Saturday, April 30, 2011

Best Hike in Caspers Wilderness Park: "Nature Trail - Loskorn-West Ridge-Star Rise-Oak" Loop

My favorite hikes are not always long hikes. In fact, being a man of a certain age and fitness level, after about 12 miles, there better be something interesting to look at or some other payoff at mile 12.1 or I’m no longer a happy hiker. I suppose for me any hike longer than 15 miles moves the whole thing from being a “day hike” to either an overnight backpacking trip (nice) or a forced death march (not nice). Mostly, I like nice day hikes.

I’m also picky in choosing my favorite or repeated hikes. If I have a bad experience (didn’t bring enough water, trail was not maintained) or failed to see anything of even passing visual interest (long stretches of narrow trail through claustrophobic thickets) I’ll not give the trail another chance. One strike and you’re out, Mr. Hiking Trail.  So many hikes, so few days, etc.

So when I tell you that I’ve done this hike like five times in three years, you can trust that it’s a pretty nice trail. In fact, at Caspers Wilderness Park near San Juan Capistrano, it’s probably the nicest hike in the place.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Caspers is an 8,000 acre patch of Santa Ana Mountain wilderness that could be considered one of a handful of gems in the Orange County Parks crown. The park follows along the north-south bearing Bell and San Juan canyons and is bordered on the east by the Ortega Highway (CA 74) and to the west by the aptly named West Ridge. Okay, it’s probably got an official name, but I don’t know what it is and the park rangers knew what I was talking about when I mentioned it.

Today’s hike is one of my favorites as it provides a nice sampler of all the natural gifts that Caspers lists on its wilderness menu. It’s not got a proper name, but I call it the “3.5 Mile Nature Trail-West Ridge-Star Rise-Oak Trail Loop,” for obvious reasons. 

The park is about seven miles east of San Juan Capistrano, on the west side of CA 74. After pulling into the park, pay your entry fee to the lucky ranger working at the front gate, grab a map head up to the visitor’s center. Use the bathroom there and go inside to say hello to the nice volunteers working inside. Check out the exhibits and then be a mensch and buy something or leave a donation. Such parks are being negatively impacted by community financial shortfalls. Gate entry fees and the small portion given to parks via tax revenues barely keep the lights on.

From there, head back to the main park road and travel north to the parking lot across from the picturesque windmill and horse corral. Head north past the corral and adjoining equestrian facilities to find the Nature Trail. Continue northerly, crossing a cobble filled creek bed towards the oak and sycamore groves the park is known for. At the Dick Loskorn trail junction, turn left and begin the mild but heavy breathing inducing climb for almost a mile.

This portion of the hike is particularly beautiful as it hugs the ridge contours passing through pure white sandstone and white kaolin clay deposits. The white bluffs may remind you of formations found in more well known parks but on a much larger scale. The single track trail is narrow in places with steep drop offs, so pay attention and stop staring at the white bluffs so much.

The trail continues climbing until you reach the West Ridge trail. Turn right, (north) and follow the undulating wide fire road along the ridge catching superb views on either side. After about ¾ of a mile make a right (east) turn at the Star Rise trail junction. The trail is pretty steep as it descends into Bell Canyon and is notorious for being washed out after heavy rains. Like the West Ridge trail, there isn’t much shade and on warm sunny days, so be sure to wear a hat and bring plenty of water.

In about ½ mile you’ll make a right (south) turn onto the Oak trail. This incredibly beautiful section of the hike brings you under the cooling shade of ancient, twisted oaks and expansive sycamores. Do yourself a favor and stop for a short rest under any of these beauties to take in how magnificent they are. If you brought a snack, enjoy it here. Experiencing such trees is one of the joys of the natural world so take some time to mentally record it all.

Once you’ve emerged from this state of oneness with the oaks and you’ve picked up some of the trash left by less conscientious hikers, continue south towards the parking area, following any number of paths you’ll find as you leave the oak and sycamore forest. If you feel like taking in another mile or two, bear south to find the Pinhead Peak trail. It’s an up-and-back 1.5 mile walk to the summit of a 662’ elevation viewpoint that gives a nice panorama of coastal canyons, chaparral and alluvial plains. If you ignore the smattering of structures and roads seen in the distance, you might be able to glimpse what California looked like 100 years ago, especially if you squint a little.

Caspers offers many other hiking options, all of them having a particular charm or quality that makes them worth the sweat. But if you've never been before, when you visit the park don't miss this moderately easy loop hike. And hug an oak while you're there.  They appreciate the love.

For more information:

OC Parks: Caspers

Caspers WP Brochure

Caspers Trail Map

Caspers Photo Set

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Community Wilderness Parks Rating: Caspers Wilderness Park

Not all community wilderness parks are created equal. All may afford city dwellers the opportunity to feel dirt beneath their heels and see a horizon filled with trees instead of cell towers but some do it better than others.  Having visited a few, I pondered a way to rate the parks on some sort of sliding scale. I wanted a system that could be applied to just about any community wilderness park so I just made this one just now. The perfect community wilderness park (CWP) scores a 10 on all factors on a “CWP Rating System™.”  It's purely subjective, based on limited personal observation and subject to revision with each blog update.

The current CWP Rating System is comprised of six factors. Each factor is rated 1 to 10, 5 being average and 10 being highest. I tend to be a bit harsh in my ratings, so a “5” is not a bad score at all.

Ease of Access: The park is easy to find, can be reached without having to use granny low or a four-wheeled drive vehicle. Extra consideration is given for those accessible by bicycle.

Human Infrastructure and Facilities: Fresh running water, flush toilets, picnic benches, BBQ stoves, campgrounds, showers, trash and recycled waste receptacles, etc. Extra points for a visitor center and actual human staff or park rangers available.

Trails: Mixed use as well as single-track hiking-only trails of varying lengths and difficulty. Trails are well marked, maintained and actually lead to someplace interesting. Extra points for loops or connecting trails that allow for a 12+ mile hike.

“Remote-ness”: Can a visitor get far enough away from highway sounds and views of anything resembling community, i.e. housing developments, or other manmade structures that are not part of the park facilities? Extra points for parks in which this can happen relatively quickly.

Natural Beauty: Are the views, trees, geology, unique terrain, wildlife, meadows, ridge lines, canyons, streams, waterfalls, ponds and lakes, beaches or other natural features just beautiful? Extra points for natural aspects that are unique or special to the area.

Bonus Points: Easily obtainable trail maps, size of park, friendly volunteers, historical significance, special community events, portions of the park are wheelchair friendly, nicely paved roads, adequate parking and other things that make the visit pleasant.

It’s important to understand that this system is not really suited for large national parks or forests, backcountry destinations or other true “wilderness areas,” but those greenbelt areas that a community sets aside for residents and visitors to get a little outdoor time. Most of the parks have a certain family-friendly quotient, but all should afford even the solitary visitor the opportunity to escape for a few hours and to think of nothing more important than returning to a trailhead before total darkness sets in.

Let’s see how one of my favorite wilderness parks scores on the CWP Rating System. The first is Caspers Wilderness Park. I’ll feature it in a “favorite trail” review soon.

Located just east of San Juan Capistrano, California, Caspers Wilderness Park is part of the Orange County park system and is considered by many visitors to be the best of its kind in the OC.

Ease of Access: 9
The park is easily reached via California Hwy 74, aka the Ortega Highway. Bicyclists are often seen on Hwy 74 though many do not venture too many miles east of the park due to the highway’s infamous notoriety for frequent motorcycle accidents.

Human Infrastructure and Facilities: 7
The park is equipped with a nice visitor’s center, flush toilets, camping spots, a ranger-staffed front gate, good parking and paved intra-park roadways but troubled with frequent running water stoppages for multiple reasons.

Trails: 8
Many trails intersect and run the length of the park providing hiking, biking and riding adventures for trail users of all ages and skill levels. Some trails include sections near the Ortega Highway which makes for a reduced outdoor experience.

Remote-ness: 7
Because of its location, it’s a simple matter to get away from highway sounds and sights. However, some of the views along the upper ridges unfortunately include small enclaves of expensive homes and ranches.

Natural Beauty: 8
Caspers scores pretty high here. The tortuous and ancient oaks, spreading sycamores, relatively abundant wild critters and sometimes interesting geology (i.e. white sandstone bluffs and alluvial plain feeder valleys) gives the park visitor healthy dose of true wildness. The park is bordered by a number of ridges providing a variety of natural settings such as soft meadows, rocky steam beds, darkly shaded canyons and bare ridgelines.

Bonus Points: 6
“Adventure Day” and a number of other activities occur at the park offering families a nice outdoor experience. The park has good facilities for horses, including pipe corrals and watering troughs. Parking is more than adequate and the volunteers here are helpful and friendly.

Total Subjective and Irrelevant CWP Rating System Score: 45 out of a maximum of 60.

Caspers is one of my favorite, nearby default wilderness areas. I fell in love with the place immediately and find myself returning many times a year.

Next time, I’ll review the West Ridge to Oak Trail Loop, a sweet trail that always pleases when visiting Caspers.

For more information please visit the sites below:

Caspers Information: OC Parks

Caspers WP Trail Map
Caspers WP Photo Set

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Best Day Hike in Daley Ranch: "The Whole Enchilada"

If the world was perfect and I could control the outcome of all things, I would have my own private Daley Ranch. It is for me a refuge where it is possible to replace the sound of highway traffic with bird song and the sound of my own breathing. It is a place where I can see an expanse of only wild things rather than Wal-Marts. Within its 3,000 plus acres I can walk and take in the soul healing power of a dirt path and open sky. It is a small sliver of wilderness within a short distance of a freeway offramp. It is heaven within reach.

Located at northeast end of Escondido, California, Daley Ranch is a secluded valley that is an unique amalgam of rolling ridges, boulder decorated hills, ponds, wetlands, wildlife, massive oaks and view-worthy peaks. At one time, the land was owned by the Daley family who would use the property as a summer retreat and quasi-dairy operation. Though the land changed hands a few times, the City of Escondido wisely purchased the property, added a few additional acres to include Stanley Peak and dedicated it as a wilderness recreation park in 1997. Immediately adjacent to the park is Dixon Lake a small fishing lake with picnic areas and paddle boats. Though Daley does not charge for parking or admission there is a fee for entering the Dixon Lake area.

For a day-hike area, it’s really hard to beat if you live in the North San Diego or South Orange County areas. The hiking varies from relatively easy to moderately difficult as the network of over 20 miles of trails traverses across ridge lines and meanders through rare Engelmann oaks. In addition to the nice selection of short hikes available, I think it’s the oaks and boulders that appeal to me most. For being so close to home and major metropolitan areas, it’s a beautiful place to visit now and again.

There are three recognized trailheads to the park, the primary one being near the Dixon Lake entrance off of La Honda. Free parking is available immediately in front of the Ranch’s main gate. Parking in the main lot is permitted until dusk. (NOTE: On weekends, a shuttle service offers rides to folks wanting to visit the main ranch house, barn and picnic area. Watch out for the bus and the mountain bikers sharing the main access road.) Two of the most popular hikes are the Boulder Loop; moderate 3.5 mi and what I call the Sage Loop; moderate 4.5. Each of those hikes will lead you back to the main gate.

My hike of choice (when I have the time) encompasses the entire ranch area, providing a chance to see just about all of the terrain and beauty the place has to offer. You’re also likely to find some solitude once you hike to the outer edges of the park as few people tend to go north of the ranch house. I call this hike, “The Whole Enchilada Loop.”

By following the below list of trail names in order, you’ll get in just under 14 miles of good hiking and a peak to boot. Download the trail map located at the link below as a reference to this hike.

  • Creek Crossing (look for Dixon Lake to the south)
  • East Ridge
  • Sage (look for seasonal ponds in the area)
  • Stanley Peak (nice views to the east)
  • Sage (pass by Mallard Pond on your left)
  • Ranch House (chemical toilets and picnic tables)
  • Jack Creek Meadow (eastern loop portion)
  • Hidden Springs (the steepest one-mile section in the park)
  • Engelmann Oak (head north at the junction)
  • Cougar Ridge (nice views to the west)
  • Boulder Loop (favorite section of the hike)
  • Ranch House (head south to the parking area)

If you find that daylight is rapidly vanishing or your endurance is lagging a bit, the hike itinerary can be easily be shortened to shave off a few miles by taking any number of shortcuts. One of the surprisingly nice shortcuts is via “Bobcat Trail” which bisects the Engelmann Oak Loop. On a very warm day a few summers ago, I began to run out of water so took this trail to shave off a mile. The Bobcat trail is a shaded, one track trail that was a nice change of pace from the hot sun that day.

Water is only available at the La Honda parking area and during the summer, this rocky, inland valley can become quite warm so bring plenty. A pay phone and chemical toilets are available at the ranch house.

I'm not sure if I'd label the trails at Daley Ranch as "destination hikes," but you really shouldn't miss the place if you're within a hour's drive. Actually, heaven's worth even a two hour drive if you need a little slice.

Daley Ranch Trail Map

Daley Ranch Information

Daley Ranch Photo Set