Bell Peak (Orange County)
- Location: Robinson Ranch, Orange County, in the foothills of the Santa Mountains. From I-5 in south Orange County, take the Alicia Parkway exit and go northeast (left if you’re coming from the north, right if from the south) for 5.3 miles to the road’s end at Rancho Santa Margarita Parkway. Turn right and go 2.7 miles to Plano Trabuco. Turn left and go 0.3 miles to Robinson Ranch Road. Turn right and go 1.2 miles. Note a small green area with a picnic table on the left side of the street; this is your starting point, where the Bell View Trail meets Robinson Ranch Road. Park where available.
- Agency: Orange County Parks & Recreation; Cleveland National Forest (Trabuco Ranger District)
- Distance: 3.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,300 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Steepness, elevation gain, terrain)
- Suggested time: 2 hours
- Best season: November – April
- USGS topo maps: “Santiago Peak”
- Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat; hiking poles; insect repellent
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
- More information: Trip description here; article about the hike here; Bell View trail map here; Everytrail report here
- Rating: 7
Bell Peak is the unofficial name of the first major bump on the long ridge that runs all the way from Los Pinos Peak to the foothills above Robinson Ranch. Die-hards have been known to hike or bike the entire route (almost 7 miles each way) but for hikers wanting a shorter though still vigorous workout with some panoramic views of the area, Bell Peak is a popular destination. The summit is also known as Patriot Hill due to the American flag placed at the top (not to be confused with Flag Hill and the Patriot Trail in San Clemente.)
The hike starts where the Bell View Trail meets Robinson Ranch Road. From the picnic table, head left and uphill (the segment to the right takes you south toward Caspers Wilderness Park and is part of the Robinson Ranch/Bell View Loop, another worthwhile hike). The trail ascends steadily, making an Z-shaped curve, taking in dramatic views of Santiago Peak to the north and the surrounding suburban areas to the south. At 0.7 miles, you reach a junction with an unsigned trail. While adept hikers can use use the single-track to cut off some distance, those visiting for the first time would be best served to stick with the main trail, which drops sharply into a ravine. Here, a few large oaks provide the only significant shade on the entire route.
At the bottom, the trail splits. Both forks soon rejoin but the right fork, which climbs steeply out of the canyon, is quicker. A short but difficult ascent brings you to another junction a mile from the start.
Here, you turn right on a single-track trail, soon entering Cleveland National Forest land. The trail is level for a short distance and manages to get a little more shade from a few trees on the ridge before reaching the most demanding portion of the hike; a stretch of 0.4 miles that gains 450 feet. The terrain is rocky and loose in some spots.
After huffing and puffing your way to the top of the ridge, your work becomes easier as the next section of the trail is mercifully level. You get more views of Santiago Peak and Bell Peak with its flag is now clearly visible. Two more short, steep climbs bring you to the top.
Unfortunately there’s no real place to sit down and the bugs can be annoying, but there’s still an impressive vista, especially on clear days. The panorama includes a bird’s eye perspective of Trabuco Canyon, the hills of Whiting Ranch and O’Neill Parks, Catalina Island, the San Joaquin Hills and if visibility is good, San Clemente Island. Enjoy it and rest your legs for the steep descent back.