Difficulty R Distance more than 10 miles General information: Dogs allowed Rating: 7-8 San Diego County - Mountains & Eastern county Season: Fall/Early Winter Season: Late Winter/Spring

Dripping Springs Trail/Agua Tibia Wilderness


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San Gorgonio and San Jacinto from the Dripping Springs Trail
San Gorgonio and San Jacinto from the Dripping Springs Trail
Dusk in the Agua Tibia Wilderness
Dusk in the Agua Tibia Wilderness

Dripping Springs Trail/Agua Tibia Wilderness

  • Location: Cleveland National Forest, east of Temecula.  From I-15, take Highway 79 southeast for 10.5 miles to the Dripping Springs Campground.  Turn right and park in the signed day use area.  A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) is required. Click here to purchase.  The $5 day use fee can also be paid at the trailhead.
  • Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Palomar Mountain Ranger District
  • Distance: 14 miles
  • Elevation gain: 3,100 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: R (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 7.5 hours
  • Best season: November – May
  • USGS topo map: Vail Lake
  • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat; hiking poles; insect repellent
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: San Diego County
  • More information: Trip description here; Summitpost page here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Trailhead at the Dripping Springs Campground (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)
0:00 – Trailhead at the Dripping Springs Campground (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The hot and dry Agua Tibia Wilderness doesn’t seem very inviting – and it isn’t. Most of the terrain is exposed and while the trail does take in some excellent views of the surrounding area, it doesn’t have the scenic variety of the higher country of the Palomar Mountains.  However, with easy terrain, straightforward navigation and a moderate grade, the Dripping Springs Trail is a great training hike. It can be done as a day trip from Riverside or San Diego; even L.A. or Orange County given an early start. Another advantage of starting early is that most of the ascent is on west-facing slopes, meaning that despite the lack of shade, the sun won’t be too hot.

0:09 - Information board at the beginning of the trail (times are approximate)
0:11 – Information board at the beginning of the trail (times are approximate)

From the day use area, walk 0.4 miles on a paved road through the campground. The oaks and sycamores you see are, sadly, bait-and-switch; you won’t be seeing more of them until much higher up on the hill. At the far end of the campground, you reach an information board where you’ll sign a register and begin your climb on the Dripping Springs Trail.

1:20 - Ascending the side of the canyon t
1:25 – Ascending the side of the canyon

Cross the streambed of Arroyo Seco, exercising caution if water is flowing, and stay right at a junction. (The Wildhorse Trail on the left would be your return route if you decide to make an ambitious 20-mile loop hike, an option for backpackers or day hikers who don’t mind a very long day.) You begin a steady ascent, negotiating some switchbacks, and as you climb you get some nice views of Toro Peak, San Jacinto, Vail Lake, San Gorgonio and farther up, Old Saddleback and the San Gabriels.

2:10 - Can you spot the Palomar Mountain Observatory?
2:20 – Can you spot the Palomar Mountain Observatory?

The vegetation becomes a little thicker as you cross the top of a tributary of the Arroyo Seco. At 5 miles, the trail descends to a saddle where you may be able to pick out the white dome of the Palmoar Mountain Observatory on the left. The trail continues its ascent, reaching some pines and then a pleasant oak woodland; a good camping spot.

2:50 - Pines
3:05 – Pines

Shortly after, you reach the end of the Dripping Springs Trail. If you’ve still got gas in the tank, head left on the Palmoar Magee Trail and go 0.2 miles to a vista point (7 miles). With great views to the south, including the ocean, this is a good turnaround point for day hikers. More intrepid souls might want to continue 3 miles to the Crosley Truck Trail, which descends back (becoming the Wildhorse Trail) to the trail head for an impressive 20 miles.  Note: as of this writing the trail is easy to follow and in good shape, but it is susceptible to the weather.  If there have been recent heavy rains, contact the ranger station via the link above to check on the trail conditions.

3:20 - Oak grove near the top of the Dripping Springs trail
3:20 – Oak grove near the top of the Dripping Springs trail

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FROM JOEL ROBINSON OF WWW.NATURALISTFORYOU.ORG: The Chaparral features some intriguing textures, colors, and smells, including the shredded red bark of the Ribbonwood, the silvery fuzz of the Thick-leaved Yerba Santa, the minty fragrance of the Black Sage and the stretched taffy-like trunks of the Hoary-leaved Ceanothus.  Scan the trail for the rarely seen San Diego Horned Lizard, an adorable “miniature dinosaur,” who forages for harvester ants.  Matilija poppies, popcorn flower, bush lupine, and peony can be seen in the spring time. The principal rocks of the primitive area are crystalline and consist of both metamorphic and plutonic varieties.

3:30 - Ocean view from the Palomar Magee trail; suggested turnaround point
3:30 – Ocean view from the Palomar Magee trail; suggested 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.

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