Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.
East Ridge Loop/Bell Canyon Loop (Caspers Wilderness Park)
- Location: Caspers Wilderness Park in San Juan Capistrano. From I-5 in south Orange County, take the Ortega Highway (route 74) east for 7 1/2 miles. The park is on your left. Admission is $3 per car on weekdays, $5 on weekends and $7 on holidays. Drive on the park’s main road and park at the San Juan Meadow group area by the visitor center.
- Agency: Caspers Wilderness Park
- Distance: 6.5 miles
- Elevation gain: 700 feet
- Suggested time: 3 hours
- Difficulty Rating: PG
- Best season: October – May
- USGS topo map: “Canada Gobernadora”
- Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat
- More information: Park homepage here; trip description (slightly different route) here; Everytrail report here
- Rating: 7
This enjoyable, moderately challenging hike showcases the best of Caspers Wilderness Park’s scenery, including quiet canyons with oaks and sycamores, geology and excellent mountain views. If the air is clear, you may get a glimpse of San Clemente Island from the East Ridge Trail.
The guidebook suggests hiking the loop counter-clockwise but I’ll make a pitch for clockwise; this allows you to save the bulk of the ascent for several miles in once you’ve already gotten your legs warmed up and you can enjoy the fruits of your efforts–the view from the East Ridge–on the return, rather than right at the beginning.
From the parking area, head north into the park on the Bell Canyon fire road and passing an intersection with the Nature Trail. After a mile, you arrive at a split where the Sun Rise trail heads off to the right (the route you would take if you were to do the longer Oso/Juaneno loop). Head left to stay on the Bell Canyon trail, passing another intersection with the Star Rise trail.
Two miles in, you reach a fence, and pick up the Oso Trail to the right. Now you have your first real climbing of the hike, gaining about 200 feet over half a mile, with nice views of Old Saddleback as you ascend. Take a right on the Cougar Pass trail which dips back into the canyon. Beneath some oaks, a bench makes a nice resting spot for the next leg of climbing.
Leaving the shade, you reach a junction where you’ll turn left on the East Ridge Trail. This is the steepest part of the whole route, but when you get to the top of the East Ridge, your efforts are rewarded with views of San Juan Canyon and the Santa Anas on your left (east) and Bell Canyon and the coastal plain on your right.
Follow the path along the ridge, passing the upper end of the Sun Rise trail, passing by the Quail Run Trail 4.8 miles from the start (an alternate descent if you want to make your trip a little shorter.) The East Ridge Trail descends, passing an intersection with the East Flats Trail and finally reaching the paved Caspers Park Road, where there are restrooms and water (5.8 miles.) Head right and head north back to the starting point. Although the last 0.6 miles are paved, the shade of the oaks and virtual lack of traffic make it an enjoyable way to end the hike.