Caspers Wilderness Park

Trip 4: East Ridge Bell Canyon Loop
By Jerry Schad

Distance: 6.7 miles
Total elevation gain/loss: 900'/900'
Hiking time: 3 hours
Optional map: USGS 7.5-min Canada Gobernadora
Best times: October through May
Agency: CWP
Difficulty: moderate

On this hike you'll pass through two very different kinds of natural habitat: first, a scruffy mix of drought-resistant coastal sage-scrub and chaparral plants on the sunny hillsides and ridges; second, the moisture-loving oak-and-sycamore woodlands along Bell Canyon.

From just north of the entrance to the San Juan Meadow picnic area, follow the East Flats Trail uphill for 0.2 mile. Bear right at an intersection and climb on the East Ridge Trail (a wide firebreak), which soon gains a well-defined ridgeline and then sticks to it for the next 2 miles or so. Dead ahead lies the summit of Santiago Peak, some 10 miles north and almost a mile higher.

Aside from the usual California sagebrush, white sage, black sage, and laurel sumac of the sage-scrub community, several common chaparral-community plants make their appearance as you climb: chamise, toyon, yucca, deerweed, manzanita, and elderberry. You'll also pass some dense thickets of prickly pear cactus, native to these hills but probably more widespread today because of past overgrazing.

At 2.7 miles from the start the firebreak comes up just short of a knoll to the east — Pointed Hill. Walk over to it and you'll be treated to a grand view up San Juan Canyon toward the higher Santa Anas.

Next, go back to East Ridge and descend the grassy slope to the west, using a firebreak. At the bottom, turn right on the Cougar Pass Trail and continue 0.2 mile through a cluster of oaks to the intersection of the Oso Trail, where you turn left toward Bell Canyon. After a little climbing you level off and begin crossing a grassy terrace before dropping again. This flat area is a remnant of one of three or four ancient"river" terraces exposed on the wall of Bell Canyon. Each terrace represents a stage when Bell Creek became stabilized and used most of its energy to widen its bed rather than cut a deeper channel. Between these quiescent stages, tectonic uplift or other factors, such as a change to a wetter climate, rejuvenated the creek, which then rapidly cut itself to a lower level. Today the creek is engaged in a period of widening, as evidenced by the canyon's broad, flat floor.

Upon reaching the canyon floor, turn left on the Bell Canyon Trail and follow it all the way back to the pavement and your starting point. In the winter, surface water tumbles through the upper part of the canyon but seldom reaches its mouth. The headwaters lie in a rugged and almost inaccessible gorge below Los Pinos Peak in Cleveland National Forest.

On the drier benches alongside the canyon bottom (themselves recent river terrace features) you'll find some coast cholla cactus along with the more familiar prickly pear; various sage-scrub and chaparral plants; and naturalized non-natives typical of heavily grazed or disturbed areas, such as wild oats and rye grass, filaree, mustard, artichoke thistle, milk thistle, and tree tobacco. Here, in the transition zone between the shady woodland along the creek and the warm, dry slopes, your chances of spotting wildlife and birds are greatest. Look for deer, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and a host of smaller creatures. When the ground is wet, tracks easily give away their presence.

The name "Bell," incidentally, commemorates an eight-ton granitic boulder, scored with mazelike petroglyphs, that once lay precariously balanced on some smaller rocks, upstream in what is now the Audubon Sanctuary. When struck with great force, the boulder resonated like a bell, audible a mile away. Removed from the canyon in 1936, Bell Rock was taken to the courtyard of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, where it rests today.


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