– Carlsbad’s Lake Calavera Preserve–a gem with many enjoyable strolls
– Scenic and Historical Trek on Mule Hill Trail
– National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) – Fun Nearby Outdoors Options
– El Monte Flume Trail (New & Scenic)
– Ramona Grasslands (NEW!)
– Lake Hodges South (Rancho Bernardo)
– Lake Hodges North (Del Dios/Escondido)
– Daley Ranch (Escondido)
– Elfin Forest, or Is That Mt. Israel? (Escondido)
– Iron Mountain (Poway Area)
– Oakoasis (Wildcat Canyon Road)

Here meet some of the key places to explore in our suburban and foothills regions. You can also find more details about these places and many more in Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping by Tom Leech and Jack Farnan, available at many book stores, park visitors centers and and For web sites, check the topic — SD Outdoors organizations.

A quick alert to be careful about heading out on our trails as it’s not  like walking around the block. Wear good walking shoes for good grip, be careful to not stumble (a walking stick is often a good aid, especially when up and down hill hikes), be  prepared for the heat, and go with knowledgeable leaders in the back country. Finally, understand that Tom Leech has no liability for troubles on the trails.

Carlsbad’s Lake Calavera Preserve–a gem with many enjoyable strolls

Trail heading up to the peak

Trail heading up to the peak

Do you know where you can find and explore a peak and a lake just a few miles inland from the Pacific Coast?  Well lots of people already know, as Carlsbad’s Lake Calavera Preserve is one of North County’s most popular hiking and biking areas.  Did I mention dog walking? Bird watching?

While the geographic features have early vintages, the Preserve and adjoining areas have been recent editions to natural protection.   In addition to Carlsbad City, several agencies have been and continue to be, involved in setting aside preserved lands.

The most visible element  is 516 foot high Mount Calavera,  a  22 million years old volcano. Combine that with the 400 acre reservoir, the west end dam, ample wildlife, and a variety of habitat and you have one intriguing place to explore.  True, it’s surrounded by major housing developments but that’s easy to ignore as you hike along its many trails.

A determined band of citizens called Preserve Calavera has led the charge to keep the largest possible preserve area for a valuable wildlife habitat and corridor linking to other natural areas. Three creeks flow through here, with Calavera Creek leading into the reservoir-lake and Hedionda Creek heading west from the dam on to the same-named lagoon.

For these trails tales, we’ll start at the Sky Haven well-marked trail entries at the north side of the

lake. Take your pick for the West or East Trailhead and head out on clear trails.  Head west and you’ll get easily to the dam. For today’s hike, take the trail at the east side from the lake toward the tall electric towers. Before the towers, head right and see signs noting “creek crossing.”  This is Calavera Creek and cross over two wooden footbridges.  Lots of shade in this area and little beyond. Along the trails are several kiosks which tell some of the stories of this terrain.

Lake Calavera from the peak

Lake Calavera from the peak

Follow the “Lake-Dam-Peak“ trail markers, then see a sign noting the easier Shoreline Trail which goes along the south side of the lake and over to the dam (1.9 mile total).  A picnic area half-way along makes for a good rest, sip, and contemplate spot.

For the workout hike, take the one pointing toward the peak. A walking stick is helpful as several sections  are rocky and steep.  After a 10-15 minute trek you arrive at the peak.  This is pause time, to take in the lake below, the views to the west and Hawaii, and peaks in all directions, plus a labyrinth placed in a past quarried section at the base of the peak.

From here you can turn around, head back down that steep section to the good trail that loops around the south side of the peak to the dam.  Or for more of a challenge, take the trail heading west which goes right above the super steep volcano cliff (be careful here – remember Hitchcock’s “Vertigo?”), then winds down to the more sane trail at the bottom.    Just to the east from that intersection is a surprise, an old cave worth a look for the curious.

Now on the main trail heading over toward the dam, you’ll soon come to that section below those steep cliffs. The kiosk explains that this is one of North America’s smallest volcanos: “Mount Calavera is a volcanic ‘plug’ —  the cooled and hardened lava in the volcano’s once molten throat.” Fascinating.

Now at the dam a kiosk tells that this dam was built in 1940 and created below it the Agua

Facing the cliff, resulting from volcano action way back

Facing the cliff, resulting from volcano action way back

Hedionda Watershed.  On the dam’s north side pick up the trail which winds along the lake and back to the Sky Haven Trailheads.  This is likely a 90 minute to 2 hours hike, depending on your curiosity level (mine is high).

Several other hikes are available, with another popular starting spot the Oak Riparian Park.

This starts a mile or so east from the lake, heads west along mostly flat terrain along the Oak Riparian Loop Trail (1.4 miles) on both sides of Calavera Creek, with the option of connecting to the Lake-Dam-Peak trails.

FYI. Per my well-worn San Diego County Place Names book, the name Calavera comes from the Spanish word for skull. California’s Calaveras County was so-named after many skulls and skeletons were found there in 1838.

To get there. (a) To reach the trail entry discussed here, take I-5 to 78, east to College, south to Lake Blvd., L to Sky Haven, right a short distance to trail entry signs and likely many cars. Park on street and see two clearly marked trailheads.  (b) To reach the Oak Riparian Park, continue east on Lake Blvd. see park on right. (c) To entry from west side (dam region), continue south on College to Tamarack Ave, right to Saddle Drive, right and see trail entry heading east.

For more details visit (Non-profit Foundation).

Scenic and historical trek on Mule Hill Trail (San Dieguito River Park)

Background. On June 1, 2002, National Trails Day, an important event occurred, the opening of the new Mule Hill/San Pasqual Valley Trail. A large crowd of trail fans, politicos, and historical re-enactors were out just east of Lake Hodges for the grand opening. This new 10 mile trail heads east into San Pasqual Valley out past the Wild Animal Park, and is a key addition to the in-process 55 mile Coast to Crest Trail. Following the dedication events, Jerry Schad and I headed out with two groups of hikers for the first official hikes on the new trail. (From my San Diego Magazine Online Outdoors Forum, June 2002.)

Trail starts at Sikes Historical Adobe Ranch House

Trail starts at Sikes Historical Adobe Ranch House

To get there take I-15 to the Via Rancho exit, just north of Lake Hodges at the south end of Escondido. Head east and turn right at the first light to Sunset Drive just past the Shell Station. Drive in a short way and see signs for parking lots on west or east side of road, plus street parking. For Mule Hill Trail, follow the signs eastward.

Immediately to your right will be the old, again-restored Sikes Historical Adobe Farmhouse. This was the residence of the Sikes family from 1869 to 1899. In 1925 it came under ownership of the City of San Diego Water Department, then became part of the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority. It was initially restored in January 2004. Unfortunately during the 2007 Witch Fire, it was burned to the ground except for the adobe walls. Rebuilding started in August 2009, and it was officially reopened in June, 2010. On weekends docent tours tell the stories, and you can see their schedules plus much info at

Past the Farmhouse the good dirt trail heads east, makes a side turn northward over toward the main road at the huge Westfield North County Mall. There’s a trail entrance there, and then the main trail continues heading south onto the wide open meadow and close and distant hills. It’s a pleasant scenic vista and in the spring flowers will add to the display.

The real Mule Hill, with info kisosks telling the fascinating story

The real Mule Hill, with info kisosks telling the fascinating story

Right away to the right is an informative kiosk describing this area, the first of many kiosks you’ll see along the way. This is a nearly flat trail, with dogs (on leash), bikes and horses maybe sharing the route. A bit further to the left are some modest rolling hills, the main one being the legendary Mule Hill. Turnouts with low stone walls and more kiosks tell the story.

Why the name, you ask? Well, even if you didn’t, here is a summary version. A few miles further east of here is the San Pasqual Battlefield, where the U.S. Army in 1846 came in as runner-up, or got shellacked by the Californios for whom this was a separate nation, not in total appreciation of a bunch of U.S. troops coming in to their territory, not on a diplomatic visit. Chief U. S. scout was a chap named Kit Carson, whose well-established credentials took a hit on this event. Leading the U.S. troops was General Stephen Kearny, a name well-known here. After suffering heavy damage from the Andres Pico-led local forces, Kearny’s now bedraggled troops headed further west. Still under siege and low on food they cooked up a few of their mules, and thus the name Mule Hill.

Walk a hundred yards more and you’ll find more kiosks, among them a description of the original town of Bernardo, located along the San Dieguito River. If you want to have a pleasant hike with some history thrown in, you can make a roughly 3-mile round-trip hike just this far.

Trail continues eastward and up into hill country (if you choose)

Trail continues eastward and up into hill country (if you choose)

The trail continues eastward along the growing fields that are part of the San Diego Agricultural Preserve. Now you’ll be hiking with some shade (welcome if you’re doing this in August). The trail has a catchup area near Highland Valley Road, about 2.5 miles along. From here you have several hiking options:1/ Head back along the Mule Hill Trail, for about a 5 mile easy hike.

2/ Have a pickup car waiting for you for a shuttle back. There is some parking just to the north of the road.

3/ Cross over the road, then stroll a short ways west to pick up the Highland Valley Trail, paralleling the south side of Lake Hodges, and back to its trailhead just west of I-15. Walk about 1/4 mile west along Pomerado Rd over the I-15 bridge, then take the footbridge over to the north side of the lake to the main trail. Head east and under the freeway and you’re back at the starting point parking lot.

4/ Continue heading east along the San Pasqual Trail up to Raptor Ridge, 5 miles in and (a) head back; (b) keep heading east and have a car waiting to pick you up at a couple break spots, such as at Bandy Canyon Road, mile 7.5; ©) Make the full 10 mile one-way hike to where the trail eventually ends near highway 78, just east of the Wild Animal Park, now called Safari Park.

Whichever hiking option you choose, I believe you’ll especially enjoy this Mule Hill trek for its scenery and history. Oh, yes, there’s more to the Kit Carson part of the story, found on page 3-22 of Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping. And for historic fans, a terrific book that includes some of these events, grab 1846: A Year of Decision. For the full scoop about the San Dieguito River Park visit

National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Fun Nearby Outdoors Option

Heading into NWR on old steel bridge

For a convenient hiking-biking-equestrian jaunt in genuine open space, go check out the National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) off Highway 94 in Rancho San Diego-Jamacha communities. A primary starting point is at the long-retired steel bridge,easily seen just to the west of the highway. You can get a pleasant gentle stroll out among the hills or a major workout, especially on a hot day.

The preserve adjoins the Sweetwater River as it heads west toward the Sweetwater Reservoir. The NWR team offers guided hikes on occasion, which makes it a good way to get introduced plus betterinformed about the history and natural attributes here. This is readily accessible by turning onto the short dead end road that exits 94 to the bridge. Park in the large lot. stroll across the bridge and then you have choices, east or west. Permitted on these trails are hiking, dogs on leash, bicyclists, equestrians; not motor vehicles.

The East NWR Section. 

One of the few big-shade spots

To get to the eastern section, walk up the paved road from the bridge a short distance to 94, then cross over – carefully – to the easily-seen trail. This leads over to and through the only shaded section of this trek, which goes along a slightly-flowing creek and marshy area. You come to a wide-spreading oak, with a large open space under it. Keep heading east, and out of the shaded area, with a couple options: (a) stay on the wide main trail or (b) take the smaller side trail off to the left-north. The left trail will take you past a fenced section containing ruins of several stone buildings. Per NWR HQ, the former use of these structures is not clear, perhaps used to pull out river water to irrigate the old Rancho Jamul, which this land once was. Walk on past the ruins and you’ll pass the Cottonwood Golf Course, and rejoin that main trail.

The main trail heads east past the golf course and its many trees, with soon another side trail option, this one off to the south or right. This heads up and near to the rolling hills forming the refuge south barrier. It provides more of a workout than the main trail and it curves around and along the upscale residential area to join up with the main trail right at the other refuge entry. That is known as the Par 4 entry named after the road and golf connection. (Directions below.)

You might have some company on the trail

If you had stayed on the level main trail you would have passed a section of wood fencing that goes to that same eastern entry, with it’s informational kiosk. Whether entering from east or west, you can combine waling along the main trail with this higher-up side trail for an enjoyable loop jaunt. Allow about 1 ½ to 2 hours for this hike, depending on how much you peruse the fine views and nature. The odds are good you’ll be having some 4-legged company as this is popular for walking the pooches (on leash) and riding horses. Back on 94, a short ways further south toward Jamul is the Bright Valley Farms horse ranch, where you can rent horses and make them do the work (not that this trail offers much work).

The West NWR Section.

Back to that steel bridge just off 94. Cross the bridge, and this time, follow the main trail to the right, or west. Once past the forested area, your likely first impression will be “Wow! Look at these views.” Right over there, to the south, are some significant hills, to your right or north are more hills, and straight ahead is a wide open space waiting for you.

Good trail; Good scenery

This preserve section was originally planned for development, but the ‘90s financial difficulties led to several agencies buying the land and creating the preserve. In 2012, the Nature Conservancy acquired another 1900 acres adjoining the Millar Ranch Road, making this a substantial chunk of preserved open space.

Again a couple choices. (a) The main trail heading west stays just to the south of the river. It’s a mostly level, easy-walking trail, with some shaded areas, lots of flowering foliage (with some explanatory nature signs), and a vernal pool area. (b) From the steel bridge, walk up a second trail over to the tall info kiosk and benches that mark the entry at Millar Road, from 94. From there you’ll see a trail which winds up and down near the hills, while the main trail stays fairly level. The odds are good you’ll share the trails with bikers as this is a popular riding area for them. An option is to combine the main lower level with the upper trail for a loop hike.

About an hour in you’ll arrive at a fairly new wooden bridge that crosses the river. Most hikers head back from here, while some keep heading west, on the south side of the river. Now the trail is definitely harder work, with some seriously uphill sections, and eventually coming to another steel bridge which spans the now-wider river.

Foot bridge crosses Sweetwater River

This bridge is closed off so no crossing. This marks about a 2-mile journey in from 94, and should you want to keep heading west another 2 miles, you’ll arrive at Sweetwater Reservoir (at least that’s what some hard-pumping cyclists told me). Depending on your trail choices, you’ll likely have a 1 ½ to 2 hours hike.

To get there: (To central, steel bridge) take 94 east, staying on 94 (right turn onto Campo Road) when it intersects 54 (Jamacha Rd). About a quarter mile along see the steel bridge on right, turn on paved road, then make quick left toward bridge and parking area. (To east, Par 4 entry) 94, then straight onto 54 (Jamacha Rd), pass shopping malls, then at light turn right to Willow Glen Drive, pass golf course to Par Four Drive, turn right, drive couple blocks to dead end. Park on street, see preserve entry on left. (To Millar Road entry) Continue on 94 past the bridge to the next road, turning right onto Millar Ranch Rd. Drive up about a quarter mile and see marked entry on right. Parking here.

This is only one part of the San Diego NWR outdoors options. For more specifics visit (also check Friends of). NWR office phone 619-468-9245.

El Monte Flume Trail – New and scenic

Park sign & El Capitan Mountain

This is a fun new trail out in the Lakeside area. What makes it special is the super views you get as you hike along. Across the way is one of the main scenic peaks you see from much of San Diego and especially as you drive east on I-8. That is El Capitan, also called El Cajon Mountain. El Cap provides one of the toughest hikes to get up there, but the El Monte hike is a lot easier and yet you can experience viewing El Cap all the way up and down.

And it is a mostly uphill hike, along a good trail which happens to be near a water-transporter, called a flume. Not that you can actually see the flume, but you’re close to it. We have several flumes that mostly went in way back to get water from areas where it was down to areas where it wasn’t. The prime example is from the Mission Trails Regional Park, where early explorers built the dam on the San Diego River and sent it down toward Mission Valley. Another that gets water from Lake Hodges can be seen as you hike along the Del Dios Trail (read about it on this website).

Trail winding its way along

The hike starts from the El Monte County Park, a pleasant spot with lots of shade, restrooms, picnic tables, and again scenic views of El Cap across the road. There’s a small entry fee and plenty of parking. To make the trek up, however, just park across the road in a couple large parking lots, with no fee. See the large kiosk at the west end, and a trail marker. Or just cross the road and walk to your right/west past the fences and follow the
signs over to the Flume Trailhead sign.

I made this hike recently on a beautiful Saturday morning, with several Canyoneer guides. With them you can get better educated about flowers, birds, bugs, and plants as you stroll. On this day lots of flowers were in early bloom and one frequent shrub was known as Cowboy Cologne. That’s the California Sagebrush(see, I didn’t know

Great views in several directions

that before this hike). On the trail are plenty of flowers and rock formations, but little shade, so plan for the sun. The trail heads up for a while, then down a bit across a canyon or two, then winds up and more up until it arrives at the almost peak. We stopped then as housing was on the peak a short ways up at the Blossom Valley community. While it’s a steady uphill hike, it’s not strenuous, and you’ll likely pause a few times to savor that view of El Cap over there, plus expansive views of the valley and peaks near and far Maybe a couple hours up and back. Once back down, you can add some more enjoyment to your outdoors day by driving a few miles further east on El Monte Road down to the El Capitan Reservoir, perhaps for some scenery, fishing, kayaking, munching or loafing.

Directions: I-8 east past El Cajon to Lake Jennings Park Road, north. After 1.5 miles see El Monte Road to the right (east). Drive 4 miles to park entry on right and free lots on left.


Along the trail, some work has been done

This grasslands project has been in work for a decade or more. The Nature Conservancy has been a key player in acquiring land and the total preserve now is 3500 acres of beautiful open space. This is in the Santa Maria Valley, and the creek of same name winds down through extremely rocky terrain (I can attest per recent hike in there – Whew!) to the San Dieguito River in San Pasqual Valley (Wild Animal Park is across the way).

In July the first section, nearly 500 acres, was opened for public access, and it makes for a lovely trek. You’re likely to see some equestrians, bikes and people with dogs (OK on leash). From the parking lot, see the kiosk with info and a trail map. Walk in a short ways and take the left loop trail, 0.8 miles over to that main trail you started in on. Head left/west and after 0.2

Nice variety of scenery out here

miles you’re at the Meadow Loop Trail. I suggest take the left path, which crosses a wooden bridge (new – someone’s been doing some serious work on this trail), with green marshy areas on either side. A small pond, some oaks, a picnic table. We met a pair of bird experts who pointed out some white-tailed kites (no, not the ones on long strings, but a hawk cousin). They were perched in the oaks and soaring around.

Poking around is fun, here looking for morteros
(pic by Roger Hotalen)

Off to the left is a good view of Mt. Woodson. The trail continues around with a combination of terrain, open grassland sections, some oak groves, a rocky formation (looked like sure mortero region, but I couldn’t locate any), another picnic table. On the segment that’s open so far, the creek is not viewable, but will be as more sections are made available to public access.

The last trail segment is a bit uphill, though nothing on trail is too severe. Total loop is 2 miles and then connects back to the main trail. Go left back to the parking lot.
All in all, a pleasant getaway for about a 2 hour max hike, depending on how many kites you peruse and picnics you stop for.

Directions: From San Diego city area. I-8 to 67 toward Ramona. Pass Mt. Woodson to next left, Archie Moore Road. That becomes Highland Valley Road, and shortly after that see on left side the obvious marked entry, with large parking lot and space for horses. From Ramona town, head south on 67 to Highland Valley Rd., turn right and loop around to marked entry way.

Lake Hodges South (Rancho Bernardo)

The Lake Hodges area is one of the main sections of the River Park for public activity. Here you’ll find a variety of developed trails on both sides of the lake, with many informational kiosks, footbridges, superb bird-watching and even a small waterfall. Many of the projects have been done by local youth groups as you’ll see on the plaques.

Casual stroll along south side

On the south shore of the lake in Rancho Bernardo is the Piedras Pintadas Trail, with many educational markers about Native Americans and the natural features of the area. Hike out and back for a nearly 4-mile trip. Pick another trail and hike along the lake.

Also on the south shore and along the San Dieguito River is the Highland Valley Trail. This starts east of I-15 and is an enjoyable, mostly level hike through varied habitat – lots of trees for shade. Good hike for kids and kids have helped develop this trail. A short way in, you’ll cross over a wooden footbridge, a Boy Scouts project. Full hike is 4 miles round-trip.

How to get there: I-15 to the West Bernardo exit. Piedras Pintadas – cross over the freeway to marked entry and parking lot on the right. Highland Valley Trail – from West Bernardo exit, drive east short distance to Highland Valley Road and into marked parking lot.

Lake Hodges North (Del Dios/Escondido)
On the north shore, you have several options for pleasant hiking, from genteel to heavy duty as the trail runs all along the north shore for 8 miles from I-15 to near the dam in Del Dios. A good staging area from the west end is the Del Dios Community Park. From here hike west to the dam for a look at the community of Del Dios, the many waterfowl in the lake, and observe a few fishing boats. If you can get here after a major rainy season when the falls is overflowing, you’ll enjoy a memorable experience. Any time is a fun hike, and you can recover with lunch or a margarita at the well-known Hernando’s Hideaway.

View from north side

From the park you can also head east out to the Lake Hodges Boat Docks, with restrooms, boat rentals for fishing or canoeing, picnic tables and a store. Also you can continue east along the lake which is the trail described next. You can modify your directions by starting at the Boat Docks and heading either toward the dam or east toward I-15.

How to get there (west end): Community Park – I-15 to Via Rancho Parkway, west to Del Dios Highway, west to Lake Drive. Boat Dock – from Lake Drive take marked road to left or south.

Another staging area is located by the lake just east of I-15. From here you can cross under I-15 for a pleasant and scenic stroll, as you’re passing the lake (even better when it has water), many stands of beavertail cactus, and a variety of other greenery along the way. This is the usual trail for the River Park’s annual May run/hike fundraiser, with a thousand or so people making this morning jaunt at various paces over the boat launch area; turn around or keep going over to the Community Park (good place to leave 2nd vehicle for shuttle back) or all the way over to the dam. That would make an 8-mile one way hike, or if you’re up to it, turn around for a 16-mile round-trip journey.

That natural hill to the north is Bernardo Mountain, a recent park acquisition. A hike up here gives you a much different experience from the walk along the lake. From the staging area east of I-15, hike along the main pathway about 30 minutes. Just after crossing Felicitas Creek, you will see a trail heading off to the right (marked by wooden fencing). Head in here along the creek and you’ll be in riparian country, with oaks, sycamores and palm trees along the bubbling Felicitas Creek. This heavily-wooded area continues for another 0.25 mile, with some good spots to settle in for some repose and a snack. Then the trail leaves the creek area and heads outward and upward to Bernardo Mountain. Soon you’ll enjoy an expansive view overlooking Lake Hodges, Mt. Woodson and the communities below. Come back the same way and head home for about a 4-hour well-spent getaway. Also from the east parking lot is access to the Mule Hill Trail, a fun  amble with lots of kiosk historic tales.

How to get there: I-15 to Via Rancho east, then first right turn onto Sunset Drive to dedicated parking lot on the left or on the street.

Daley Ranch (Escondido)

Daily Ranch – View

This 3500-acre park was formally dedicated in 1997 as a City of Escondido park. With its size and location adjoining fast-developing communities, this is a highly-valued park and open space. It also received considerable fire damage from the October 2003 fire.

So what’s out there in the recreational line? How about 22 miles of developed trails? How about a convenient location right next to Dixon Lake Recreation Area, increasing the contiguous natural area for wildlife, plus adding fishing, camping and picnicking to the ranch options? Add in access by bicyclists and horse folk and you’ve got an all-around top-quality park.

Getting into Daley Ranch, however, is not for out-of-shape hikers. Both parking lots are at least a mile from the ranch house area, from where the trails mostly head out. From the main road (La Honda) parking lot, you’ll hike along the access road a mile; from the Dixon Lake trail head, it’s about 1.5 miles. So you’re biting off a 2-3 mile round-trip hike just for starters.

Park headquarters and Ranger’s quarters is the 1928 ranch house with high ceiling and huge fireplace inside, and a large front porch outside overlooking ponds and oak trees. No wonder it was a cherished retreat for generations of the Daley family, starting with Robert Daley who settled there in 1869.

To get out on the trails, pick up a map and then walk past the house where signs mark the trailheads. For a lengthy hike with some strenuous uphill parts head straight out along the Central Valley Loop Trail (which you also could have joined a few hundred feet back along the road coming in). This is a 5.5 mile hike through mostly open territory with views of rolling hills all around, plus some wooded sections, a small pond, and monkey flowers and purple mallow plentiful in the spring.

Other options make this a park for hikers of various levels and interests.
A. Take the Central Valley Loop Trail in the opposite direction and you’ll arrive at the 2.4 mile Boulder Loop Trail, out among those rolling hills (and boulders).
B. The Jack Meadow Loop Trail for the first half is the same as the Central Loop Trail, then it heads in the opposite direction across the valley and back to the ranch house (3.2 miles).
C. For a really good workout, about half-way around the Central Valley Trail join the Engleman Oak Loop Trail, for another 3.8 mile trek among the oaks.
D. If you enter the park from the lot inside the Dixon Lake area, you’ll be on the Chaparral Loop Trail, which winds past another pond to the ranch house and loops back to Dixon Lake.

How to get there: I-15 to north end of Escondido to Highway 78 east (becomes Lincoln Avenue). Dead ends at El Norte Parkway. Turn left (north), then quick turn right to La Honda Drive. Drive to end, park at dirt lot on left. Entry to Daly Ranch is well marked. Head in on paved road toward Ranch House area, or take side trails (download map from Daley website).

Here’s a pleasant alternative. Go in the back way into one of the most appealing parts of Daley Ranch — the Engleman Oak Loop Trail. At the entrance pick up a map, which shows you’re heading along the Engleman Trail. The park says this is a 3.8-mile loop, though you have options to make it a bit shorter or a lot longer.

During this medium-level trek you’ll enjoy, first of all, solitude, then a variety of terrain, some oaks, a creek crossing, a pond and a loop around (or optional hike up) Burnt Mountain, the highest point on the ranch. Good views of other peaks in several directions, including Mount Whitney (O.K., so it’s not the one up north). Lots of wildflowers in late spring, such as monkey flower, lilac and lemonade berry. Two-thirds around, in the counter-clockwise direction, you pass a picturesque dead oak tree – a definite Kodak moment. A segment of this trail is also the Central Loop Trail, so if you want a real workout you can hike over to the ranch house, and perhaps have a 2-car shuttle out to the main entrance at Lake Dixon.

How to get there: Take I-15 to El Norte Parkway east. At Broadway turn north (left). Shortly past Desmond Dene Park at 4.3 miles turn right onto Cougar Pass Road. About 1 Mile along this dirt road you’ll see the Daley Ranch entrance. Park either along the road or on the nearby lot.

Elfin Forest, or Is That Mt. Israel? (Escondido)

Over-look of new preserve

Originally discussed in San Diego Magazine Outdoors Forum 1/98
Nestled among the bustling communities of Escondido, Del Dios, San Marcos, and Carlsbad is the island of relative tranquility. Within the 750-acre open space park are a year-round stream, picnic areas, riparian forest, great views and 17 miles of trails available to hikers, bikers and equestrians. If you want to get either away from or above it all, go check out the Elfin Forest, a project of the Olivenhain Water District in cooperation with BLM (Bureau of Land Management).

Trail near the river

About the name confusion, here’s some background. “Elfin Forest” traces back to the religious retreat located there since the 1940’s. Dr. Harvey Urban was affiliated with Questhaven Fellowship and his children started calling the area the Elfin Forest after a novel and because it seemed to fit the miniature nature of much of the foliage here.

“Mt. Israel” is often used to describe this area, yet there is no Mt. Israel on the map. This name came from an early 1840’s homesteader, Robert Israel, later thelighthouse keeper at Point Loma.

Hiking and biking starts from the large paved parking lot (with facilities), with room for horse trailers as well as vehicles. Right beside is a picnic area, with trails along the creek, lots of shade, and a true babbling brook as the water courses over the rocks. Even if you don’t go any further this is a pleasant spot to explore – except when the babbling becomes racing as winter rains lead to overflown banks.

One hike immediately accessible to the left is the Botanical Trail, which makes a modest loop hike upward and back to the picnic area. To the right is the Escondido Creek Trail, which follows the creek, then crosses over and continues on to a maintenance road and unimproved trails.

The Way Up Trail

The primary access for most people, however, is the Way Up Trail (guess why it got its name). This is the boring, but essential, first phase, 1.6 miles winding upward and about 30-40 minutes.

Once at the ridge, you’ll see trails spreading out in all directions, through lots of chaparral and little shade (which is why it’s not good to hike in August). Take the 2.7-mile Equine Incline Trail to the right, from where you’ll look across to the hillsides burned black a few years ago in the major Harmony Grove Fire. Head off to the left along the Valley View and Lakeview Ridge Trails, which looks down onto Lake Hodges. You can choose a loop of 4, 6 or more miles back to the starting point at the top of Way Up Trail. Or for an easier trek, get to Tykes’ Hike Trail and the Elfin Forest Overlook and see the world all around you from the Pacific Ocean to the mountains; high point is about 1350 feet.

This is a hiker-friendly trail system, with many picnic tables, rest stops, toilet facilities (with even trash cans for recycling road apples – O.K., horse droppings – to go with these fine views). Dogs O.K., on leash. Bikes O.K. on trails as marked.

How to get there (not an easy task): (a) From I-5. To west 78 to Nordahl Road, becomes Citracado Parkway south/left. Cross Mission Road, bear right to Country Club Road. 2-3 miles to Harmony Grove Road, right, 2 miles to entrance. (b) From I-5. East on La Costa Road to Rancho Santa Fe Road, left; to Questhaven, right; to Elfin Forest Road, right; to Harmony Grove Road, right. 1.5 miles to reserve.


Trail up to very popular Iron Mountain

Iron Mountain (Poway Area)

Originally discussed in San Diego Magazine Outdoors Forum 4/96

This is that dominant peak on Highway 67 right at Poway Road, with usually many cars parked right beside the road. This is one of our most popular areas for families as well as heavy-duty hikers. It provides a delightful easy hike alive with chaparral, flowers, oaks and manzanita along the way, then the option of a moderately-challenging trail heading upward to the peak, and super scenery from there. Take the kids, bike, of even the hound (on a leash and with poop sacks please).

Iron Mountain provides an example of the power of nature to recover. It was severely burned in the summer of 1995 (and again in the October 2003 fire). The following spring saw a profusion of wildflowers among the blackened terrain, and by fall much foliage had returned. It has been one of our most visited hiking areas ever since.

The views…

Hike in as much as you’re comfortable, a half mile in to a stream crossing, 1.5 miles to where the trail heads up 2 miles more to the peak. The trail upward is open country, mildly strenuous, with views of rolling hills, San Vicente Reservoir, Black Mountain and the Pacific Ocean. You’ll enjoy the sign-in register at the peak as hikers leave flowing and witty messages (so add yours). It’s about 3 hours round trip. Skip the hot summer months, unless you go early or late.

An alternative trail heads in a mile north of the main trail from the Ellie Lane turnoff. This is a longer hike along a good trail through chaparral and boulders to where it meets the main trail. From here it’s on to the peak. Return to Ellie Lane either the same way you came up or head back on the main trail and near Highway 67, pick up the marked trail to the right heading along flat ground past a pond back over to Ellie Lane. Allow 4-5 hours up and back.

Iron Mountain is under the jurisdiction of the City of Poway. A support group is the Iron Mountain Conservancy which is working to increase public awareness and extend the open space.

How to get there: From I-8, take Highway 67 north past Lakeside. Just before the Poway Road signal light, see the parking area and signs on the right. Park on either side of the highway. The alternative parking area is at Ellie Lane, 0.75 mile further north.

For the full story about this topic and many more for the whole county, pick up a copy of Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping by Tom Leech & Jack Farnan at: bookstores,

Oakoasis (Wildcat Canyon Road)

Oakoasis County Park is a gift to the citizens of San Diego County from the Minshall family. It consists of 397 acres of woods, hills, hiking trails and views. It was severely burned in the 2003 Cedar Fire, and has revived nicely, now providing an easy-to-get-to preserve with a variety of hiking options from genteel to workout, all with fine nature’s foliage.

Trail heading into the oaks area

Off Wildcat Canyon, home of many nature preserves and an alternate way to Ramona, drive in a short way to the parking lot. See the large info kiosk and picnic table, with the major entry right there. Take the trail down to intersect a trail. Take the left option and you’ll be hiking through high shrubs and, in spring and summer especially, blooming lilac ceanothus, red monkey flowers and lots of cacti. You’ll even come upon a bench for rest and contemplation. But keep alert for poison oak.

Stay on the main trail heading for the large oaks section, and you’ll see why it gets itsname. Arrive at a small open area with a sign describing this as the location for a cabin which dates back to the mid ‘30s. In summer 2003, the cabin was restored nicely by Boy Scouts, then shortly thereafter the Cedar Fire hit and goodbye cabin.

View overlooking Lake San Vicente

Stay on the trail and you’ll come to a spot with excellent views down to San Vicente Reservoir. (See another trail to the left and heading down to reservoir; this is a work-in-progress for Trans-County Trail.) This is a good turnaround point to retrace your steps back to the parking lot. Or continue ahead for some more workouts and nature explorations.

Soon you’ll see an obvious trail, Upper Meadow, heading off to the right. This heads into a region with many boulders, oaks and wildflowers (if you like colors here’s the place with yellow, deep red, white and more). Locate a deep mortero, then more oaks, and arrive at a trail to the right which takes you back to the original trail, near where it entered the main oaks area. Head left and soon you’ll be back at the parking lot.

Other trails are easy to locate and explore. 
- From the lot on the restrooms side, walk along the road to an obvious trail. This goes down, again through lots of foliage, and joins the main trail described above. 
- Back on that main trail, just below the kiosk, is a side trail heading off to the right. That goes over to near the main road (Wildcat), Options: turn around back to main trail; cross under via a tunnel over to the El Capitan parking lot; and if you’re really tough, you can have a heck of a workout heading up that trail.

A good way to experience Oakoasis is to join one of the hikes led by a docent from SD County Parks. I did that in the spring with docent Sanford Walcott and got well-educated about the preserve’s natural wonders (check from our list of web sites at SD Outdoors Orgs ).

Oakoasis is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Horses and dogs on leash are OK, but no bikes.

How to get there: I-8 to 67 north. Pass Lakeside to Willow Road (major light) and turn right. About a mile in, turn left on Wildcat Canyon Road (follow the signs toward Barona Casino). See the sign to Oakoasis and El Cap at 3.2 miles. Turn left onto the side road and into parking area (with restroom).

And learn about many more options for exploring our special outdoors world, pick up your personal copy of Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping, by Tom Leech & Jack Farnan, at, and select book stores and park visitor centers.