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With more than 20 miles of trails for self-propelled travelers, the 3058-acre Daley Ranch offers more than any casual visitor should try in a single day. This former cattle spread and dairy is now Escondido's newest and by far largest open-space park. The following 3.5-mile introductory hike will give you a taste of the new park and probably whet your appetite for more. Get an early-morning start, so as to take advantage of the best bird watching and listening, the solitude, and the cold, crystalline feel of the morning air.

Start at the Daley Ranch main trailhead, right next to Dixon Lake, one mile up La Honda Drive from El Norte Parkway in Escondido. Park in the large lot on the left, just short of the Dixon Lake entrance. Step around the Daley Ranch gate and walk uphill, rather steeply, on pavement. At 0.4 mile the roadway starts descending into live-oak woods and you get a glimpse of the largest of several stock ponds on the ranch, its shoreline guarded by tall cattails.

After 1.2 miles, pavement on the access road ends and the quaint redwood Daley ranch house (closed to the public for the time being) lies to the left. Descendants of Robert Daley, who settled in this valley in 1869, erected the house in 1928.

Continue north another 200 yards past various outbuildings to the beginning of the dirt-road route signed "Jack Creek Meadow." Take the road to the right, walk 200 yards, and then turn right on the steeply ascending Chaparral Loop Trail. After 0.4 mile you reach a secluded upper pond. Walk out along the dam (west edge of the pond) and look down on the valley of Jack Creek, dimpled with the two other ponds you'll visit on your return route.

From the upper pond, return to the ranch house, but from there, follow the Ranch House Loop trail southeast, between the two ponds. Be still, and your ears may catch the comical, deep-throated groans of a bullfrog, the buzz of a hummingbird's wings, or the warbling song of a redwing blackbird. Beyond the ponds, you can circle about south and west on the Ranch House Loop to return to your car -- encountering along the way a couple of short but very steep and slippery sections.

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