Caspers Wilderness Park and Santa Rosa Plateau

Caspers Wilderness Park
By Jerry Schad

Caspers Wilderness Park is without a doubt the crown jewel of Orange County's regional park system. It is the largest park established to date in the county, the least altered by human activities, and the most remote from population centers. Its position adjacent to Cleveland National Forest on the east and north, and the Audubon Society's Starr Ranch Sanctuary on the north and west, integrates it into the only good-sized area within Orange County that could truthfully be called a wilderness. Caspers wouldn't qualify as a statutory wilderness (that is, roadless and primitive) area by federal standards, as does nearby San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, but the richness of its wildlife is testimony enough to its de facto primitive state.

Strangely enough, the area encompassing Caspers Park — the former Starr Ranch — narrowly escaped development as a commercial amusement park back in the early '70s. Fortunately, the owners of the property at the time went bankrupt. Instead, most of the north half of the property was deeded to the Audubon Society in 1973. The south half was purchased by Orange County in 1974 for use as a regional park, largely through the efforts of Board of Supervisors chairman Ronald W. Caspers. Subsequent purchases increased the total park area to its present 7600 acres.

True to the vision of those who foresaw Caspers Park as protecting one of Orange County's last natural areas and as being a great recreation resource as well, the park today is graced with a fine complement of facilities and improvements. The beautiful visitor center houses a small museum and an open-air loft offering spectacular views of the Santa Ana Mountains. The camping and picnic facilities are second to none in Orange County; a separate area is included for equestrians. Radiating out to the outer reaches of the park are more than 30 miles of riding and hiking trails.

Tragically, Caspers Park was the scene of two separate mountain lion attacks on small children in 1986. Such incidents are considered rare; nonetheless, legal actions against the county by the parents of the injured children have resulted in the closure of the park's campgrounds and trails to kids under 18. This no-minors policy has remained in effect for a decade. Adults may use any trail within the park, but must obtain a wilderness permit for that privilege first.

Protecting the Park

Protection and enhancement of natural habitat are among the park's most important goals. To this end firebreaks have been constructed on some of the ridges in order to facilitate controlled burns. Periodic burning favors native plants over the non-native grasses and weedy plants introduced in the past, and helps to maintain the natural sage-scrub vegetation, which is well adapted to fire. Parts of these firebreaks have been incorporated into the trail system, which also includes dirt maintenance roads and footpaths. A firestorm in October 1993 (one of several simultaneous fires that burned throughout Southern California) swept the northeastern two-thirds of the park, but did not destroy any of the park's visitor facilities.

Getting There

To reach Caspers Park, drive 7.6 miles east from Interstate 5 on Ortega Highway (Highway 74). Beyond the clearly marked entrance (pay a fee and fill out a permit here), drive up upon the knoll a short distance ahead to reach the visitor center.

Besides visiting the museum and the loft, you can loop around the 0.1-mile-long Vista Ridge self-guiding trail south of the parking lot. There you'll be introduced to the common vegetation of the area as well as the geographic setting.

Several days could be spent exploring the rest of the trail system, which will take you through two basic kinds of environments: (1) the always impressive oak and sycamore woodlands along San Juan and Bell canyons (the two largest drainages in the park); and (2) the sage- and chaparral-covered hillsides offering, on clear days at least, magnificent views stretching from the ocean to the Santa Ana Mountains. You can start with one of the following.


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