Lake Hodges has become the most popular destination for recreation within the 55-mile-long San Dieguito River Park, now taking form along the San Dieguito River watershed from the coast at Del Mar to the Volcan Mountains near Julian. Trails along the Lake Hodges shoreline have long been popular, and now a route up Bernardo Mountain is attracting attention as well. The bulk of the mountain was purchased for inclusion in the park in 2002, so now hikers and mountain bikers can reach the top without leaving public land.
The following 7.2-mile round-trip hike to Bernardo Mountain starts at the end of Sunset Drive, south of Via Rancho Parkway and just east of Interstate 15. This is a relatively easy hiking route but semi-technical for mountain bikes.
Start off heading south, parallel to the freeway, initially on a wide, concrete walkway. After about 0.4 mile, the pathway turns sharply right and passes under the Interstate 15 bridge that goes over the east arm of Lake Hodges. The reservoir is now almost completely dry, though heavy winter or spring rains this season or next could fill it again. After swinging north on the far side of the freeway, the path joins for a short time the crumbling pavement of the long-abandoned Highway 395, the former inland highway running north from San Diego into Riverside County. Soon, however, the pavement disappears and you're on a dirt trail following the shoreline west. At 1.5 miles into the run, you cross Felicita Creek, a small perennial brook deeply shaded by oaks, sycamores, palms, and other water-loving vegetation.
You rise out of the creek and ascend moderately, wrapping around the broad south flank of Bernardo Mountain. At 1.7 miles, a couple of minutes past the creek crossing, make a very sharp right turn on the path heading north. You ascend slowly, with the oaks and sycamores of Felicita Creek just below you on the right and Bernardo Mountain rising on the left. By about 2.5 miles, you've swung around to the north side of the mountain, where the chaparral vegetation thickens to jungle-like proportions and the ascent quickens. Stay left (uphill) at the next two trail intersections, always heading upward.
You continue either ascending or contouring in a zigzag pattern, passing a large water tank at 3.2 miles, and finally reaching the rocky summit at 3.6 miles. From this noble vantage point you can clearly visualize the patchwork of urban/suburban/wildland that inland North County has become. The white noise of traffic on Interstate 15 wafts upward to you -- but peering in certain other directions you see little apparent human impact on the landscape. Westward, down the valley below Lake Hodges, a slice of Pacific Ocean is visible on clear days.