Monday, December 30, 2013

Mid Winter in the OC: A day hike at Caspers Wilderness Park

Loop Hike: Bell Canyon – Quail Run – East Ridge – Sun Rise – Star Rise – Oak Trail – Bell Canyon
3.8 miles
400 foot elevation gain/loss
Moderately Easy

During the winter months, it is difficult to not call my relatives and friends living in places with proper four-season weather and complain about the local temperatures dropping to the high 50’s. Observations that I may need to wear long trousers or socks because of the obvious frigid Southern California conditions are often met with telephonic silence or low-toned curses as they relate the daily slogs through hip-high snow drifts, black ice, freezing fog (a real thing) or at best, gray skies accompanying temperatures in single digits.

But along with the ever-present threat of earthquakes, autumnal raging wild fires and freeways that generally resemble parking lots, Southern California hosts the mildest winter weather I’ve ever encountered. This includes the Florida Keys, Hawaii, and Central Arizona. If you’re reading this from someplace other than Southern California, don’t hate us because we’re beautiful in the winter, just make it a point to experience it yourself. While here, you’ll also find that despite the millions of people who have decided to call this place home, there is a lot of open space.

Orange County, California is one such place.  In addition to renowned coastal destinations, the county adorns itself with regional and wilderness parks within a short drive of Disneyland, high-end shopping plazas and historical landmarks such as Mission San Juan Capistrano. Just 15 minutes east of the Mission (truly a worthy destination in and of itself) along the Ortega Highway rests Caspers Wilderness Park.  As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Caspers is probably my favorite local hiking location in the OC Park system.

The trails are well marked and maintained, the Nature Center is nicely put together and staffed by the friendliest rangers and volunteers, informative programs occur most weekends and it’s close. It is the go-to wilderness park to take out of town visitors who have grown weary of wearing mouse ears and never ending highway construction delays.  To a person, they’re taken aback by the beauty and solace held within the 8,000-acre park.  Most of the hikes here aren’t very lengthy. While it is possible to create a 14+ mile trek by combining a few trails together, most of them are about 3-6 miles long. For me, that’s the sweet spot for a weekend day hike.
So it was, on a late December, post-solstice weekend that the temperatures hovered in the mid-70’s. After a leisurely morning of coffee, baked frittata and catching up with the Sunday funnies the decision to head to Caspers was made. Since the park is so close, there was time to pack a post-hike picnic of chicken salad, good cheeses and fruit.  Today would offer a chance to further distance oneself from the Holiday stressors, get some quiet time with some trees and dirt paths.

But rather than returning to a well remembered, but favored loop hike, a new one was sought. After a quick visit to the OC Park website to review their online and printable trail map, the day’s short hike was decided upon.

The best way to describe the almost 4-mile loop is to list the various trails from which it is composed: Bell Canyon – Quail Run – East Ridge – Sun Rise – Star Rise – Oak Trail – Bell Canyon.

After entering the park, head north to the Old Corral parking area. Giant oaks shade a number of picnic benches; this is where you’ll have your picnic afterwards. The Bell Canyon trailhead is just a few hundred yards north of there, at the end of the paved roadway. Continue north for a few more hundred feet until you come to the Quail Run trail.

Quail Run heads southeasterly (a right turn off of Bell Canyon trail) and begins a moderate climb to the East Ridge trail. After little over one-half of a mile and about a 300+/- elevation gain, turn left (north) on the East Ridge trail. The views along the undulating ridge are sweet to savor as you look 360 degrees into mostly unspoiled inland foothill territory.  

Due west lies the white sandstone and kaolin clay bluffs that skirt the edge of the West Ridge trail, north one sees Santiago Peak, eastern views reveal the Ortega Highway corridor and the rolling Santa Ana foothills and behind you to the south it is easy to spy the alluvial courses leading to the ocean.  The ridge is relatively exposed and on a warm, sunny day you’ll be glad you’re wearing sunscreen and a hat. Short scrub and prickly pear cactus festoon either side of the trail that drops off sharply on either side.

The wide ridge trail borders the eastern edge of Bell Canyon below in which there are spreading oaks and broad meadows. In the spring and early summer, these meadows are lush and green. In the winter, they appear to be softly gray but not unappealing to the eye.

Continue along the ridge until 1.5 miles when the trail intersects with the Sun Rise trail. Turn west (left) onto this short but very steeply descending trail as it places you right in the middle of Bell Canyon.   At the 2-mile tick, Sun Rise meets up with Bell Canyon trail. Follow this trail south (left) as you begin the return portion of this loop hike.
What’s nice about Caspers is that the interconnecting trails provide multiple route options and soon you’ll be faced with one.  At 2.25 miles, you’re given the choice of continuing along Bell Canyon or veer off a bit on the Star Rise trail. The hike is shortened a bit if you continue along Bell Canyon, but I highly suggest taking Star Rise so you can hike upon what is arguably the most beautiful trail section in Orange County: The Oak Trail.

The Oak Trail is aptly named as you walk beneath the cool shade of wildly twisting branches of centuries-old oaks. This section of trail (approximately 1 mile) is peacefully calming and embracive.  A handful of inviting benches allow you to take it all in and if you have the notion, accept the invitation gratefully.

The trail emerges from the shade as you cross a dry stream bed and onto the Nature Trail. Soon you’re provided another option to follow it back to the Old Corral parking area or rejoin the Bell Canyon trail as it takes you directly to the original trail head.

Depending on how many side tracks you take, the entire loop is a little under 4 miles with an overall elevation gain and loss of almost 400 feet. Not a difficult hike but a pleasing one that reminds you of why you chose to live in the OC.