The 750 acres of open space at Escondido's Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve were opened to the public in December 1992 as a cooperative effort between the Olivenhain Municipal Water District and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The BLM owned the land, while the water district wished to build a small reservoir on the south edge of the property and open the rest to recreational use.
Today, construction on the reservoir, a pump station, and a water-treatment plant is well underway. Currently, about 10 miles of the original 17 miles of recreational trails remain open outside the construction area. Some trails may be back in service when the reservoir is completed.
You'll find the well-marked entrance and trailhead parking area near mile six on Harmony Grove Road, three miles west of the outskirts of Escondido. For easy hiking, there are short trails down near the entrance, where Escondido Creek (when revived by winter rains) murmurs and splashes over boulders. The looping, one-mile-long, self-guiding Chaparral Trail gives hikers a glimpse of riparian vegetation and live oaks in addition to the ubiquitous assemblage of native shrubbery known as chaparral.
Most of the remainder of the trail system, which lies on higher ground, is open to mountain biking and equestrian use as well as hiking. These multi-use trails are reached by a single, steeply ascending pathway dubbed "The Way Up Trail." The crooked ascent takes you up a canyon wall studded with toothlike rock outcrops and dripping with thick, almost jungle-like growths of chaparral. Amid the branches of the shrubs, look for the tendrils of wild cucumber, a plant whose foliage explodes in growth after the first winter rains. By midwinter, macelike wild cucumber fruits appear, bright green at first then turning to straw-yellow after drying up.
On the way up, look north to the other side of the canyon and notice the sparsely vegetated slopes over there. They were swept by wildfire during the 8600-acre Harmony Grove Fire in October 1996.
The shadeless Ridge Top Picnic Area comes into view after 1.5 miles of distance and about 700 feet of climbing. Of the several possibilities for pressing on from this point, here's one recommendation: From the west side of the picnic area climb to Elfin Forest Overlook, which lies at the top of the ridge to the southwest. On clear days, you can look down the valley of Escondido Creek to San Elijo Lagoon and the ocean, 9 miles away. You can return to the picnic area either the same way or on a paralleling trail and climb to another vista point overlooking Escondido. Or you can travel the long and winding Equine Incline Trail before descending to the parking lot.
The Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve is open from 8 a.m. until approximately one-half hour before sunset daily. Dogs are allowed on the trails -- off leash, surprisingly, as long as they are under full control of their masters -- but they must be held on leash at parking, picnic, and overlook areas. For more information, call 760-753-6466 x147.