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Wilderness Gardens Preserve, a 676-acre jewel of county parkland near Pala in north inland San Diego County, encompasses the grounds of an old ranch -- the former retreat of Manchester Boddy, owner of a Los Angeles newspaper and developer of the renowned Descanso Gardens in Pasadena. As the years go by, the property looks less like a botanical showplace and more like the wilderness that its name suggests. Intermixed with live-oak woodland and sycamores lining the San Luis Rey River floodplain are surviving exotics such as eucalyptus, camellias, roses, holly, bottlebrush, pyracantha, and oleander.

You'll find the entrance to Wilderness Gardens on the south side of Highway 76, approximately ten miles east of Interstate 15. The park is currently open only on weekends, and there's a small charge for parking your vehicle there.

Picnic tables and benches abound in the park, both near the parking area and at several other shady locales. No more than three miles of walking suffices for a satisfying reconnaissance of the whole place. By following a gravel road past the ranger station (old ranch buildings), you'll reach a string of five shallow depressions, the first and largest of which stays filled through the dry summer season. Over 140 species of birds have been logged in the area.

From the main pond, you can head west along a looping path, less than one mile around, through a canopy of live oaks festooned with wild grapevines. Then, from the south shore of the pond, you can walk uphill on the Meadows Trail. This rock-lined path ascends along a shady ravine, swings across a sunny slope to skirt a hillside meadow, and finally descends toward your starting point, the parking area. You can look forward to witnessing a reawakening of the native and nonnative vegetation during the next four months, as the expected near-normal winter rainfall and early spring sunshine brings forth a profusion of new growth and flowering in the preserve.

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