Lake Calavera Preserve


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  • Location: This write-up starts from one of several possible trail heads: Oak Riparian Park, 4625 Lake Blvd., Oceanside. From the 78 Freeway, take the Emerald Drive exit. Head south (turn left if you are coming from the east; right if from the west) and go 0.3 mile. Emerald Drive becomes Sunset Drive at this point. In another 0.4 mile, turn right to stay on Emerald Drive and follow it to its ending at Lake Blvd. (0.4 mile.) Turn left and go 0.2 mile on Lake Blvd. to the entrance to Oak Riparian Park.
  • Agency: California Department of Fish and Game/South Coast Division (Phone: 858-467-4201); City of Carlsbad
  • Distance: 3.3 miles (longer or shorter options possible)
  • Elevation gain: 300 feet
  • Suggested time: 1.5 hours
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Best season: October – June
  • Dogs: Allowed on leash (exercise caution on warm days; some of the rockier terrain may be difficult on their paws)
  • Cell phone reception: Good for most of the route; weak to fair in some spots
  • Water: Fountains at Oak Riparian Park
  • Restrooms: At Oak Riparian Park
  • Camping/backpacking: None
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; hiking poles
  • More information: Trip descriptions (varying routes) here, here and here
  • Rating: 4

Updated November 2018

Coastal San Diego County might not be known for its volcanic activity, but 513-foot tall Cerro Calavera is a volcanic plug dome, solidified magma that never reached Earth’s surface. A variety of formal and informal trails circle the hill and the neighboring lake, including some steep use trails that climb to the top.

It’s a fun place to simply wander around; despite the at times confusing network of trails, its is hard to get too lost here due to the preserve’s proximity to civilization and the recognizable landmarks of the lake and Cerro Calavera. The route described here is an easy (except for the climb up the peak) trip from Oak Riparian Park.

Begin by walking west briefly along Lake Blvd. to a signed trail head. Follow the trail into the park, passing by some homes. A few informal trails branch off toward the wetlands. The main route reaches a big junction 0.6 mile from the start where you get a good view of the peak. Several trails branch off at this point. Start the loop by continuing southwest on either of two trails that run parallel (the second of the two, located a short distance south of the main one, is more enjoyable as it stays farther from the houses.) The trails meet up at the northwestern corner of the lake, about one mile from the start depending on your route.

From here, you cross the western end of the lake on a dam. On the opposite side is a Y-junction. If you don’t want to climb the hill, you can head back toward the park by sticking to the lower route (left). To climb Cerro Calavera, negotiate the short but steep use trail on the right. It brings you to a clearing beneath the north face of the mountain, which is hollowed out from a former quarry operation. Head southwest for a short distance to a junction with another use trail (1.8 miles from the start and about 0.4 miles south of the dam). Look for a small abandoned mine on the left side of the main path right before the use trail.

The use trail climbs steeply to a ridge, involving some light rock scrambling. On the ridge, your ascent gets somewhat easier. Follow the ridge east to the summit. Despite Cerro Calavera’s minimal height, its location provides a 360-degree panorama of the coast line, the Santa Anas, the Cuyamacas and more.

A steep use trail drops off the summit, continuing east. After negotiating the descent, you reach an established trail. Bear left and follow it to the first of two Y-junctions. Turn right at the first and then left at the second (2.3 miles from the start.) Follow this trail north for 0.2 mile to another junction. Both routes will get you back to Oak Riparian Park in about 0.7 mile.

Lake Calavera Preserve, Oceanside, CA

Trail head, Lake Blvd.

Lake Calavera Preserve, Oceanside, CA

Junction with Cerro Calavera in the background

Lake Calavera Preserve, Oceanside, CA

Mine shaft below the start of the use trail

Lake Calavera Preserve, Oceanside, CA

Start of the use trail

Cerro Calavera, Oceanside, CA

Climbing rocks up to Cerro Calavera’s west ridge

Cerro Calavera, Oceanside, CA

View from Cerro Calavera

Cerro Calavera, Oceanside, CA

Steep descent from Cerro Calavera

Lake Calavera Preserve, Oceanside, CA

Boardwalk through the wetlands, heading back to the main trail

Text and photography copyright 2018 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.

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