Ventura River Preserve: Rice and Willis Canyons

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View from the top of the Rice Canyon Trail

View from the top of the Rice Canyon Trail

Oaks in Willis Canyon

Oaks in Willis Canyon

Ventura River Preserve: Rice and Willis Canyons

    • Location: End of Meyers Road, Ojai.  From Highway 101, take Highway 33 north for 11.2 miles.  Turn left on Highway 150/Baldwin Road.  Take a quick right on South La Luna Road.  Go 1.5 miles to El Roblar Drive and turn left.  Go 0.2 miles to Rice Road.  Turn right and go 0.5 miles to Meyer Road.  Follow Meyer Road into the park (watch out for speed bumps.)  The park is open daily at 8am until 7:30pm from April to October; until 5pm from November to March.
    • Agency: Ojai Valley Land Conservancy/Los Padres National Forest(Ojai Ranger District)
    • Distance: 4.8 miles
    • Elevation gain: 400 feet
    • Difficulty Rating: PG
    • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
    • Best season: All year (hot during the summer)
    • USGS topo map: Matilija
    • Recommended gear: insect repellent
    • Recommended guidebook: Day Hikes Around Santa Barbara
    • More information: Area trail map here; Trip description (different route) here; Everytrail report here
    • Rating: 7
0:00 - Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The 1,591-acre Ventura River Preserve is one of the newer (2003) pockets of open space in Ventura County.  There are many possible routes of all distances in the park and it’s an enjoyable place to wander without having a specific plan, but if you’re not sure where to start, try this nearly 5-mile loop that explores two canyons that feed into the Ventura River.  Novice hikers will enjoy the moderate grades, scenic variety and easy navigation and even veterans will likely be impressed.

0:08 - Start of the Rice Canyon Trail (times are approximate)

0:08 – Start of the Rice Canyon Trail (times are approximate)

From the trail head, follow the signs into the park.  Turn immediately right (the left fork leads to an alternate trail head, an option if you want a longer hike).  The trail curves down into the Ventura River, which is completely dry as of this writing.  In the spring, following heavy rains, the water may present an obstacle, but online reports have indicated that even under such conditions it’s a doable rock-hop.  Follow the trail out of the river bed and merge with a fire road, soon reaching the junction of the Willis and Rice Canyon Trails.

0:17 - Oak in Rice Canyon

0:17 – Oak in Rice Canyon

The loop can be done in either direction, but by going counter-clockwise, you can knock out the less attractive portions of the hike first and save the scenic descent through Willis Canyon for last.  Follow the trail through a fenced-in easement and stay left as the Kennedy Ridge Trail branches off.  You drop into oak-shaded Rice Canyon and begin a gradual ascent, passing by a green metal gate into the Los Padres National Forest about a mile from the start.

0:45 - View from the high point of the Rice Canyon Trail

0:45 – View from the high point of the Rice Canyon Trail

More ascent–first under oaks, then exposed–brings you to the top of a ridge (1.8 miles) where you get an excellent view to the south and west.  Below you is El Nido Meadow.  The trail drops back toward Willis Canyon, reaching a junction.  The left fork heads through El Nido Meadow while the right fork heads toward Willis Canyon.  The two trails soon meet up, but if you take the right route, make sure you stay left at the next intersection.

1:10 - Oaks near the start of the Willis Canyon Trail

1:10 – Oaks near the start of the Willis Canyon Trail

At about 2.7 miles, the trails meet in an attractive oak woodland where a bench makes for a perfect rest spot.  (The Chaparral Crest Trail branches out here too, climbing out of the canyon, but as of this writing its upper reaches are blocked by a barbed wire fence.)  Follow the Willis Canyon Trail over a footbridge and begin a very enjoyable descent through the thick cover of oaks and sycamores.

1:20 - Footbridge in Willis Canyon

1:20 – Footbridge in Willis Canyon

You cross the Willis Canyon stream bed and leave the woods, making a brief climb.  Stay left at a junction with a trail leading to the Riverview Trail Head and descend to a paved road.  On the opposite side of the road, stay straight as a dirt road branches off to the left.  Follow the road as it also bends to the left, heading north back toward the junction with the Rice Canyon Trail.  Retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

1:45 - Junction with the Riverview Trail after leaving Willis Canyon

1:45 – Junction with the Riverview Trail after leaving Willis Canyon

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

2:05 - Heading back on the River Bluff Trail

2:05 – Heading back on the River Bluff Trail

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Tapo and Chivos Canyons

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View from the ridge line at the top of the second loop

View from the ridge line at the top of the second loop

Oaks in the bottom of Tapo Canyon

Oaks in the bottom of Tapo Canyon

Tapo and Chivos Canyons

  • Location: Foothills north of Simi Valley.  From the 118 Freeway, take Tapo Canyon Road exit and head north (turn right if you’re coming from the east; left if from the west.)  The trail head will be on the right side of the road at 1.5 miles, shortly before the intersection with Lost Canyon Drive.  Free parking is available in a small dirt lot.
  • Agency: Rancho Simi Recreation and Parks Department
  • Distance: 7.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,550 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: October – May
  • USGS topo map: Simi Valley East
  • Recommended gear: sun hathiking poles
  • More information: MeetUp description (first loop only) here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Trail head on Tapo Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head on Tapo Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

For a hike that starts just beyond the edge of the suburbs, this double loop often feels pleasantly secluded.  After leaving Tapo Canyon Road behind, for most of the trip, the sights and sounds of civilization are near nil.

0:22 - Heading through the oaks after the first junction (times are approximate)

0:22 – Heading through the oaks after the first junction (times are approximate)

In the foothills north of Simi Valley, numerous hiking trails and fire roads run through several adjacent parcels of open space.  The route described here is one of many possible trips that can be taken in this area; it’s a scenic, moderately strenuous workout that can easily be shortened or expanded as desired.

0:37 - View from the saddle after the first ascent; beginning of the first loop

0:37 – View from the saddle after the first ascent; beginning of the first loop

From the Tapo Canyon Trailhead, follow the fire road northeast for a pleasant 0.9 miles, gradually climbing about 200 feet.  Several large oaks dot the rolling hills in a terrain that resembles that of nearby Palo Comado/Cheeseboro Canyons.

0:43 - Starting the descent toward Chivos Canyon

0:43 – Starting the descent toward Chivos Canyon

At 0.9 miles, head right at a junction and continue through more shade before making a short, steep climb to a saddle (1.4 miles.)  Here you get a good view to the east of the area where you are about to hike.  It’s the start of the first loop, which is best hiked in the clockwise direction; that way you have a partially shaded ascent on your return.  To do this, turn left and continue to climb for 0.2 miles to a T-junction where you can enjoy a panoramic vista before heading right and descending into the canyon on a single-track.

1:07 - Left turn to head into Chivos Canyon

1:07 – Left turn to head into Chivos Canyon

You drop 300 feet, closing the first loop at 2.4 miles from the start.  Continue your descent to a T-junction where you’ll turn left and begin your ascent into Chivos Canyon.  As you climb, you get views of the sandstone-striped hills across the valley.  The trail climbs about 300 feet over the next half mile to reach another junction, the start of the second loop.

1:25 - Junction; start of the second loop (stay straight then bear right)

1:25 – Junction; start of the second loop (stay straight then bear right)

Continue straight, bearing right at another junction and climb around the northwestern side of a hill.  At 4 miles, the trail tops out at a ridge where you get good views southeast toward the Simi Hills.  Turn right at a T-junction and follow a ridge with views of Las Llajas Canyon to the left and Chivos Canyon to the right.  Just before the trail begins its descent, you can take a short climb to the left to reach the highest point on the ridge.

1:50 - Looking southeast from the ridge at the top of the second loop

1:50 – Looking southeast from the ridge at the top of the second loop

The trail descends to an X-junction.  Bear right and continue your descent back toward the start of the loop, passing by an abandoned water tank.  At 4.9 miles, you complete the loop.  Retrace your steps back toward Tapo Canyon, this time staying left at the Y-junction (5.5 miles.)  The fire road climbs through an attractive oak grove before making an exposed push back to the saddle.  From here, simply follow the roads back down to the trail head.

2:00 - Bear right at the "X" junction

2:00 – Bear right at the “X” junction

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

2:30 - Ascending through oaks back to the saddle, completing the first loop

2:30 – Ascending through oaks back to the saddle, completing the first loop

West Mesa Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

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Through the meadow on the West Mesa Loop Trail

Through the meadow on the West Mesa Loop Trail

Stonewall Peak as seen from Airplane Ridge

Stonewall Peak as seen from Airplane Ridge

West Mesa Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

  • Location: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, inland San Diego County.  From San Diego, take I-8 east to Highway 79.  Head north for 2.7 miles, turn left and continue another 7.3 miles on Highway 79 to the West Mesa Parking Area, on the right side of the road.  From Julian, head south on Highway 79 for 13 miles.  The parking area will be on the left side of the road.
  • Agency: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
  • Distance: 6.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: September – June
  • USGS topo maps: Cuyamaca Peak
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Everytrail report here; Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Trail head on the west side of Highway 79 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head on the west side of Highway 79 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This loop explores some of the middle country on the western side of 25,000-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  In addition to some excellent mountain and valley views, the hike also showcases the recovery of the area following the fires of 2003 and 2007.  There’s also an airplane engine, but we’ll get to that later.

0:16 - Junction; start of the loop (times are approximate)

0:16 – Junction; start of the loop (times are approximate)

From the parking area, cross Highway 79 and begin a steady ascent on a fire road.  You climb 350 feet in 0.6 miles before reaching a junction: the start of the loop.  You can hike it in either direction, but by going counter-clockwise, as described here, you get the majority of the climbing out of the way sooner.

0:33 - Head left on the single-track

0:33 – Head left on the single-track

Turn right and head northwest, continuing your ascent through skeleton-like oaks and pines burned in the fires.  Stonewall Peak’s distinctive triangular shape is prominent to the right.  At 1.4 miles, you leave the fire road and take a left on a single-track trail, ascending to another junction at 2.1 miles.  A tall oak provides shade, making this a nice resting spot (by this point, you’ve done about 3/4 of all of the climbing in the entire route.)

1:00 - Junction beneath the tall oak

1:00 – Junction beneath the tall oak (stay straight)

Continuing straight on the West Mesa Trail, your efforts are rewarded with some excellent views to the south and east, including the lower country of the Cuyamacas and the neighboring Laguna range.  You also start getting a little bit of shade from some tall pines and oaks that have survived the fires thus far.

1:20 - Junction with the Burnt Pine Fire Road in the field (stay straight)

1:20 – Junction with the Burnt Pine Fire Road in the field (stay straight)

At 2.9 miles, in an open alpine field, you come to another junction.  Stay straight, heading south and then southeast, passing a junction with the Arroyo Seco Trail.  You get some excellent views of Viejas Mountain and El Capitan to the south.

The trail follows the so-called Airplane Ridge, cutting very close to the edge in places, providing more dramatic views, before meeting a junction at 4.2 miles.  Take a sharp left (despite what you might think, the signed Monument Trail doesn’t lead toward the airplane monument; you are still on the West Mesa Trail.)  Bear left on a signed trail leading toward the airplane monument: an engine of a plane that crashed on this hillside in 1922.

1:33 - Following Airplane Ridge

1:33 – Following Airplane Ridge

Past the monument, the trail continues its descent.  Another tall oak makes for a good resting spot.  The trail descends into a meadow, meeting the Japacha Fire Road (5.5 miles.)  A slight ascent over the next 0.6 miles brings you back to the start of the loop.  Retrace your steps back down to the car, enjoying some last views of Stonewall Peak along the way.

1:50 - Airplane monument

1:50 – Airplane monument

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

2:24 - Junction with the Japacha Fire Road (stay left for the last leg of the loop)

2:24 – Junction with the Japacha Fire Road (stay left for the last leg of the loop)

Agua Chinon to the Sinks and Box Springs

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View of the geology above the Sinks

View of the geology above the Sinks

Oaks above Box Springs

Oaks above Box Springs

Agua Chinon to the Sinks and Box Springs

  • Location: Northeast Irvine in the Santa Ana foothills.  The Portola Staging Area is located at the eastern end of the Irvine portion of the Portola Parkway.  From I-405 or I-5, take the Sand Canyon exit and head north east (2.5 miles from I-5, 4.5 miles from I-405) to Portola Parkway.  Turn right and follow Portola to its ending just beyond the 241 Toll Road.  Turn left and drive a short distance to the Portola Staging Area, where signs will direct you to parking.  If you are taking the 241 Toll Road, use the Portola Parkway exit in Irvine (not the Portola Parkway exit farther south in Foothill Ranch).  Head east into the park and follow the signs to the staging area.
  • Agency: Irvine Ranch Conservancy/Limestone Canyon Wilderness Park
  • Distance: 6.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 950 feet
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain)
  • Best season: Year round but hot during the summer; accessible only on scheduled days through the Irvine Ranch Conservancy (see link above for dates)
  • USGS topo map: El Toro
  • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; description of upcoming hike on 9/4/14 here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Start of the hike at the Portola Staging Area (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike at the Portola Staging Area (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

You already know how to reach the Sinks, the “Grand Canyon of Orange County” from the north, so in this post, we’ll look at the route from the south.  Unlike the north approach, which can be done on the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Wilderness Access Days, this route can only be done as a docent-led group hike.  The exact route described here is usually offered once per month; longer or shorter variations are also offered.  Because this area sees very little human traffic, the chance of a wildlife sighting is greater.

0:48 - Start of the steep ascent (times are approximate)

0:48 – Start of the steep ascent (times are approximate)

From the parking area, the route heads briefly southeast, passing through a gate and paralleling the 241 Toll Road.  At about 0.4 miles, you bear left and begin heading up into Agua Chinon (“Wavy Water”) Canyon.  The trail ascends at a gentle pace for the next mile and a half before becoming steep.  As you grind up the hill, your efforts are rewarded with an excellent view of the Sinks; you may also see Modjeska and Santiago Peaks poking above the ridges to the east.

1:08 - View of the Sinks

1:08 – View of the Sinks

The trail makes an S-curve and finally levels out at about 2.7 miles from the start, where you reach a junction by a watering trough.  Head straight for a short distance where you reach an observation platform, from which you can get an aerial perspective on the Sinks.  The 150-foot high formations were created by the erosion of soft sedimentary rock, creating layers of pink, brown, orange and purple.

1:17 - Oaks on the East Loma Trail

1:17 – Oaks on the East Loma Trail

After enjoying the panorama, return to the junction and follow the East Loma Trail northwest through an attractive grove of live oaks.  At a T-junction in a meadow, turn left and descend to another junction where you turn left a second time and re enter the woods.  Here is Box Springs, a seasonal spring pleasantly located beneath several towering oak trees.  Especially on hot days, this is a peaceful spot to sit and relax before heading back.  There’s a little elevation that has to be made up on the return trip, but most of it is downhill and views of the Orange County coastal plains from the hill provide a finishing touch to this hike.

1:30  - Oaks at Box Springs (turnaround point)

1:30 – Oaks at Box Springs (turnaround point)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Big Sky Loop (Simi Valley)

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Looking southeast from the Big Sky Trail toward the Simi Hills

Looking southeast from the Big Sky Trail toward the Simi Hills

BSL Southwest

Southwest view from the Big Sky Trail

Big Sky Loop (Simi Valley)

  • Location: Simi Valley.  From the 118 Freeway, take the Erringer Road exit and head north (turn right if you’re coming from the east; left if from the east).  Go 0.6 miles and park in a small lot on the right side of the street, just before the intersection with Falcon St.  If the lot is full, you can park in another small lot on the northwest corner of Falcon and Erringer, diagonally opposite.
  • Agency: Rancho Simi Recreation and Parks Department
  • Distance: 4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 650 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season: October – June
  • USGS topo maps: Moorpark
  • Recommended gear: sun hathiking poles
  • More information: Description here; video of a mountain biker riding the trail here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 5
0:00 - Start of the hike on Erringer Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike on Erringer Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This hike offers a good workout with several ascents and descents and if visibility is good, the views are quite panoramic.  The trail winds through some residential neighborhoods of Simi Valley and while the sights of civilization are never far away, it’s far enough from any major roads that traffic noise is not likely to be too loud.  The Big Sky Loop is a short drive from the San Fernando Valley and even L.A. and West Side residents might find it to be worth the drive, especially on cool, clear winter days.  Movie and TV buffs may be disappointed, however, to learn that this trail bears no relation to the nearby Big Sky Movie Ranch.

0:07 - Start of the loop (times are approximate)

0:07 – Start of the loop (times are approximate)

The trail may sound a little convoluted, but navigation is easy; the various segments are well signed and the correct route should be obvious.  From the parking lot, walk north on Erringer Road for a few yards and turn right on the signed Big Sky Trail, which curls around the backs of some houses.  After a quarter mile, you reach a split; the start of the loop.  By hiking clockwise, as described here, you can save the more scenic portion of the trip for the return.

0:21 - Crossing Legends Drive

0:21 – Crossing Legends Drive

You ascend gradually for about half a mile before dipping into a pocket of oaks (don’t get used to it; there’s minimal shade on the trail.)  You then cross Legacy Drive and continue threading your way between the residential streets.  At one mile, you cross Legends Drive and at 1.3 miles, you reach Young Wolf Drive.  Pick up the trail, now fenced in like a bridle path, on the opposite side.  A short but steep ascent brings you to a junction where you head left (the right fork is an option if you want to shorten the loop) and follow the trail around the curve of the ridge.  By now you get some good views of Whiteface, a tall, cliff-like hill to the north.

0:32 - Stay left at the junction (Whiteface in the distance)

0:32 – Stay left at the junction (Whiteface in the distance)

Another ascent brings you to a junction (1.8 miles.)  Make a hairpin right turn and head south, following a bumpy ridge to the high point of the loop (2.1 miles.)  Your view can extend as far as Oat Mountain to the east, the Santa Monica Mountains to the south and Mt. Clef to the west if the air quality is good.  You also get a panoramic view of Simi Valley–and intrepid hikers can peer over the edge of the trail, which drops off nearly vertically.

0:48 - Looking off the cliff from the top of the ridge

0:48 – Looking off the cliff from the top of the ridge

Descending from this ridge, you reach a junction where the shortcut trail mentioned above rejoins the loop.  Take a hard left and follow the trail to the end of Swift Fox Court, where (as of this writing) new residences are being built.

The trail picks up again on the opposite side of Swift Fox and makes one final ascent (3.1 miles) where you can enjoy another panoramic view before completing the last leg of the hike.  Follow the ridge downhill, closing the loop, and retrace your steps to the parking lot on Erringer.

1:05 - Left turn; descent toward Swift Fox Court (note the continuation of the trail in the distance)

1:05 – Left turn; descent toward Swift Fox Court (note the continuation of the trail in the distance)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:28 - Heading down hill to complete the loop

1:28 – Heading down hill to complete the loop

Stair Steps Trail (Laguna Beach)

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Descending the Stair Steps Trail

Descending the Stair Steps Trail

Geology on the canyon wall as seen from the Stair Steps Trail

Geology on the canyon wall as seen from the Stair Steps Trail

Stair Steps Trail (Laguna Beach)

  • Location: Laguna Beach. As of this writing, parking is available in a vacant lot on the south side of the Canyon Animal Hospital, 20732 Laguna Canyon Road.  The hospital is 5.2 miles south of the 405 Freeway on the left side of the road (just past the main entrance to Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.)  It is 3 miles north of Pacific Coast Highway.  Note: The city plans on developing an artist residence on the site of the lot, which may influence whether parking is available.  For more information about the project, click here.  The Stair Steps Trail can also be done in reverse (down then up) starting from the West Ridge Trail of Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.  This requires a longer hike starting from the northern entrances to the park (Hollyleaf or Canyon View Park) or from the south, via Alta Laguna Park.
  • Agency: Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park; City of Laguna Beach
  • Distance: 1.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 600 feet
  • Suggested time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: PG
  • Best season: All year (Hot during the summer)
  • USGS topo map: Laguna Beach
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat
  • More information: Writeup on a mountain biking site here; video of mountain biking down the trail here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 6
0:00 - Start of the hike, Laguna Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike, Laguna Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Popular with mountain bikers – at least in the downhill direction – the Stair Steps Trail climbs the east side of Laguna Canyon, linking Highway 133 to the West Ridge Trail in Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.

0:03 - Right turn on Phillips St (times are approximate)

0:03 – Right turn on Phillips St (times are approximate)

Assuming you park in the lot next to Canyon Animal Hospital, follow Laguna Canyon Road north for a short distance (there’s no sidewalk but a reasonably wide shoulder).  After less than 0.1 miles, turn right on an unsigned street, marked as a private way.  Google Maps lists it as Phillips St.  The paved road ascends steeply, passing by some private homes before reaching a gate by a water tank, about 0.4 miles from the start.

0:12 - Sandstone cave on the Stair Steps Trail

0:12 – Sandstone cave on the Stair Steps Trail

This is the “official” beginning of the Stair Steps Trail, which branches to the left.  The steep ascent continues.  You pass a large boulder with a cave cut inside; this can be a good place to stop and rest, enjoying panoramic views of the canyon below.  After this landmark, the grade lessens slightly.  At about 0.6 miles from the start, you reach a junction.  The Stair Steps Trail continues steeply uphill; an alternate trail branches off to the right, ascending at a more moderate grade.  Though still fairly steep, this trail can be a more enjoyable route to the top.  While this trail isn’t listed on park literature, it is smooth and easy to follow and has clearly been in regular use by mountain bikers and hikers.  Follow it for about a quarter mile to the West Ridge Trail.

0:17 - "Split" (Main trail heads steeply uphill to the left; alternative trail heads right)

0:17 – “Split” (Main trail heads steeply uphill to the left; alternative trail heads right)

Here you can enjoy an excellent view of both Laguna Canyon and Wood Canyon; you can also see most of inland Orange County up to the Saddleback.  Given time and energy, you can extend your trip on the West Ridge Trail in either direction, providing access to Aliso & Wood Canyon Wilderness Park’s interior.  However, if you want to call it a day, return either via the more moderately graded route you climbed or by the signed Stair Steps Trail.  Keep in mind that while it’s only about 0.1 miles back to the junction from on the Stair Steps Trail, the grade is very steep and rocky; exercise caution, especially since your legs may be tired from the rigorous climb before.

0:24 - Old Saddleback as seen from the West Ridge Trail, top of the Stair Steps Trail

0:24 – Old Saddleback as seen from the West Ridge Trail, top of the Stair Steps Trail

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

William Heise County Park (Julian)

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Vista from Glen's View, William Heise County Park

Vista from Glen’s View, William Heise County Park

Dusk on the Nature Trail, William Heise County Park

Dusk on the Nature Trail, William Heise County Park

William Heise County Park

  • Location: Eastern San Diego County, near Julian.  On Highway 78, about 35 miles east of Escondido and a mile west of Julian, at the town of Wynola, head south on Pine Hills Road, signed for the park. After a mile, turn left on Deer Park Road, go 2.1 miles to Frisius Drive and turn left.  Follow Frisius Drive to the park.  Day use parking is $3.  From the main entrance, follow the road about half a mile to the Canyon Oak day use area, shortly before Group Camp 2 and Camping Area 3.
  • Agency: William Heise County Park (San Diego County Parks and Recreation)
  • Distance: 3.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 700 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season: Year-round but hot during the summer and possible snow during the winter; plan accordingly
  • USGS topo map: Julian
  • Recommended gear: hiking polessun hat
  • Recommended guidebook: Easy Hiking in Southern California
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here (Canyon Oak trail only); Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Canyon Oak Trail Head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Canyon Oak Trail Head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Located on the outskirts of Julian at nearly a mile above sea level, William Heise County Park offers dramatic mountain and desert views as well as secluded woodlands.  Despite damage from the 2003 Cedar Fire, the park is still home to an impressive collection of trees including black oaks, pines and incense cedars.  William Heise is perhaps best known as a camping destination, featuring both camp sites and log cabins, but it also features 10 miles of hiking trails.  The 3.5-mile loop described here uses the Canyon Oak, Desert View and Nature Trails, sampling the best of the park’s scenery.

0:03 - Interpretive plaque in the woods (times are approximate)

0:03 – Interpretive plaque in the woods (times are approximate)

From the day use area, the Canyon Oak Trail ascends a natural staircase through a grove of oaks  and pines where an interpretive plaque describes the history and effects of the area’s wildfires.  From here you enter an open area where you briefly descend, taking in views of North Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to the south.  After passing by Group Camp 1 (half a mile from the start), stay left as another trail merges in from the right.  The trail then climbs through a fire-ravaged landscape on a westward facing slope, reaching a vista point with a bench where you can catch your breath while enjoying a panoramic view.

0:15 - Junction on the Canyon Oak Trail

0:15 – Junction on the Canyon Oak Trail

At about 1.3 miles from the start, you reach a junction with the Desert View Trail.  Turn left and begin a steep climb up a manzanita-covered hill side.  The good news is that the views are even better than from below.  You follow a ridge, briefly descend and then climb again to a junction where a spur leads to Glen’s View (elevation 4,940).  Here you get the best view of the hike, including the desert to the east, the Palomar Mountains to the north, the Cuyamacas to the south and if the air is clear, the ocean to the west.  A view-finder points out some of the spots of note, including Toro Peak and Rabbit Peak in the Santa Rosa Mountains, the Salton Sea and more.

0:30 - Start of the Desert View Trail

0:30 – Start of the Desert View Trail

After taking in the vista, head back to the Desert View Trail which begins a steep descent, sometimes over rather rough terrain.  At a T-junction (about 2.7 miles from the start) you can extend the hike by heading left on the Nature Trail, which drops into an attractive woodland.  A few interpretive plaques describe the plant life, which includes incense cedars and sagebrush.  The Nature Trail ends at a paved road near Group Camp 2.  Follow the road a short distance back to the day use area.

0:55 - Looking east toward Granite Mountain and the Anza-Borrego Desert from Glen's View

0:55 – Looking east toward Granite Mountain and the Anza-Borrego Desert from Glen’s View

In case you were wondering, William Heise was a local businessman who donated the land for this park back in the 1960s.

1:20 - Junction with the Nature Trail (turn left)

1:20 – Junction with the Nature Trail (turn left)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:38 - Paved road at the end of the nature trail leading back to the day use area

1:38 – Paved road at the end of the nature trail leading back to the day use area