Vernal Pools and Historic Adobes, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve

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Approaching the Vernal Pool
The historic adobes

Vernal Pools and Historic Adobes, Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve

  • Location: Murrieta, in southwest Riverside County.  From I-15, take the Clinton Keith road exit.  Turn right and head southwest for 5.1 miles.  Once you are in the reserve, take a  sharp right onto Tenaja Road.  Stay on Tenaja for 1.7 miles, where it branches off to the right.  Stay straight to head onto Via Volcano, and drive 0.8 miles to the Vernal Pools Trailhead, on the left.  Admission fee is $2 per adult or $1 per child.
  • Agency: Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve
  • Distance:  3.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 300 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season: January-April
  • USGS topo map:  Wildomar
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Orange County
  • More information: here; park map here
  • Rating: 8

Murrieta’s Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve is a hiker’s candy store.  There is a big variety of trails in this 8,000-acre park, and the route described here visits the reserve’s two most famous sites.

In the spring, rain fills a large depression in the southern end of the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, creating a vernal pool.  Vernal pools are very rare in southern California, and the one here is particularly attractive.  The snow-capped mountains of the San Jacinto and San Bernardino ranges make a great backdrop.  This route visits not only the pools, but also the adobes from the mid 19th century that are said to be the oldest buildings in Riverside County.

From the trail head, head east toward the pool.  In half a mile, stay right as the Trans Preserve Trail branches off to the left.  By this point, you will probably see the large pool glistening through the trees, and in a short time, you’ll arrive there.  As of this writing (1/18/11), access to the boardwalk is blocked, but you can still get pretty close and get a good look at the pools.

The trail continues past the pools, downhill past some oaks into a wide meadow.  This is a particularly attractive stretch of the hike, where you get panoramic views as you descend to Ranch Road.  Head right and walk toward the historic adobes.

When you’re finished exploring the buildings, you can either return the same way that you came, but to make an interesting loop, continue on the Ranch road deeper into the reserve.  When Ranch Road heads right, stay left onto the Hidden Valley trail, and then take a left on the Trans Preserve Trail.  This trail heads uphill through an oak woodland, with more nice meadow views, before meeting up with the Vernal Pool trail.  Head right and walk half a mile to the trailhead.

Text and photography copyright 2012 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. With most of the Orange County wilderness preserves closed, it’s good to know that the Santa Rosa Plateau trails are open. We’ll probably head that way tomorrow. Thanks for the info.

  2. I’ve been wanting to bring my toddler hiking up to see the pools. Do you know if the boardwalk is permanently closed, or was just not yet open for the season?

    1. I doubt it’s permanently closed, probably just a restoration they’re doing, I’d call them to find out. Either way you can still get a pretty good look at the pool, I’m sure you’ll have a great time.

    1. There are boardwalks at the pools that I’d imagine would be stroller-friendly (at least there were 5 years ago when I last visited). There’s no walkway leading to the pools, but the trail is pretty much level and probably pretty easy to push a stroller along. That said, the pools are likely to be dry this late in the season.

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