Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park is a major regional park in the San Joaquin Hills of Orange County, California in the United States. Comprising 4,500 acres (1,800 ha) of rugged coastal canyons, open grassland, and riparian woodland, the park borders the suburban cities of Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills and Laguna Niguel.
Aliso and Wood Canyons is part of a larger park complex known as the South Coast Wilderness. Surrounded by heavy suburban development and the Pacific Ocean, it is an important regional wildlife preserve. The park includes trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding; a greenbelt and bikeway along Aliso Creek; and various geological features such as caves, springs, and exposed marine fossil beds. The park is administered by the County of Orange under the OC Parks Department.
The name Aliso originated in the 18th century when Spanish explorers named Aliso Creek, probably for the Alnus rhombifolia (white alder) tree native to the area. Wood Canyon was likely named for the groves of California live oak and sycamores that are found in the canyon.
The park was originally inhabited by the Acjachemen and Tongva Native Americans who used Aliso Creek as the boundary between their respective territories to the south and north. The relationship between the two tribes was mostly peaceful. Because Aliso Canyon was one of the few places in what is now south Orange County with perennial streams and springs – as well as providing easy access from inland areas to the Pacific Ocean – it was a major wintering spot for native peoples. The Acjachemen village of Niguili was located in what is now the park, near the confluence of Aliso Creek and Sulphur Creek.
The 1769 Spanish Portola expedition was the first European party to explore the area. Spanish ships were also known to anchor in the bay at the mouth of Aliso Canyon and sailors "harvested large timbers from the river area". In the following decades the Spanish colonized California they established missions to convert the Native Americans to Christianity with varying degrees of success. The peoples who once lived in Aliso Canyon were moved by the Spanish to the nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano.
After Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821 the missions were secularized and mission lands were divided into private land grants. The 13,316-acre (5,389 ha) Rancho Niguel, which included most of what is now the park, was granted to Juan Avila in 1842. After the Mexican–American War in 1850, California became part of the United States; after a severe drought Avila sold the ranch in 1865. Rancho Niguel changed hands multiple times until it was acquired by Lewis Moulton and Jean Pierre Daguerre in 1895.
During the 19th century, others also took advantage of the shelter and seclusion offered by Aliso Canyon. Dripping Cave (once used by the local Native Americans as a shelter), tucked into a sheltered part of Wood Canyon, became a "base of operations" of outlaws, led by Juan Flores, who robbed stagecoaches traveling between Los Angeles and San Diego. Long after the bandits were arrested, it retains the nickname "Robbers Cave". In 1871 Eugene Salter, the first white settler along Aliso Creek, claimed 152 acres (62 ha) in the canyon just outside the Rancho Niguel. The next year, the homestead was taken over by the Thurston family who irrigated an orchard using water from Aliso Creek.
Aliso Canyon was used for sheep ranching through the first half of the 20th century, although tourism was also growing due to the popularity of Aliso Beach at canyon's end, and the establishment of the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course on the old Thurston property in 1950. During the 1960s, the Rancho Niguel was sold for residential suburban development in the planned cities of Aliso Viejo, Laguna Hills and Laguna Niguel. The Aliso Canyon was the proposed location of a "much publicized national fitness center headed by former Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen." A six-lane highway was proposed to run the length of the canyon, to link inland communities with Laguna Beach.
The canyon was spared from development when about 40 land parcels were acquired by the county for use as a park, the largest in 1979 when the Mission Viejo Company donated 3,400 acres (1,400 ha). The park officially opened on March 31, 1990 as Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park; it was later designated a Wilderness Park to better preserve native habitat. Continued land acquisitions and donations since then brought the park to its current size.