Caspers Wilderness Park and Santa Rosa Plateau
Distance: 3.3 miles
Total elevation gain/loss: 400'/400'
Hiking time: 11/2 hours
Optional map: USGS 7.5-min Canada Gobernadora
Best times: October through June
This hike features a rather dizzying passage across the top of some curious white sandstone formations, rather like the breaks along the upper Missouri River or the barren cliffs of the South Dakota badlands. You'll loop up and over the main ridge defining the west edge of the park, enjoying views of adjacent areas of the county not ordinarily seen from any road.
Begin hiking at the old windmill (a mile north by paved road from the visitor center) on a path signed NATURE TRAIL. Follow it across the wide bed of Bell Canyon and into the dense oak woodland on the far side. After 0.3 mile you'll spot a park bench beneath a gorgeous, spreading oak tree. A little farther on, veer left on the Dick Loskorn Trail. This path meanders up a shallow draw and soon climbs to a sandstone ridgeline that at one point narrows to near-knife-edge width. At one point you step within a foot of a modest but unnerving abyss. The sandstone is part of a marine sedimentary formation, called the Santiago Formation (roughly 45 million years old), which crops out along the coastal strip from here down to mid San Diego County.
After climbing about 350 feet, you come to a dirt road the West Ridge Trail. Turn north, skirting the fence line of Rancho Mission Viejo, a vast landholding that encompasses much of southern Orange County and formerly included (before World War II) all of Camp Pendleton as well. To the left and right there are good views of both Bell Canyon and Canada Gobernadora ("Canyon of the Governor's Wife" though a less literal meaning refers to the invasive chamise, or greasewood, that used to fill the canyon). Canada Gobernadora is now largely given over to agriculture and to the exclusive Coto de Caza housing development. The confluence of Canada Gobernadora and San Juan Canyon is one of several supposed sites for Mission Vieja, the original San Juan Capistrano Mission, founded in 1776.
After 0.7 mile on the West Ridge Trail, turn right on Star Rise the road descending toward Bell Canyon. On the left is a flat terrace, the site of a disused trail campground, with a commanding view of almost the entire park. From a park bench perched on the edge of the terrace you can look down on the line of oaks and sycamores in the canyon below.
From the bottom of the grade on Star Rise, you can return to the starting point using either of the two parallel trails going downhill through Bell Canyon the Oak and Bell Canyon trails.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication