Caspers Wilderness Park – Bell Canyon Loop

Caspers Wilderness Park is an open space preserve near San Juan Capistrano that protects some of San Juan Creek and its tributaries. The park features a variety of ecosystems ranging from open, sunny chaparral covered slopes, park-like oak and sycamore woodland, and arroyo. It also features a few different campsites and day use sections, as well as a number of different hiking options.

Distance: 5.3 Miles
Elevation Gained: 350′
Difficulty: Easy
Critters: 3 deer and countless birds

Get there like this.

Important: Caspers charges $3 to visit, so be prepared for that.

Recently, I treated myself to a copy of Jerry Schad’s Afoot and Afield in Orange County. You wouldn’t think that there would be any hiking in Orange County with its miles upon miles of suburban sprawl, theme parks, shopping centers, and traffic congestion. While opportunities are indeed fewer than what you find in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego Counties, there are still plenty of respectable options, particularly in the Santa Ana Mountain range.

This welcome discovery comes at a time when none of the hikes in San Diego County, save for the more distant treks in Anza-Borrego, appeal to me. There is great hiking here, to be sure, yet I’ve done a lot of it, leaving me with a desire to branch out and see some new things. Schad’s Orange County volume, which is as excellent as his LA and SD volumes, is the perfect tonic to that restlessness.

I chose Caspers as the first adventure, primarily because I liked the description and because it was relatively close to my apartment. Set aside in 1974, this park protects 7,600 acres of classic Southern California terrain, most notably tributary canyons that feed the San Juan Creek drainage system. Here, you will find a beautiful riparian woodland of coast live oak and California sycamore, the latter of which is bursting with fall color and providing more proof that Southern California has seasonal displays.

On this damp, drizzly morning, I chose a medium-length loop that would incorporate (in this order) the Nature Trail Loop, Oak Loop, Bell Canyon Road, Sunrise Trail, Oso Trail, with a finish on the tail end of the Nature Trail Loop. This 5.3 mile trip covered a fair amount of the riparian woodland, while also throwing in some chaparral, which was just starting to come back to life following the recent rains.

The most memorable part of this hike starts early while still on the Oak Loop Trail. Here, you will find some fantastically gnarled and twisted coast live oaks. On this day, their bark looked black and slick from the rain, while their convoluted branches twisted off in every possible direction to maximize exposure to sunlight. These oaks are nearly ubiquitous in coastal open spaces wherever a modest amount of water accumulates, and they form the classic image of the gnarled oak.

Also ubiquitous is the California Sycamore, which favors water courses that supply abundant amounts of moisture. Sycamores are a reliable indicator that water is nearby, and they are easy to recognize by their massive leaves and mottled, almost camouflaged bark. These broad leaf trees, distantly related to maples, are deciduous, and like many deciduous trees, they put on a color show during the fall. Taken together, oaks and sycamores form dense stands along water or more open savannas in broad, shallow valleys, of which Bell Canyon is one.

The rain added a cool freshness to this hike that has been missed during dry, crisp November. Humid, drizzly air feels marvelous, and the moisture releases a bewildering array of scents into the air. If you can put up with the mud and a little bit of dampness in your clothing, I highly recommend getting out in the rain sometime. If you’re prepared, it can be an invigorating hiking experience.

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