Caspers Wilderness Park
Distance: 8.8 miles
Total elevation gain/loss: 2200'/2200'
Hiking time: 5 hours
Optional map: USGS 7.5-min Canada Gobernadora
Best times: November through April
Pick a clear, cool day, and set aside the better part of it for this hike to one of the highest ridges in the park. You'll have a wonderful view of the higher Santa Anas, the Los Angeles Basin, the San Joaquin Hills, and the ocean. You'll return along San Juan Creek, meandering in and out of the shade of oaks and sycamores.
Park at the San Juan Meadow picnic area, and begin by walking north up the paved road into Bell Canyon. Past the end of the pavement, continue north on the Bell Canyon Trail (dirt road) for one mile, then bear right on the Cougar Pass Trail. Continue northeast up and over a river-terrace remnant, briefly through a cluster of oaks, then (on the Oso Trail) straight up the spine of a ridge blanketed with prickly pear cacti. After blooming yellow, orange, or red in the spring and early summer, these cacti grow bulb-like fruits, loaded with black seeds, along the edges of their paddle-shaped leaves. The fruits themselves, best displayed in October and November, exhibit a variety of bizarre colors best described as shades of purple, magenta, and red.
Up ahead on the brow of the ridge, a shade ramada with picnic table awaits the footsore. Here you can savor the beforementioned panoramic view. The Oso Trail continues ahead on the ridgeline, skirting the property line of Audubon's Starr Ranch Sanctuary.
From the overlook, our way now descends south along a crooked firebreak the Badger Pass Trail toward San Juan Creek. During one hike along this trail, just after a heavy rain, my companions and I had the comical experience of slopping down this slope with about five pounds of adobe-like soil clinging to each of our shoes. At the bottom of the firebreak, next to the Ortega Highway bridge over San Juan Creek, pick up the Juaneno Trail. Follow its narrow course downstream along the west side of the creek's usually dry flood plain.
Over the next 3 miles the trail follows a scenic, not-so-direct route sometimes along cobbled banks dotted with riparian vegetation, otherwise along upper terraces delightfully shaded by oak trees. Bluffs consisting of buff-colored marine sedimentary rock soar dramatically on your right.
At one point you circle a cove-like indentation in the cliff wall, reminiscent of the stone amphitheaters in Zion National Park.
After a final detour up and over a wooded slope overlooking the flood plain, the trail emerges at the east end of San Juan Meadow picnic area, your starting point.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication