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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hywy 76 is one of my favorite day trips. The Pala area is not well-traveled, but it is beautiful. I will keep this post in mind next time I go!
Yes, it’s definitely an overlooked but attractive part of San Diego County. Enjoy!