Orange County's new Bell View Regional Trail offers wide views of far-flung suburbs and brooding mountains.

The Bell View Regional Trail, for hikers, equestrians, and cyclists, starts as a "community trail" threading through the suburban-edge communities of Rancho Santa Margarita and Coto de Caza. It then assumes a wilder character as it undulates along a ridge, ultimately reaching Caspers Wilderness Park (on Ortega Highway, eight miles east of San Juan Capistrano). For mountain bikers, the out-and-back distance of 17-plus miles seems reasonable. Hikers, however, will better enjoy the journey as an 8.5-mile point-to-point hike facilitated by a willing driver-friend. Arrange to have your friend drop you off at the start, the north gate for the private Coto de Caza housing development, and pick you up at the finish, at Caspers Park's main trailhead -- the historic windmill site. By car, the shortest distance between start and end points of this route is about 15 miles by way of Antonio Parkway and Ortega Highway. A recent street map covering southern Orange County is most helpful for navigational planning.

You begin hiking or riding on Dove Canyon Drive, just east of Plano Trabuco Road and the Coto de Caza gate. There's limited curbside parking on Dove Canyon Drive; carefully observe the somewhat ambiguous "no parking" signs if you're going to leave a car there. The Bell View Trail begins on a paved service road just east of a faux waterfall, which is part of the Dove Canyon housing development entrance. Head south up a short, steep hill on the service road, and then veer right on the decomposed-granite path designated the Bell View Trail. You climb toward a broad ridge, with Coto de Caza houses stretching miles ahead down the valley on your right, and the Dove Canyon subdivision and golf course to your left (east).

After two miles of unexciting travel, you descend past the last of the Dove Canyon housing and pick up an old ridge-running dirt road. At 2.6 miles you pass an equestrian rest area with a drinking fountain and picnic tables. Continue south, on or near the top of the ridgeline, occasionally going steeply up or down. The Coto de Caza development continues on the right side, while the empty Bell Canyon drainage and the distant, brooding crest of the Santa Ana Mountains lie on the left.

At 3.8 miles you reach a gate. Go around it and bear left to stay on the Bell View Trail. At 5.2 miles there's bench with a view down into Bell Canyon. Why the name "Bell"? An eight-ton granitic boulder, scored with mazelike petroglyphs, once lay precariously balanced on smaller rocks down there. When struck with great force, the boulder resonated like a bell, audible a mile away.

Just ahead of the resting bench, a sign announces your arrival at Caspers Wilderness Park. Continue 2.2 miles down the ridge-running road (now called the West Ridge Trail) to a junction with Star Rise, a fire road descending east into Bell Canyon. Make a left, descend to the bottom, and make a right on Oak Trail. Continue for a short mile on the delightfully woodsy Oak Trail, which meanders through oak and sycamore woodland on the west bank of Bell Canyon, heading toward the historic windmill. (Note for mountain bikers: you must stay off of the hikers-only Oak Trail and remain on Star Rise until you reach Bell Canyon Trail, which leads south to the windmill.)

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

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