Wilderness Gardens Preserve

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Wilderness Gardens Preserve, Pala, CA

View of Wilderness Gardens Preserve from the Upper Meadow Trail

Oaks and sycamores in Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County, CA

Oaks and sycamores on the Upper Meadow Trail

Wilderness Gardens Preserve

  • Location: Highway 76 between Pala and Pauma Valley, 27 miles east of I-5 and 9.7 miles east of I-15. Turn right onto Bodie Blvd, signed for the park.  From the Riverside/Temecula area, take I-15 south to Temecula Parkway. Turn left and go 0.9 miles to Pechanga Parkway. Follow it for a total of 9 miles (it becomes Pala Road and Pala-Temecula Road en route) to its ending at Pala Mission Road. Turn left and follow Pala Mission Road 0.5 miles to Highway 76. Bear left onto Highway 76 and follow it 3 miles to the park entrance. Parking is $3 per vehicle (cash only).
  • Agency: San Diego County Parks & Recreation
  • Distance: 2.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 200 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: G
  • Suggested time: 1.5 hours
  • Best season: October-June; preserve is open Fridays through Mondays, 8am – 4pm. Closed during the month of August.
  • USGS topo map: Pala
  • More information: here; Yelp page here; articles about the park here and here
  • Rating: 6
Wilderness Gardens Preserve trail head, San Diego County, CA

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

This attractive 676-acre park occupies the site of a former retreat of Los Angeles newspaper magnate Manchester Boddy. The park’s vegetation is a mix of non-natives such as eucalyptus, holly, oleander and native oak, sycamore and even a few cacti.

Fire road in Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County, CA

0:02 – Junction with the Upper Meadow Trail (times are approximate)

There are several miles of trails, making for multiple possible routes. One can enjoy a stroll here without having a particular destination or itinerary but a complete circuit of the park, as described here, doesn’t take much time or effort.

From the parking area, follow the main dirt road heading west, almost immediately crossing the San Luis Rey River (virtually dry as of this writing, but during rainy winters, expect calf-high water) and arriving at a junction with the Upper Meadow Trail. The loop can be hiked in either direction but by going counter-clockwise, as described here, you’ll save the most interesting scenery for last.

Indian motreros, Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County, CA

0:07 – Motreros

Follow the fire road, keeping an eye out for some Indian morteros in a rock on the left. You pass by a few nice oak specimens before arriving at a junction. The two routes soon rejoin so take either. Once they meet up again, turn right and walk a short distance to the Pond Trail. Turn right and follow it 0.2 miles around the circumference of a small seasonal pond and continue to a junction with the Camelia View Trail. This 0.7 mile loop (part single-track, part fire road) can be hiked in either direction, taking you to the western boundary of the preserve.

Pond at Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County, CA

0:20 – The pond

After completing the loop, head back, following the trail past the pond to the beginning of the Upper Meadow Trail. You begin ascending (the only significant climbing on the entire route) through an attractive oak and sycamore woodland, arriving at Upper Meadow, where you get a good view of the Palomar Mountains. Shortly beyond is a bench located at a spot with panoramic views to the west of the entire preserve and beyond.

Upper Meadow Trail, Wilderness Gardens Preserve, San Diego County

0:50 – Start of the Upper Meadow Trail

After enjoying the vistas, make a steep descent on a wooden beam staircase, soon arriving back on the river bed floor. Bear right and follow the trail back to the first junction and to the trail head. If you have time consider exploring the half-mile Alice Fries Nature Trail, which starts and ends in the parking lot.

Text and photography copyright 2015 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.

0:58 - View of the Palomars from the Upper Meadow Trail

0:58 – View of the Palomars from the Upper Meadow Trail

 

Vulture Crags

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View of Santiago Peak from the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

View of Santiago Peak from the Santiago Truck Trail

View of southeastern Orange County from the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, CA

Southeast view from the Santiago Truck Trail

Vulture Crags

      • Location: Modjeska Grade Road, Orange County. Modjeska Grade Road is located off of Santiago Canyon Road, 8.8 miles north of I-5 (via El Toro Road) and 15 miles southeast of the 55 Freeway (via Chapman Ave.) Turn left if you’re coming from the north; right if from the south. Modjeska Grade is a steep, narrow winding road so exercise caution (the author has witnessed a car crash on this road due to excessive speed.) Parking is not available in the immediate vicinity of the trail head. Signs are posted along both sides indicating where parking is legal; the closest to the trail head is about 0.1 miles north of it (0.6 miles from Santiago Canyon Road). If parking is unavailable there, park below the trail head, possibly on Santiago Canyon Road itself in a small dirt turnout.
      • Agency: Orange County Parks & Recreation; Cleveland National Forest (Trabuco Ranger District)
      • Distance: 7 miles (round trip distance assuming closest possible starting point)
      • Elevation gain: 1,100 feet (assuming closest possible starting point)
      • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain)
      • Suggested time: 2 hours
      • Best season: November – April
      • USGS topo maps: “Santiago Peak”
      • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat;
      • Recommended guidebook: Day Hikes Around Orange County
      • More information: Trip descriptions here, here and here; Everytrail report here
      • Rating: 7
0:00 - View from the start of legal parking on Modjeska Grade Road, north of the trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – View from the start of legal parking on Modjeska Grade Road, north of the trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The Santiago Truck Trail climbs from Santiago Canyon all the way to Main Divide Road. The moderately graded 10-plus mile route is popular with mountain bikers for day hikers, Vulture Crags makes a good destination for a moderate trip. Highlights include up-close views of Modjeska and Santiago Peaks, panoramic vistas of the Orange County coastal plains and foothills and Vulture Crags, once a roosting spot for condors. Keep in mind that the trail is entirely exposed, although if you get off to an early or late start, the ridges may block out some of the sun.

Marine fossils on the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

0:16 – Fossils in a rock (times are approximate)

After carefully walking along the narrow shoulder of Modjeska Grade Road from your starting point, begin hiking on the Santiago Truck Trail, which leaves from the east side of the street. The trail ascends, following the ridge, with views of Santiago Canyon on the left and Live Oak Canyon on the right. Half a mile from the road, keep an eye out for a large rock with several marine fossils embedded into it.

Greenery on the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

0:30 – Greenery on the Santiago Truck Trail

After a mile, the trail follows the north side of a ridge and the terrain becomes greener. After a vigorous ascent, the trail levels out briefly before climbing to a vista point (2.5 miles from the start). Here you can rest and enjoy a 180-degree view to the south and east.

Panoramic view of the Santa Ana foothills from the Santiago Truck Trail, Orange County, CA

1:10 – Southwest view from the vista point about 2.5 miles from the start

Following the vista point, the trail climbs to the highest point on this hike, about 2,300 feet. If it is spring, you may notice the pleasant scent of wild flowers. You soon see the backside of Vulture Crags; keep an eye out too for a large sandstone outcrop on the left side of the trail, resembling the geology of the Santa Monica Mountains. The trail descends to a saddle where a short spur leads to a mini-summit, marked by U.S. and Marine Corps flags. Here you can sit and get a great view of Vulture Crags. Below the formation are layers of multicolored marine sediment. You also get a nice aerial view of Live Oak Canyon Road, about a mile away. The Morrow Trail (aka the Luge) leads down to the road and is popular with mountain bikers but not very practical for hikers, with no parking access at the lower end.

Geology on the Santiago Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

1:30 – Geology near Vulture Crags

If you still have time and energy, you can head up farther on the Santiago Truck Trail or explore the Morrow Trail, keeping in mind that the latter will require you to ascend after descending. Otherwise retrace your steps back to Modjeska Grade.

Text and photography copyright 2015 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.

Vulture Crags, Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

1:40 – Vulture Crags as seen from the turnaround point

Strawberry Peak

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Looking east from the summit of Strawberry Peak, San Gabriel Mountains, Angeles National Forest, CA

Looking east toward Mt. Baldy from Strawberry Peak

Looking southwest at the Angeles National Forest and L.A. Basin from Strawberry Peak, highest point in the front country of the Angeles National Forest

Southwest view from below Strawberry Peak

Strawberry Peak

    • Location: Red Box Picnic Area, Angeles National Forest.  From I-210 in La Canada, take the Angeles Crest Highway northeast for 14 miles and park at the Red Box Picnic Area, at the junction with the road to Mt. Wilson.  From the high desert, take the Angeles Forest Highway south to Big Tujunga Canyon Road.  Turn left and go 9 miles to the Angeles Crest Highway.  Turn right and go 4.3 miles to Red Box, which will be on the left.  A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 per day or $30 for the year) is required for parking here. Click here to purchase.
    • Agency: Angeles National Forest/Los Angeles River Ranger District
    • Distance: 7 miles
    • Elevation gain: 1,800 feet
    • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
    • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (steepness, elevation gain, distance, terrain)
    • Best season: October – June
    • USGS topo maps: Chilao Flat
    • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sunblock; sun hat
    • Recommended guidebook: Afoot & Afield Los Angeles County
    • More information: Trip descriptions (pre-Station Fire) here and here; trip reports both pre-and post-Station Fire here; Hundred Peaks page here; Everytrail report here; video shot from the summit here
    • Rating: 9
Strawberry Peak Trail Head on the Angeles Crest Highway, San Gabriel Mountains, CA

0:00 – Looking east on the Angeles Crest Highway from Red Box (note trail on the left side of the road). Click thumbnails to see the full sized versions.

Strawberry Peak (elevation 6,164 feet) is the tallest summit in the front country of the San Gabriel Mountains, beating San Gabriel Peak by a mere yard. The peak has only recently been opened for legal access following the Station Fire. Thanks to the efforts of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club, the trail has been restored. Though poodle dog bush–the plant that causes irritation similar to that of poison oak–can be found in abundance on the trail, it’s not as bad as in some other parts of the Station Fire burn area.

Oak woodland on the Strawberry Peak Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA

0:15 – Into the woods (times are approximate)

The mountain’s name comes from its resemblance to an upside-down strawberry. On most clear days, Strawberry Peak is visible from the L.A. basin, appearing as a round bump behind San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Wilson. The mountain’s prominence provides hikers with excellent views, but it also requires a very steep climb.

Fortunately the hike starts easily. From Red Box, carefully cross the Angeles Crest Highway and pick up the trail on the opposite side. It ascends gradually, running parallel to the highway for about 0.6 miles. It then veers to the north, entering a pleasant oak woodland. Unfortunately, this short stretch represents more or less all of the shade on the whole hike.

View of Mt. Wilson from the Strawberry Peak Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA

0:20 – Hard left on a switchback, heading toward Mt. Wilson

At 0.8 miles, you make a hairpin left turn and head west, back toward Mt. Wilson. You reach a saddle (1.1 miles) where you get an excellent view to the west, including Mt. Lukens, Josephine Peak, the Santa Monica Mountains and more. The trail follows the western slope of Mt. Lawlor for an enjoyable 1.3 miles. If you’ve gotten an early start, the sun will be blocked by the mountain, making your hike pleasantly cool. At about 2 miles, you round a corner and Strawberry Peak’s intimidating contour comes into view. Shortly after, you reach Lawlor Saddle (2.4 miles.)

Western view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the Strawberry Peak Trail, Angeles National Forest, CA

0:28 – Looking west from the saddle

By now, you’ve done about 2/3 of the distance, but only 1/3 of the elevation gain. Make sure you rest up. Follow the steep trail up the ridge, quickly gaining 150 feet as you reach the top of a knoll. You then have to relinquish about half of that as the trail drops sharply to a saddle. From there, the trail ascends relentlessly, with only a few flat stretches. The good news is that each time you stop to catch your breath, you’ll be treated to excellent views, which now include Mt. Baldy to the east.

View from Lawlor Saddle below Strawberry Peak, Angeles National Forest, CA

1:00 – The steep trail ascending to Strawberry Peak as seen from Lawlor Saddle

Picking your way farther up the trail, you pass by a few Coulter pines that survived the fire. You reach a false summit and follow a ridge line a short distance before finally arriving on the real peak.

Before the Station Fire, pines blocked the view. While you may miss their shade on hot days, their absence means that you can enjoy a true 360-degree panorama. On days of exceptional visibility, you can see Santa Cruz Island and the Topa Topa range near Ojai to the west, San Jacinto to the east and the Palomar Mountains to the southeast. Make sure you rest your legs for the steep descent back to Lawlor Saddle.

Steep trail to Strawberry Peak, Angeles National Forest, CA

1:19 – One of several steep ascents on the trail to Strawberry Peak

On a personal note, my first encounter with Strawberry Peak, pre-Station Fire, was the first true butt-kicking I ever experienced on a trail. While I would go on to many more difficult peaks, Strawberry was the toughest one I’d done at the time, far more difficult than I expected. I had long been looking forward to being able to go back and while I was grateful for the opportunity, I can honestly report that it was as hard as I’d remembered. Thus I give it the “evil” distinction of being hike #666 posted on this site. Nevertheless, despite the challenges it presents, it’s an essential San Gabriel summit with views that are worth the effort.

View of Big Tujunga Canyon from the summit of Strawberry Peak, Angeles National Forest, CA

1:45 – Looking down into Big Tujunga Canyon from Strawberry Peak’s summit

Text and photography copyright 2015 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.

Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve

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View of Rodriguez Mountain in the Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

View of Rodriguez Mountain on the descent to Hell Creek

Sunset, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

Sunset in Hellhole Canyon

Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve

  • Location: Inland San Diego County near Valley Center. From San Diego, take I-15 north to E Via Rancho Parkway. Turn right and follow Via Rancho Parkway, which soon becomes Bear Valley Parkway. After 6 miles, turn right on East Valley Parkway and go 1.3 miles. Turn right on Lake Wohlford Road and go 5.9 miles. Turn right on Paradise Mountain Road and go 3.3 miles. Turn right on Los Hermanos Ranch Road and make an immediate left on Kiavo Drive (signed for the preserve). Go 0.5 miles to the end of Kiavo Drive and turn left into the parking lot. From the north, take I-15 to Gopher Canyon Road. Turn left, cross the freeway and turn right on Champagne Blvd. Go 0.2 miles and turn left on Old Castle Road. Go 5.5 miles and continue onto Lilac Road for another 3.3 miles. Turn right on Valley Center Road, go 1.2 miles and turn left on Woods Valley Road. At 3.9 miles, Woods Valley Road crosses Lake Wohlford Road and becomes Paradise Mountain Road. Follow it for another 3.3 miles to the intersection with Los Hermanos Ranch Road. Turn right and make an immediate left on Kiavo Drive. Follow it half a mile to its end and turn left into the preserve. Parking is free but donations are encouraged.
  • Agency: San Diego County Parks & Recreation
  • Distance: 4.9 miles
  • Elevation gain: 750 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season: November – May; preserve is open Fridays through Mondays, 8am – sunset. Closed during the month of August.
  • USGS topo map: Rodriguez Mountain
  • Recommended guidebook: California Hiking
  • Recommended gear: sun screen; sun hat; hiking poles
  • More information: here; Yelp page here; trip description here; Friends of Hellhole Canyon page here
  • Rating: 7
Trail head, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

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

How does an attractive wilderness preserve in northern San Diego County get a name like “Hellhole?” One explanation is that in the 1800s, ranchers had a “hell” of a time getting their wagons across the creek, a tributary of the San Luis Rey River. Indeed, history abounds here in the remains of the Escondido Canal which diverted water from the San Luis Rey River to Escondido Creek.

Oaks on the banks of Hell Creek, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

0:19 – On the banks of Hell Creek (times are approximate)

There are over 13 miles of trails throughout the preserve, making several possible routes of varying difficulty levels. The balloon-shaped hike described here offers a good workout that takes in a nice sample of the area’s scenery. Keep in mind that like most hikes in the preserve, it’s a reverse hike that requires a 300-foot ascent out of the canyon on exposed terrain, notoriously hot during the summer.

From the parking area, descend the main trail, enjoying an excellent view of Rodriguez Mountain and an aerial perspective on Hell Creek. On the way down, interpretive plaques describe the plant life including black sage, inland scrub oak and laurel sumac. At about 0.7 miles, you reach the stream bed (dry as of this writing, but sometimes high waters can make it treacherous). You climb along the north side of the creek under the shade of some oaks before entering the open again.

Trail junction, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

0:32 – Junction with the Horsethief Trail

At 1.3 miles, you reach a junction with the Horsethief Trail. The loop can be hiked in either direction, but by going clockwise, you can hold off on the major climbing. Follow the trail over a footbridge and continue around the side of Rodriguez Mountain. An interpretive plaque points out the canal, visible on the opposite side of the creek.

Canyon View Trail, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

0:50 – Start of the Canyon View Trail

At 1.9 miles, stay straight as the Horsethief Trail rejoins. Soon after you reach another junction where you’ll stay straight, now on the Canyon View Trail. You begin a steady ascent, ignoring a side trail branching off to the left just before you briefly drop down to a shallow and usually dry stream bed. At 2.6 miles, you reach the high point of the loop, a junction with the trail leading higher still to Rodriguez Mountain. Here, you an enjoy a panoramic view of the valley before continuing.

Trail crossing over a stream bed, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

1:00 – Crossing a stream bed on the slopes of Rodriguez Mountain

From here, the trail descends and makes one more ascent to a junction with the Paradise Mountain Trail (3.2 miles from the start). Take a hard right and continue downhill, soon meeting up with the Horsethief Trail. Bear left and follow it a short distance to the main Hell Creek Trail. Turn left and retrace your steps back to the parking area.

Text and photography copyright 2015 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.

Panoramic view from the slope of Rodriguez Mountain, Hellhole Canyon Open Space Preserve, Valley Center, CA

1:10 – Panoramic view from the junction with the Rodriguez Mountain Trail (high point of the loop)

 

Oakzanita Peak (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

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Summit of Oakzanita Peak, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA

Looking northeast from Oakzanita Peak

Foliage on the Lower Descanso Creek Trail, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA

Fall foliage on the Lower Descanso Creek Trail

Oakzanita Peak (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 3.2 miles on Highway 79 to a small turnout on the right side of the road.  From Julian, head south on Highway 79 for 17 miles.
  • Agency: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Best season: October – June
  • USGS topo maps: Cuyamaca Peak
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock
  • More information: Trip descriptions here, here and here; Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8
Oakzanita Peak, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA

0:00 – Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Oakzanita Peak as seen from the Lower Descanso Trail Head

Oakzanita Peak (elevation 5,054) is the southernmost major summit in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Panoramic views from the top and a good variety of scenery on the way up make it a superior hiking destination. The route is known both for fall foliage and spring wildflowers. While the views are best on clear, cool days, the summit can be quite windy so plan accordingly.

Oakzanita Peak, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA

0:20 – Oakzanita Peak as seen from the East Mesa Fire Road

From the trail head, follow the Lower Descanso Creek Trail which follows–you guessed it–Lower Descanso Creek. Even when the creek is dry, the stroll through the oaks is enjoyable. After an easy 0.7 miles, during which you gain only about 200 feet, you reach the East Mesa Fire Road. Turn right and follow the road for a short distance, during which you get a nice view of Oakzanita Peak, towering above the meadow.

Take the Descanso Creek Trail, which dips down to the stream bed and then begins a steady climb along the north east slope of the mountain. As you climb, you get views of Cuyamaca Peak and later Stonewall Peak’s characteristic triangular shape comes into view.

View of Cuyamaca Peak, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA

0:52 – Cuyamaca Peak as seen from the Descanso Creek Trail

At 2.1 miles from the start, a large granite outcrop provides a perfect rest spot with excellent views to the north and east. Farther up, you reach a junction (2.4 miles) where you get a good view to the south. Head right on the spur signed for Oakzanita Peak, making the switchbacks and climbing over a few rocks to reach the summit.

Trail to Oakzanita Peak, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, San Diego County, CA

1:00 – Approaching Oakzanita Peak from the top of the ridge

The views aren’t quite as dramatic as those of Stonewall Peak, but Oakzanita’s location does have the advantage of providing a true 360-degree perspective, due to its distance from Cuyamaca Peak. You can see the East and West Mesa, the Laguna Mountains and El Capitan. If visibility is particularly good you can see the ocean, the Coronado Islands, the Santa Ana Mountains and the Santa Rosa Mountains.

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.

Oakzanita Peak southwest view

1:20 – Looking southwest from Oakzanita Peak

Rock Mountain (Fallbrook)

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View from Rock Mountain, north San Diego County

Morning sun near the top of Rock Mountain

Looking north from Rock Mountain

Looking north from Rock Mountain

Rock Mountain (Fallbrook)

    • Location: North San Diego County, between Fallbrook and Temecula. From the Inland Empire, take I-15 to Rancho California Road in Temecula. Turn right and go 2.5 miles to Avenida del Oro. Turn left and go 0.3 miles to Sandia Creek Road. Turn left and go 7.3 miles and look for a small dirt parking lot and the trail head on the right (De Luz Heights Road = too far.) From the south, take I-15 to Old Highway 395. Turn left and go 0.2 miles to East Mission Road. Go 4.9 miles and turn right on Pico, which becomes De Luz and then Sandia Creek. In 4.2 miles, just after De Luz Heights Road, look for the trail head on the right. From Highway 76, 12.6 miles east of Oceanside, head north on South Mission Road. In 6.7 miles, turn right on West Mission Road and then almost immediately turn left on Pico. Follow it 4.2 miles to the trail head as described above.
    • Agency:  Fallbrook Land Conservancy
    • Distance: 1.2 miles
    • Elevation gain: 550 feet
    • Difficulty Rating: PG
    • Suggested time: 1 hour
    • Best season: October – May
    • Recomended gear: sun hat
    • USGS topo map: Temecula
    • More information:  All Trails page here; Flickr photo gallery here
    • Rating: 5
0:00 - Rock Mountain Trail Head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

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

This short but steep hike yields some panoramic views of north San Diego County and southern Riverside County. The hike sadly loses points due to graffiti (particularly on the summit) and trash, but the scramble up the rocks to the summit is still worth doing if you’re in the area. Expect to use your hands as much as your feet and allow extra time for the descent.

Following the trail up Rock Mountain, San Diego County

0:09 – Hard left at the junction (times are approximate)

From the parking lot, follow the signed trail up a wooden staircase. The first half of the hike is fairly easy going as the trail winds around the base of Rock Mountain. There are no shade trees but the slope faces west, so if you get off to an early start the sun will be blocked out.

At about a quarter mile, stay straight as a trail branches off to the right. Soon after, take a hairpin left turn and head west, soon arriving at a clearing (about 0.4 miles from the start) where an abandoned car sits.

Steep stretch of trail on Rock Mountain

0:12 – Steep climb after the abandoned car

From here, the hike becomes challenging. Head straight, climbing up a loose, rutted slope and continue your steep ascent for another tenth of a mile. The trail, sometimes faint but usually pretty obvious, appears to dip downhill and fade out at this point. Look for a use trail on the right, heading straight up through the sage scrub, soon arriving at a saddle where you get some striking aerial views of the landscape below. You also see the summit of Rock Mountain on your left.

Climbing through the brush on the way to Rock Mountain's summit

0:16 – Follow the “use trail” through the brush, about half a mile from the start

Head left and follow a thin ridge toward the peak and then pick your way up over the boulders to the summit. Your exact route may vary but you will generally stay on the south side of the peak, keeping it on your left.

View of Rock Mountain, San Diego County

0:20 – Rock Mountain’s summit, as seen from the saddle

On the top, you can sit on any of the jumble of boulders and enjoy an excellent view which on clear days may include the Palomar Mountains and the ocean. You also get a bird’s eye look at Sandia Creek Road, winding its way through the hills below. When you’re done enjoying the view head back down, respecting the steep and loose terrain on the descent.

View from just below the summit of Rock Mountain

0:22 – Looking south from the ridge below the summit

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.

Aerial view of the Fallbrook, CA area from Rock Mountain

0:25 – Looking down from the summit of Rock Mountain

Shoestring/Sandtrap/Limestone Ridge Loop (Limestone Canyon Regional Park)

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Old Saddleback seen from the Sandtrap Trail

Old Saddleback seen from the Sandtrap Trail

Oak on Limestone Canyon Road

Oak on Limestone Canyon Road

Shoestring/Sandtrap/Limestone Ridge Loop (Limestone Canyon Regional Park)

  • Location: Silverado, in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains.  From the 55 Freeway, take the Chapman Ave. exit and head east for a total of 7.7 miles (Chapman becomes Santiago Canyon Road en route).    Shortly past Irvine Lake, look for the Augustine Staging Area, turn right and park as directed in the lot.  From I-5, take El Toro Road and head northeast for a total of 14.2 miles (El Toro becomes Santiago Canyon Road).  The Augustine Staging Area is on the left, 1.8 miles past Silverado Canyon Road.
  • Agency: Irvine Ranch Company; Orange County Parks & Recreation
  • Distance: 10.3 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,600 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 4.5 hours
  • Best season:  September – June; accessible only during specific times (check Irvine Ranch Company link above for schedule)
  • USGS topo maps: “Santiago Peak”
  • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat
  • More information: Limestone Canyon info here; Everytrail report here; description of upcoming hike on Friday, December 5th 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)

This loop is a longer version of the popular Shoestring Loop in Limestone Canyon Wilderness Park.  Like the Shoestring, this hike can be done on Wilderness Access Days in Limestone Canyon or as part of one of several docent-led hikes scheduled through the year (it will be next offered on Friday, 11/14 and Friday, 12/5).  Click the Irvine Ranch Company link for available dates.  The full version described here is more than 10 miles long, but if you are hiking independently on a Wilderness Access Day, you can shorten the loop to just under 8 miles.  On the guided hikes, the volunteer docents may give the group the option of shortening the hike, but be prepared for the full route–almost all of which is exposed.

0:20 - Approaching the fire road from the Shoestring Trail (times are approximate, reflecting the pace of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy's hikes)

0:20 – Approaching the fire road from the Shoestring Trail (times are approximate, reflecting the pace of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s hikes)

Begin by heading toward the Hicks Haul Road.  Turn right and follow it for a short distance to the Shoestring Trail, a single-track.  Cross a wooden footbridge and follow the Shoestring Trail for about 0.7 miles as it parallels Santiago Canyon Road, making its way up and down a few short but steep hills.

0:41 - Morning mist on the Loma Ridge Jeep Trail

0:41 – Morning mist on the Loma Ridge Jeep Trail

At just under a mile from the start, turn left and begin an ascent on a fire road.  After about a mile of steady climbing, you reach the Loma Ridge Jeep Trail, where you get some good views to the southwest.  You follow this trail southeast for about 1.4 miles, making several more small ascents and descents, before reaching a junction with the paved Hicks Haul Road.  (This would be your return route on the 4.5 mile Shoestring Loop.)

1:12 - Right turn on the Hicks Haul Road toward East Loma Ridge

1:12 – Right turn on the Hicks Haul Road toward East Loma Ridge

To continue toward the Sandtrap Trail, bear right on the Hicks Haul Road and go a short distance to the East Loma Ridge Road.  It climbs for about a mile, taking in some excellent views in all directions, finally reaching a junction with the Sandtrap Trail.  Turn left and make a brief ascent to the highest point on the hike, just over 1,600 feet in elevation.  Enjoy some more views, which may extend to the San Gabriels if visibility is good, before beginning a steep descent.

1:33 - Looking north toward the San Gabriels from the start of the Sandtrap Trail

1:33 – Looking north toward the San Gabriels from the start of the Sandtrap Trail

The Sandtrap Trail follows a curving ridge that drops almost 700 feet in 1.4 miles.  At 6.3 miles, you reach a T-junction in oak-shaded Limestone Canyon.  If you want to end the hike here, turn left and follow Limestone Canyon Road about 1.4 miles back to the trailhead.  To extend the hike, turn right and follow the fire road up a gradual incline for a mile, enjoying a little bit of shade from sparsely spaced oaks and sycamores, to the Raptor Trail.

2:11 - Heading up Limestone Canyon Road at the bottom of the Sandtrap Trail

2:11 – Heading up Limestone Canyon Road at the bottom of the Sandtrap Trail

The single-track Raptor Trail crosses a footbridge and begins a rather steep climb, gaining 250 feet in half a mile.  At Limestone Ridge, turn left and follow the trail up and down some bumps, noting the characteristic sandstone geology of Black Star Canyon in the distance.  A steep descent brings you back into the canyon (9.2 miles from the start) where you bear right on Limestone Canyon Road and follow it just over a mile back to the parking lot.

2:40 - View from the top of the Raptor Trail, Limestone Ridge

2:40 – View from the top of the Raptor Trail, Limestone Ridge

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.

3:10 - View of Black Star Canyon's geology before the descent back into Limestone Canyon

3:10 – View of Black Star Canyon’s geology before the descent back into Limestone Canyon