– Santa Ysabel West Open Space Preserve
– Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, Stonewall and Azalea Glen
– Check Out These Falls – Kitchen Creek
– Try North Palomar Hiking Adventures

Here meet some of the key places to explore in our several mountain regions. You can also find more details about these places and many more in Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping, by Tom Leech & Jack Farnan, available at many book stores, park visitors centers, 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.

Out Dudley’s way, a fine new easy-access preserve — Santa Ysabel West

For most San Diegans, as they head up to that tourist mecca of Julian, a mandatory stop is Dudley’s Bakery (plus Julian Pie Shop, a restaurant, market, art gallery and more) in the tiny crossroads community of Santa Ysabel.

Well, a couple miles before Santa Ysabel, as you head in from Ramona on Highway 78, off to the left or north, you now can see a sign, large parking lot and kiosk for the recently-opened Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve. This is a wonderful addition to San Diego’s nature preserves, making for a pleasant hike out into that large meadow and mountain area, still barely affected by our constant development pressures.

pic-Entry sign on Highway 78, just west of town
Getting this 1500 acre region set aside as a preserve was achieved through the assistance of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a major national non-profit organization that has acquired and saved millions of acres of natural space. TNC’s process is to acquire an important natural area, then eventually turn it over to the appropriate local agency once they have the money in their budget. They’ve been an active helper in San Diego the last couple of decades, with the Santa Ysabel West and East Preserves the result of their action, both acquired in 1999. The East Preserve is a nearly 4,000 acre open space that runs from Highway 79, just north of Santa Ysabel, over to Farmer’s Road, a few miles north of Julian and next to Volcan Mountain Preserve. For info about TNC, check
pic -Not a bad place for a stroll

This is all part of the San Dieguito River Park, known as the Coast to Crest nearly 60-mile set of natural areas, parks, reservoirs under the operation of the Joint Authority made up of five cities along the way plus San Diego County.

To hike into the West Preserve, first visit the large kiosk for specific info about the area. Head out along the good dirt road, which makes for easy hiking and enjoyable views of the open meadows and expansive mountain scenery in all directions. It will give you a modest workout as the road makes a couple up and down hill sections. Large oaks can provide some shade, and flowers are abundant in spring.

pic -You like panoramic views?
About an hour stroll along, head down to the right to the Santa Ysabel River, with freely-flowing water in the spring, and not so much in other seasons. Here are ample trees and sandy areas, making this a pleasant spot to take a break for a rest and snack, watch birds, absorb nature, and poke around. The river continues west into Sutherland Reservoir, with San Dieguito River continuing west all the way to the ocean at the Del Mar Race Track.

Head back to the parking lot, with some puffing as you hit those uphill sections again. Expect the round trip to take 2-3 hours, depending on your personal speed and observation nature. And now you have your choice of many other ways to spend a bit more time up in this mountain area: replenish your goodies supply at Dudley’s and other spots, head into Julian for some apple pie, visit the Santa Ysabel Mission only a few miles north of the town on 79, continue north up to Lake Henshaw (with meadows of flowers this spring), have lunch at Warner Springs, etc. Not too bad a way to spend a day.

Specifics. The West (and East) Preserve is managed by San Diego County Parks Department. It’s open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 8 a.m. to dusk. OK for hiking, bicycling, equestrians. Dogs OK, on leash and definitely pick up.

By Tom Leech

What the locals refer to as Cuyamaca is the state park of 26,000 acres, with 6,000+ foot mountains, broad meadows, spreading oaks and pines, making it one of this county’s most valuable natural areas. It’s readily accessible, and offers outdoors opportunities for easy strolls or heavy-duty treks along its 100 miles of trails. Many San Diegans make jaunts to Cuyamaca a vital part of enjoying nature and restoring sanity to busy lives.

It was hit hard by the 2003 Cedar Fire, which wiped out lots of foliage plus the historic cabin and visitor’s center. Nature has taken its course and most of the trails are again open. Hikers and equestrians are hitting the trails and enjoying Cuyamaca’s fine scenery and views, with ample evidence displayed of the fire, such as frequent black tree trunks.

Here are some options around the Paso Picacho Campground, a gem for camping, picnicking and exploring along trails heading both east and west.

To get there, drive east on I-8, past Alpine and Viejas Casino, to the Highway 79 turnoff north (toward Descanso). Stay on 79 to the marked park entry. As you drive north, to your left is West Mesa, to your right, East Mesa. About 12 miles from I-8 you’ll arrive at the campground. You’ll have climbed a bit to 4870 feet altitude. (If you take your pooch, be aware that they’re allowed only in the campgrounds, not the trails.)

Here are two fun and popular hiking options. Suggest before heading out, get a park map and pamphlet to help you identify flowers.

West Mesa Azalea Glen 
Near the restrooms (just inside the campground entry, locate the Azalea Glen Trail. Start up along the trail many readers have rated their favorite. This is a loop trail, with the Azalea Spring at the top. You’ll find lots of shade and, in the spring, flowers, all the way. At the top is the spring, with flowing water, an informational kiosk and a good spot for a rest and snack. Continue further north along on the trail and back downward through a well-forested section and along a modest creek back to the campground.

Here’s an option if you’re up for a more heavy-duty trek. From the spring area it’s easy to find your way up to Cuyamaca Peak, the park’s highest at 6512 feet. Take the Azalea Spring Fire Road south to Lookout Fire Road and head off to the right, that is upward. This is paved and goes steadily uphill, not as much fun as the Azalea Glen, but the views along the way and from the top are worth it. Another good snack spot is atop the boulders right at the peak. Come back down the road and return via the other half of the Azalea Spring Trail.

East Mesa Stonewall Peak Trail
pic -Walkabout Hikers heading towards Stonewall Peak

Stonewall is the most obvious landmark in Cuyamaca State Park, and the trail up is well trod from the thousands of hikers young and old who’ve been making that trek for decades. The trail for Stonewall starts across the road from Paso Picacho CG. At 5730 feet, it’s not one of the major peaks in the park; yet because it’s so obvious it demands to be climbed. Though fairly steep it’s a moderate and pleasant climb, with terrific views of Lake Cuyamaca, the forests and meadows below and the adjoining peaks.

Once back down, you have plenty more options in the park and further along. Continue north on 79 to Lake Cuyamaca, where you can rent boats, fish, or have a lunch at the restaurant overlooking the lake (and maybe hear some oopmah music) or on into Julian for some apple pie.

Originally appeared in San Diego Magazine Online Outdoors Forum 5/05

pic –? Walkabout hikers at Kitchen Creek
Here are two places where you can visit waterfalls, from burbling to booming, from easy hiking to tough.

pic –Kitchen Creek from below

Kitchen Creek
About 70 miles east on I-8 is access to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and upward to a major series of cataracts known as Kitchen Creek Falls. Just get off at the Buckman Springs Road exit, turn right and then quickly left and drive east a short ways to Boulder Oaks. Park off the road near the store and campground and head north on marked trail.

You’ll be hiking up into the Laguna Mountains through chaparral and a number of Our Lord’s Candles, in full bloom about now. About two miles in the PCT levels off and you’ll see a trail off to the left. That will take you to the main falls area, at its fastest speed as it starts to make the final drop off the plateau.

Right here or for a mile or so up the creek is an enjoyable break from our mostly arid world. The water flows year round, amidst the canyon it created. This is a fun place to for strolling along and across the stream, plus clambering over boulders. Return back along the PCT. For the round-trip from Boulder Oaks allow a half day, and count on 5 miles round trip.

Cedar Creek Falls from Ramona
(Note: due to a facal accident in 2011, these trails were closed. Check first before heading up here.)

Now, if you’re ready for some hard work, here’s the piece de resistance for our county waterfalls. The name has become well-known due to the Cedar Fire, which started here in October 2003 and raged wildly for days. The easier way to get to the falls is from the top end. However many people choose to head in from the bottom, so we’ll offer you that choice here.

This hike heads down from Ramona’s San Diego Country Estates. Down is the key word as that means up on the way back. This is a pleasant trek with views of the San Diego River on its way down to El Capitan Reservoir and the mountains beyond. To cross the river, you probably can pick your way along some fallen tree trunks and rocks or take along some plastic sacks to keep your boots dry. Oh, yes, definitely wear good boots as from here on it’s a lot of rock trooping.

Now across the river, continue east along a dirt road and soon you’ll arrive at Cedar Creek. Follow a sort-of path up along the creek and over rocks and soon, voila, there it is – the very impressive Cedar Creek Falls. Water is surging over here from perhaps 80 feet up, creating a large pond. Don’t be surprised if a few young daredevils are leaping into the water from the many boulders surrounding the falls.

Now for the fun part. The return trip is not so bad until you cross back over the SD River. The person who designed the trail back up to where your car is parked must have had a sadistic streak, apparently never having heard of the term “switchbacks.” This is one long steady uphill hike and on a hot day with 85-90 degree temperature (not unusual from about mid-April on), it is an arduous climb.

Did I mention the importance of wearing a hat, and carrying plenty of water (like double what you might typically carry)? Carry on at a steady, slow pace so you won’t be needing to call for the Forest Service Rescue Squad to carry you back up (that does happen on occasion).

Once back, you will have some pics and sights and sounds that definitely fit into the memorable class. Feel free to email me your impressions. Oh, yes, don’t try this in July-September — head for Torrey Pines instead.

To get there, take 67 toward Ramona to Dye Road right, then left on Ramona St, right on Warnock Dr. to San Vicente Road right. Pass most of the golf course to left on Ramona Oaks. Take it almost to the end (that’s Mt. Gower on your left), then right on Thornbush. Park at the end of the regular street, or continue in a short ways toward the large water tank (if you park here, display Forest Service Adventure Pass). Look for the marked trailhead on the left.

Tom Leech

Lots of people know about and visit Mt. Palomar, home of the famed Observatory, Palomar State Park, and campgrounds and trails of the Cleveland National Forest. Not nearly so many know much about nor explore the north side of Mt. Palomar, the Agua Tibia Wilderness. Yet it’s rich with opportunity for enjoyable camping and hiking.

The once-sleepy town of Temecula has become a booming city, a slightly more reasonable place to buy a house, sample wines from local vineyards, and lately gamble and party at nearby Native American hotel/casinos. For our purposes, we’ll skip right past all that and head east from Temecula on Highway 76 toward Warner Springs. About twenty minutes in we’ll arrive at the Dripping Springs Campground, under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service.

This is set in a heavily forested area, with 34 spacious campsites, picnic tables and toilet facilities. Weekdays you can pick your spot. Weekends see more campers with spaces on a first-come basis, but often not full. It’s a very pleasant campground, with lots of oaks, sycamore and cottonwood to provide shade. Further east on 76 is another good Forest Service campground, Oak Grove.

For hiking, park in the lot just off the highway at the campground entrance. Note: USFS Adventure Pass required. Walk through the campground and cross Arroyo Seco Creek, generally mostly dry but recently flowing enough that wading is required (tip: take along a couple of plastic trash bags to cover your boots as you walk across).
About 100 yards past the creek is a sign noting the Dripping Springs Trail toward the right and the Wild Horse Trail to the left. Most hikers head out on the Dripping Springs Trail.

If you’ve not been there recently, you’ll see some changes. On my first hike way back, I recall a section with the largest manzanita bushes/trees I’ve ever seen. Recent fires have wiped those out. The trail wind steadily upward, initially through chaparral, then mostly open country as you look upward toward Palomar. All along are wildflowers (likely on into June), and long distance views of the San Bernardino Mountains and Vail Lake. And always above you is Palomar and that telescope.

For the less-traveled and equally rewarding hike, take that trail to the left onto Wild Horse Trail. This is a super trail experience that I encourage you to get out and try within the next couple months and definitely in the fall (might be warm in summer). Not so steep as Dripping springs, with lots of gradual up and down jaunts through mixtures of chaparral (esp. unburned manzanita) and shady sections. The trail follows the creek flowing through the canyon. Often you’re above it and then the trail heads down close to the creek (with lots of oaks and cottonwood trees), thus lots of variety.

All along are expansive views, nearby and distant – in March snow-covered Mt. San Jacinto especially on display. You can bite off as much as you want with an in-and-out hike of an hour or half-day. If you’re into that heavy-duty hiker category, keep strolling until you meet up with that Dripping Springs Trail (at Crosley Saddle) and loop on that back (mostly steadily downhill) to the campground for a 19 mile workout. For the record, Dripping Springs Trail itself is 6.8 miles with 2760 elevation gain; Wild Horse 7 miles to peak with 1060 elevation gain, or 9.7 to Crosley Saddle.

All in all, a very pleasant couple of hike options, and you’re likely to see few other hikers on the trails. After you’ve trekked that give me some feedback. To get there: I-15 to Temecula, east on Highway 79 eleven miles to the campground on the right.