Mesa Loop Trail (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. Once you are past the kiosk, take the first right into the Ortega Flats Campground and park in a small designated day use area on the left side of the gravel road.
- Agency: Caspers Wilderness Park
- Distance: 3.5 miles
- Elevation gain: 150 feet
- Suggested time: 1.5 hours
- Difficulty Rating: G
- Best season: All year (hot during the summer)
- USGS topo map: “Canada Gobernadora”
- Recommended gear: sun hat; insect repellent
- More information: Map My Hike report here
- Rating: 6
The Mesa Loop Trail holds the distinction of being the lone publicly accessible trail on the east side of the Ortega Highway in Caspers Wilderness Park. Its only downfall is traffic noise due to its proximity to the highway, but it is still a worthwhile destination; one of the better hikes of its length in the Orange County regional park system. Despite its name, the trail is not actually a loop, but can be combined to make one with the San Juan Creek Trail, as described here.
From the day use area in the Ortega Flats Campground, head north along the gravel road. Near site 8, a road leaves the campground and joins the south end of the San Juan Creek Trail. Follow this fire road north for 0.3 miles along the highway to a junction where the Mesa Loop Trail begins, crossing under the road via a tunnel.
On the opposite side of Highway 74, the trail crosses an abandoned service road and curves to the north, entering a pleasant, shallow canyon lined with sycamore trees. A quarter mile of level walking brings you to the only significant climb of the route. You ascend to an open mesa where you continue north, taking in excellent views of Old Saddleback straight ahead and of the park’s characteristic red and pink geological terraces on the left.
At about 1.1 miles, you briefly enter shade, where a large oak tree with rocks underneath makes for a good rest spot. Continuing, the trail eventually descends into Lucas Canyon and then reaches another tunnel where it crosses back under the highway to reconnect with the San Juan Creek Trail (2 miles from the start).
Turn left and follow the San Juan Creek Trail south. Since you’re right next to the highway, noise is unavoidable, but this 1.2 mile stretch has its enjoyable spots, notably a couple of stands of tall oaks and more up-close views of the geology across the San Juan Creek floodplain. At 3.2 miles, you complete the loop, returning to the first junction with the Mesa Loop Trail. Retrace your steps back to the campground.
Text and photography copyright 2015 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. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.