Difficulty PG13 Distance 5.1 to 10 miles General information: Dogs allowed General information: Hikes with free parking Rating: 7-8 San Diego County - Mountains & Eastern county Season: Late Winter/Spring

Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve (West)


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Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve, San Diego County, CA
Engelmann Oak, Ridge Trail
Cuyamaca Mountains and Santa Ysabel Open Space, San Diego County, CA
The Cuyamaca Mountains as seen from the Ridge Trail

Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve (West)

  • Location: 29300 Highway 78, Santa Ysabel, CA 92070. The staging area is 1.4 miles west of Santa Ysabel, 8 miles west of Julian, 14 miles east of Ramona and 32 miles east of Escondido. If you are coming from the east, it will be on the right side of the road; if you’re coming from the west, it will be on the left. The large parking lot has portable restrooms and an information board.
  • Agency: County of San Diego
  • Distance: 5.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,050 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, steepness)
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Best season: November – May (8am-sunset daily)
  • USGS topo maps: Santa Ysabel, Warners Ranch
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat; sunblock
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Trail map here; Map My Hike report here; Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8

Like its eastern counterpart, the western portion of the Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve offers eye candy a-plenty: rolling hills, mountain views and seasonal Santa Ysabel Creek. It is on average about one thousand feet lower than the eastern area and almost entirely exposed, so its season is slightly shorter. The vegetation is also different, notably the presence of Engelmann oaks instead of the pines characteristic of the higher elevation. Though the difference in altitude between the lowest and highest points on this route is only about 400 feet, there are multiple ascents and descents (the largest, steepest climb is on the return) adding up to over one thousand feet of total elevation gain. As with the eastern trails, cattle actively graze these meadows, so if you are bringing dogs, expect them to be curious about the bovine residents of Santa Ysabel. They will also want to chase the many ground squirrels that frequent the preserve.

Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve West, San Diego County, CA
0:00 – Start of the Lower Creek Trail (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

From the staging area, head northwest on the Lower Creek Trail through a meadow, soon leaving behind the noise of Highway 78. At half a mile, you make a brief descent and then begin the first major climb of the route, gaining about 200 feet. Near the top of the ridge, one mile from the start, a picnic table makes for a nice spot for enjoying the views, dominated by the Cuyamaca range to the southeast.

Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve West, San Diego County, CA
0:30 – Beginning the descent to the creek (times are approximate)

The trail then begins its long descent to Santa Ysabel Creek, gradually then steeply, reaching the water at 1.8 miles. Just before the creek crossing, another picnic area makes for a good place to keep in mind to rest on the return before the big climb. The creek is likely to only be a trickle, if even that, but if there have been heavy rains recently you can cross it on a small footbridge instead of fording it.

Santa Ysabel Creek, San Diego County, CA
0:54 – Santa Ysabel Creek

On the opposite side, the trail makes another steep ascent, climbing 150 feet to the start of the loop portion of the hike (2 miles). The 1.6-mile loop can be done in either direction but by going clockwise as described here, you get to take a break from climbing and save the best scenery for later. The Upper Creek Trail heads northwest through a meadow, gradually descending as it reaches the boundary of the preserve. Make a hard right and head east, climbing 250 feet to a ridge with great views of Vulcan Mountain. The Ridge Trail heads south, passing an Engelmann-shaded picnic area and taking in more views in both directions, notably antenna-covered Mt. Woodson to the west and Cuyamaca Peak to the southeast. At 3.6 miles the Ridge Trail rejoins the loop. From here, retrace your steps two miles back to the car.

Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve West, San Diego County, CA
1:00 – Start of the loop

Though I give the hike on the eastern trails of Santa Ysabel a slight edge over this one due to their more remote location, it’s still a very worthwhile and enjoyable destination. If you have visited the eastern trails, you won’t be disappointed by this hike.

Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve, San Diego County, CA
1:33 – Looking east from the start of the Ridge Trail

Text and photography copyright 2016 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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