Rancho La Costa Reserve, Carlsbad, CA

Rancho La Costa Preserve: Switchbacks, Mule Deer and Horned Lizard Trails

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Rancho La Costa Preserve: Switchbacks, Mule Deer and Horned Lizard Trails

  • Location: The starting point for this hike is on Avenida Maravilla at Camino Junipero in Carlsbad. (There is no parking at the trailhead on Camino Junipero). From points south, take I-5 to the Leucadia Blvd. exit (43). Head east on Leucadia Blvd. for a total of 4.7 miles, during which it becomes Olivehain Rd. and then Rancho Santa Fe Rd. Turn right onto Camino Junipero. Go 0.3 mile to Avenida Maravilla. Turn right and park where available on Avenida Maravilla. From points north, take I-5 to La Costa Ave. (exit 44). Turn left and go 4.1 miles east on La Costa Ave. to Rancho Santa Fe. Turn left and go 0.8 mile to Camino Junipero. Turn right and go 0.3 mile to Avenida Maravilla. Turn right and park where available on Avenida Maravilla. Alternately, from the 78 Freeway, take the Rancho Santa Fe exit (11A). Head south for 5 miles on Rancho Santa Fe Rd. to Camino Junipero. Turn left and go 0.3 mile to Avenida Marvilla.
  • Agency: City of Carlsbad
  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Elevation gain: 600 feet
  • Suggested time: 1.5 hours
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Best season: All year but hot during the summer
  • Dogs: Allowed on leash (exercise caution on hot days; some rocky terrain may be tough on their paws; watch out for foxtail grass and rattlesnakes)
  • Cell phone reception: Good
  • Water: None
  • Restrooms: None
  • Camping/backpacking: None
  • Recommended gear: sun hat hiking poles sun block
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: San Diego County
  • More information: AllTrails report here; Trip descriptions (same destination, different routes) here and here
  • Rating: 6

Carlsbad’s Rancho La Costa Preserve features miles of trails, making for nearly countless possible hikes of all lengths and difficulty levels. The route described below is taken from “Afoot and Afield San Diego County” and offers a nice sampling of the preserve’s scenic variety and a good workout. The destination is the high point in the preserve, a 1,050-foot view point unofficially named Denk Mountain.

From Avenida Maravilla, head southeast on Camino Junipero for a few dozen yards, cross the street (there is no crosswalk but traffic tends to be light) and pick up the trail. A short ascent on the fire road brings you to a junction with a connector leading to the Switchbacks Trail, the first of three main trails that comprise this loop. Many unofficial trails cut through the preserve (this is what happens when people don’t respect switchbacks) but the trail signage is pretty reliable. The connector drops into a shallow stream bed, climbs out and makes a hairpin turn before reaching a T-junction with the Switchbacks Trail. Turn right and begin your ascent.

The Switchbacks Trail meanders up the west face of the ridge, passing by a few rock formations, taking in wider and wider views of Carlsbad and Oceanside. During the spring, wildflowers dot the hillside, including golden poppies. At 0.9 mile from the start, you reach a junction with the Mule Deer Trail. Turn right and begin a steeper ascent, straight up to the top of the ridge. At the top, merge with a fire road and bear right, soon reaching the flat summit of Denk Mountain. Here, your efforts are rewarded with a 360-degree view. There is no higher point between Denk Mountain and the ocean, so the views to the west are unobstructed. If visibility is good, you can see Orange County’s Santiago Peak and perhaps even San Gorgonio Mountain to the north. Views to the east include the Cuyamaca range, the Palomars, Mt. Woodson, El Capitan and more.

After taking it in, begin your descent by continuing toward the Horned Lizard Trail. As you descend, you’ll realize that this trail could also just as easily been named the Switchbacks Trail as it features almost as many. Near the bottom, follow the signs for Camino Junipero as you navigate a few junctions. The trail returns to the fire road which you follow downhill, back to Camino Junipero and your starting point.

Photo gallery (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Rancho La Costa Preserve Carlsbad CA
Poppies on the Switchbacks Trail
Rancho La Costa, San Diego County, CA
Geology on the Switchbacks Trail
Rancho La Costa Preserve, San Diego County, CA
Ascending the Mule Deer Trail
Rancho La Costa Preserve, San Diego County, CA
Looking north from the view point






Text and photography copyright 2017 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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