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Outdoor recreational opportunities in North County took a quantum leap recently with the opening of the Mount Israel Recreation Area in the Elfin Forest/Harmony Grove area near Escondido. A cooperative effort of the Olivehain Municipal Water District and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the recreation area’s 17 miles of dirt roads and freshly cut trails are open with some restrictions, to hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers, An experimental, remarkably liberal policy on pets allows well-behaved dogs to be off leash on the outlying trails.

From the entrance (near mile six on Harmony Grove Road, three miles west of the outskirts of Escondido), a single, multi-use trail crosses the currently lively Escondido Creek and begins serious ascent of a canyon wall studded with tooth-like rock outcrops and fairly dripping with new growths of chaparral. The community of Elfin Forest below derives its name from this sort scraggly but dense assortment of shrubs. Through mid-May, this north-facing canyon wall should retain patches of bright green grass and showy clusters of red monkey-flower and nightshade.

The shadeless Ridge Top Picnic Area comes into view after 1.5 miles and about 70 feet higher. Of the manifold possibilities for pressing on from this point, I’d recommend the following loop: From the west side of the picnic area, climb to Elfin Forest Overlook, at the top of the ridge to the southwest. The parallel trails along the ridge are segregated according to the type of user (hiker, biker, horse). On clear days, you can look down the valley of Escondido Creek to San Elijo Lagoon and the ocean, nine miles away.

Next, head south down the “Tyke’s Hike” trail to Valley Access Trail and the bottom of Oak Valley, site of the proposed Mount Israel dam and reservoir. Drop by the pleasant Oak Meadow Picnic Area (drinking water available) and then climb up the east ridge to Lake Hodges Overlook for a really amazing view of the lake. Follow Valley View Ledge Trail along the east rim of the recreation area and drop back down to Ridge Top Picnic Area. From there, “The Way Up” trail will take you back down to your car.

Mount Israel Recreation Area is open from 8 a.m. to dusk daily, with interpretive hikes given Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. For more information, call 760-753-6466.

Editor's Note: This archived article was posted Nov. 8, 2011. Mount Israel Recreational Area is now called Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve. Oak Valley has been inundated by the Olivenhain Reservoir. The phone number in this article has been updated.

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