This mini-tour of the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Preserve, the jewel of southwestern Riverside County's remaining natural landscape, introduces you to a variety of hiking experiences -- in sun and in shade. The inclusion of a 0.4-mile side trip to and from the east end of the 1.2-mile Granite Loop route lets you visit some tenajas (pools) along Cole Creek and a nice bit of willow and sycamore woodland.
To get there, exit Interstate 15 at Clinton Keith Road in Murrieta and drive south five miles to the reserve's visitor center, which is open on weekends from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Start the Granite Loop by going north from the west side of the parking lot (don't take the nearby multiuse Wiashal Trail, which also goes north). Right away, a slight negative change in elevation results in a big change of habitat. You go from sunny chaparral to shadowy live-oak woods in only a couple of minutes. Picnic tables are amid the oaks, overlooking a small ravine. The trail continues down along that ravine, then climbs onto a bouldery, chaparral-clad slope on the right.
At 0.4 mile you pass a short-cut trail on the right going back toward the visitor center. At 0.6 mile (right before the Granite Loop trail crosses Waterline Road) you come to the Vista Grande Trail, intersecting on the left. Follow the Vista Grande Trail (out and later back) to visit the Tenajas Overlook, with a view of Cole Creek. An interpretive panel explains how the tenajas, or small basins worn into the granitic bedrock here, are instrumental in supporting the web of life in the reserve during times of drought. Due to late rains this season, the waters of Cole Creek may form a large and attractive reflective pool here until perhaps through late summer.
Back on the Granite Loop, cross Waterline Road (dirt road) and enjoy the next 0.3 mile in particular as you stroll through a parklike landscape of spreading live oak trees. At two sites, sitting benches are provided under the oldest, most spectacular oaks. Nearing the end of the loop, you climb just a bit and finish the hike amid sunny chaparral.