, the local cinema complex is a great place to wind down.
Santa Margarita’s local film screens are particularly classy.
Cinepolis is a luxury chain; which means super-wide seats, top-quality food, and a decent quality bar. Seats are equipped with a call button on the arm-rest, so you can summon a waiter to bring you some of their top-notch entrees or a perfect cocktail.
Come here at 6 pm for their bar’s happy hour.
11. Visit the Historic Modjeska House and its Grounds
Drive just west of RSM to find the Santa Ana mountain’s most famous house and gardens.
This large Victorian country house is something of a British-American medley. Its unique garden mixes local shrubbery with classic English flora. The house’s architect, Stanford White, designed the building in the Queen Anne Style, to give it that old-world feel.
Once owned by the famous Shakespearean stage actress, Helena Modjeska, the house and gardens now operate as a small museum, which you can visit free of charge. Modjeska’s life is quite fascinating. She moved from Poland to America with very little English and quickly became a world-class actress. Take the tour and get inspired.
12. Get Some Rounds in at Tijeras Golf Club
Tijeras, or TJ’s for short, is more than a golf course. Its grounds are home to some great local flora, and TJs Tap, the attached cantina is a cool local bar. You’ll forget you’re in the city in this lovely wild stretch of green. The course itself is reasonably difficult, with its fair share of water hazards and elevations. It’s fairly popular with out-of-towners looking for a challenge.
People not interested in golf will still want to come here for Taco Tuesday or Sunday Brunch and become immersed in the park’s lovely surroundings.
For real golf enthusiasts, check out the great golf shop located on the park’s grounds.
13. Try the Batting Cages at the OC Xtreme Training Academy
This baseball training zone covers 20,000 square meters and is the best of its kind in Orange County. Their wide array of lessons are available for both members and visitors, and they will teach you how to bat, pitch, and field to an extremely high standard. The staff here are extremely experienced baseball players who will point out your athletic shortcomings to help you improve your game.
Their B.E.A.S.T training program is designed to help you reach peak fitness and targets skills such as speed and agility. A visit here makes for a fun and exhausting challenge if you think you can handle it.