The Caspers Wilderness Park Nature Center is a great bonus trip after you visit the playground. The Nature Center sits atop a hill overlooking the park and features a lookout tower to take in the beautiful views. Caspers is part of Orange County’s regional park system.
This nature center is on my list of 17+ Family-Friendly Nature Centers in Orange County.
Directions to Caspers Wilderness Park Nature Center: From Interstate 5, take Ortega Highway toward the foothills (east). Your drive will wind around and then a sign will warn you of the park entrance coming up on your left. Be ready for it. Once you stop at the gate, you will drive into the park past the campground on your right, across the road over the creek, to park to the stop sign past the day use area. Turn left up the hill and park at the Nature Center. Or better yet, park at the playground and walk up the road to the Nature Center – just watch for cars. MAP to Caspers Wilderness Park in San Juan Capistrano
When to Go
“Open on weekends” is what you’ll see on the signs and hear from the rangers. In reality, it’s entirely dependent on when they have volunteer staffing. Sometimes it’s also weekdays 10am-2pm. Just call ahead to make sure.
However, the best nature centers don’t need to be open to be worth a visit! Caspers is no exception.
Read on . . .
How to Enjoy the Nature Center Even When It’s Closed
Of course, there are hiking trails all over the park. And the playground at Caspers Wilderness Park is one of my favorites in ALL of Orange County because it feels like you are out in nature (you are!) and we often have it all to ourselves. Also, I love the the teeter-totter and swings along with all the bridges and climbing opportunities.
The Nature Center is also a great place to start if this is your first time here and your child is younger. You can reward good behavior with the playground after!
There is a:
- lookout platform or lookout tower (whatever you want to call it),
- bird and squirrel feeder,
- outdoor amphitheater,
- plus the short nature trail loop outside the center on the opposite side of the parking lot (a perfect toddler hike).
The chairs in the photo are in the mid-level parking lot on the way up to the nature center. You can turn in there for a look at the creek and the view.
The Lookout Platform / Lookout Tower
The lookout platform or lookout tower above the nature center is certainly its best feature. The nature center volunteers told me it’s accessible even when the center is closed.
Climb the staircase to the second floor office level for picnic tables and a view.
Then climb another staircase to get the best views. There’s a sign at the top telling you about what you are seeing.
Bird Feeder & Amphitheater Area
This is NOT for you to feed the animals. There is already a feeder set up. All you have to do is stay still and watch what animals come around.
We sat outside at the bird feeder for quite a while watching all the action. I got to see a California quail share a snack with squirrel. Plus I saw lots of jays and finches, as well. On my most recent visit, I loved watching the woodpeckers flit from tree to tree.
There’s a really cool touch on the window of the Nature Center: Five laminated sheets showing the Top 20 Birds at Caspers.
Your kids can identify the birds based on the photos and you can hear their song by using the QR codes! This is all on the OUTSIDE of the Nature Center.
Short Nature Trail Loop
Plants are marked near the center and along the trail.
We saw wildflowers, a hummingbird, a lizard, a grasshopper and listened to the breeze as we walked the short interpretive trail loop that starts near the ore cart in the parking lot.
It’s a very, very short loop that even toddlers might be able to handle (you know your child best). I even love the views from this side of the hill, too!
Inside the Nature Center
We did get a chance to go inside (on a weekend visit) and talk with the very knowledgeable volunteers inside. There are buttons to press for animal sounds, tracks to make with stamps in a sand pit, and a hut to climb in. It’s small, but educational. I learned what to call broken off sycamore trees: snags. And what they are good for: animal houses.
Know Before You Go
- The Nature Center tends to only be open on weekends (9am-3pm) or midday on weekdays (10am-2pm). Dependent on volunteer staffing.
- This is a wilderness area. Be aware of wildlife and your surroundings.
- When you enter the park, you’ll go through the entrance kiosk, past one of the campground loops, and then you will cross the creek through a dip in the road. About 95% of the time, this road is dry. However, during periods of heavy rain there may be water flowing across the road here. You will climb out of the dip fairly quickly — but I imagine they close the park when the creek is truly flowing outside its bounds.
- Check the official OC Parks website for special events and programs.
- Dedicated day use parking lots, but you must pay the OCParks fee of $3 weekdays, $5 weekends, and $7-$10 on major holidays. Or I’d highly recommend getting an Annual Pass ($55 for the year).
- Nature center only open when there are volunteers available to staff it.
- Restrooms outside the nature center entrance, but not sure they are open on weekdays. You may have to use the portable toilets in the Day Use loop by the playground.
- Small concrete amphitheater outside the center.
- Campgrounds also available. Reserve campsites through the OCParks reservation system.
- One notable thing about this particular campground and the park itself for that matter is the note they have on their official website: “Due to insufficient well water supply, the domestic water lines throughout all campgrounds and restroom/shower facilities will be shut off for the foreseeable future. Please bring potable water. Portable restrooms and handwash stations will be available throughout the park. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Originally published in April 2010.