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


  1. I couldn't agree with you more about day hikes :) and this one appears to be a must do! Great post!

  2. Thanks, Bill. Time is too short for lousy hikes. This one is short and sweet, so it's easy to fill into an afternoon.

  3. Just an update, as of April 2016, the Nature Loop, Oak Trail, and Dick Loskorn Trails are all closed until further notice due to "dying trees and continuing drought that pose serious threat to trail users." Check with the park before you go...

  4. Thanks for your great post. Was very helpful in planning my hike. I ended up doing a longer loop to the hot springs and then back along the Oso Trail ridge. Was very beautiful, glad I visited! Thanks again. You can check out the longer hike on my blog: