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Caspers Wilderness Park is the crown jewel of Orange County's regional park system. It is the county's largest park (7600 acres), the least altered by human activities, and the most remote from population centers. "Remote" is a relative term in Orange County, since that county is now more than two-thirds urbanized.

Caspers Park is easy to find. From Interstate 5 at San Juan Capistrano, drive east on Ortega Highway (Highway 74) 7.6 miles to the park entrance on the left. If you are planning to hike the trails, ask for a wilderness permit at the entrance booth.

The following 3.3-mile hike touches upon most of the park's best features. Begin hiking at the old windmill (a mile north by paved road from the visitors' center) on a path signed "Nature Trail." Follow it across the wide bed of Bell Canyon and into the dense oak woodland on the far side. After 0.3 mile, you'll spot a park bench beneath a gorgeous, spreading oak tree. A little farther on, veer left on the Dick Loskorn Trail. This path meanders up a shallow draw and soon climbs to a sandstone ridgeline that at one point narrows to near-knife-edge width. At one point you step within a foot of a modest but unnerving abyss. The sandstone is part of a marine sedimentary formation, called the Santiago Formation (roughly 45 million years old), which crops out along the coastal strip from here down to mid-San Diego County.

After ascending some 350 feet in elevation, you reach a dirt road -- the West Ridge Trail. Turn right (north), skirting the fence line of Rancho Mission Viejo, a vast landholding that encompasses much of southern Orange County. Before World War II, it included all of Camp Pendleton as well. To the left you look down on Canada Gobernadora ("Canyon of the Governor's Wife" -- though a less literal meaning refers to the invasive chamise, or greasewood, that used to fill the canyon). The exclusive Coto de Caza housing development is gradually displacing agriculture in the canyon.

After 0.7 mile on the West Ridge Trail, turn right on Star Rise -- a dirt road descending toward Bell Canyon. On the left is a flat terrace with a commanding view of almost the entire park. From a park bench perched on the edge of the terrace you can look down on the line of oaks and sycamores in the canyon below.

Nearing the bottom, veer right on the Oak Trail toward your starting point. On it you meander past California sycamores as well as aged coast live oaks. This time of year, your feet crunch through the crispy leaf litter beneath the sycamores, and golden sunbeams dance amid the fluttering leaves overhead.

For more information, call Caspers Wilderness Park (949-728-0235).

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