Caspers Wilderness Park
Distance: 4.2 miles
Total elevation gain/loss: 900'/900'
Hiking time: 21/2 hours
Optional map: USGS 7.5-min Canada Gobernadora
Best Times: October through June
Filled with tall, slender alder trees and spreading oaks, Cold Spring Canyon used to be one of the most beautiful spots in Caspers Park. Today, signs of 1993's devastating wildfire are still very much in evidence, but much biological recovery has taken place, aided by two unusually wet winters following the fire.
On a north-facing slope just above Cold Spring Canyon, you'll get a wide open view of rugged, brush-covered hillsides uncut by roads or trails or any other perceptible form of human alteration as far as the eye can see. Such refreshing vistas are rare things to be treasured in today's Orange County.
Unlike the other hikes in Caspers Park, this one begins at the site of San Juan Hot Springs, a privately owned resort that was totally incinerated during the October 1993 wildfire. Obtain your wilderness permit (available only at the park entrance) first, then drive 5 miles north on Ortega Highway to Hot Springs Canyon Road, on the left. Park at or near the fire station here and head west around the fenced hot springs site on whatever path you can find. After 0.3 mile you come to Cold Spring Canyon, a deep ravine with a stream flowing through during the wet half of the year.
Pick up the path known as the Cold Springs Trail and follow it up the canyon for 0.3 mile. The trail gains a toehold on the slope to the left and soon veers west up along the south wall of a ravine. In a decade or two dense chaparral will blanket this slope and perhaps a profusion of ferns will too. Before the fire, as many as five varieties of fern could be found growing on a single square-yard plot. The view keeps expanding as you climb, and soon encompasses the pristine upper reaches of Cold Spring Canyon.
After 500 vertical feet of ascent, meet the Oso Trail (a fire road). To make this hike a loop trip, stay left and continue west on the Oso Trail, which descends into and then along the bottom of a sunny canyon full of sage-scrub vegetation. Here there are hardy laurel sumacs, which waste no time is resprouting after fire often before the next rainy season starts.
At the bottom of the Oso Trail turn left, parallel to Ortega Highway, and follow a wide firebreak east. The firebreak soon turns abruptly up a ridge to the north. After climbing about 100 feet, look for a narrow foot trail to the right. This trail contours over to the mouth of Cold Spring Canyon, where you pick up the path leading back to your starting point.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication