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Boldly rising above the apple orchards of Julian, Volcan Mountain's oak- and pine-dotted slopes are swept by some of the freshest breezes found anywhere in San Diego County. Soughing through the trees like waves spending themselves against a sandy beach, the springtime gusts bear the astringent dryness of the desert and the volatile scents of pine needles and dewy grass.

Off limits to public use for most of the past century, much of the Volcan Mountain range has fallen into the public domain today. The earliest parcel to be purchased for public use has become a crown jewel in the San Diego County Parks system -- Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve.

To get to the preserve from Julian, drive two miles north on Farmer Road to Wynola Road, jog briefly right, and turn left to remain on Farmer Road. Park along Farmer Road, 200 yards north of Wynola Road. Hike the gravel access road going east, and you soon reach Volcan Mountain Preserve's elaborate gateway, a project designed by Julian artist James Hubbell.

An old fire road (now a wide hiking trail) continues sharply up the hill ahead. Presently, you swing right and continue climbing in earnest along a rounded ridgeline leading toward the Volcan Mountain crest. Take note of the lower junction of the new Five Oaks Trail on the right, 0.4 mile beyond the preserve gateway. You will return on this trail.

Climb ever higher on the fire road, taking a breather every now and then to look westward (behind you) over the descending foothills and out toward the ocean -- or perhaps over the top of the springtime marine layer.

At 1.2 miles up the fire road from the gateway, note the upper junction of the Five Oaks Trail on the right. Take it, and saunter over to a viewful spot on the ridgetop, where a resting bench invites you to sit (or stretch the muscles in your legs) and gaze downward into the linear gash known as Banner Canyon, where Highway 78 (Banner Grade) twists and turns on its way from Julian to the desert. The canyon owes its existence to movements along the Elsinore Fault, which comes to life every now and again (geologically speaking) with a magnitude 6 or 7 rumble.

The remainder of the hike takes you downward along the same ridgeline you came up, only more crookedly this time on the narrow Five Oaks Trail. Ahead there are pungent whiffs of white sage; nice specimens of sacred datura, whose upturned white blossoms look a little like Easter lilies; and shady (possibly chilly) passages through groves of black oak trees, whose newly-emergent leaves are bright green at the moment.

Farther on and lower, the westerly view includes postage-stamp-sized apple orchards affixed to the rolling plains of Julian's outskirts. Then the trail descends through tree-sized specimens of manzanita. Look for the manzanitas ("little apples" in Spanish) -- the ripe, reddish brown berries that look and taste a bit like conventional apples of the tart variety.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

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