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The Agua Tibia Wilderness covers an obscure section of Cleveland National Forest, just east of Temecula, straddling the San Diego-Riverside County line. Agua Tibia's pillowy, steeply plunging, chaparral-clad slopes look austere from a distance -- and they are without question not a great place to visit on a hot day in summer or fall. This month, however, the weather remains on the cool side, and the slopes are greening and flowering in response to the somewhat anemic but significant recent rains.

Agua Tibia's only convenient entry point lies along Highway 79, ten miles east of Interstate 15. On the right (south side) of the road you'll find the Dripping Springs Fire Station, the currently closed (reopening in June) Dripping Springs Campground, and a trailhead parking lot for Agua Tibia Wilderness visitors. A National Forest Adventure Pass must be posted on your car here. Entry is free. A camping permit from the forest service is required for overnight stays in the wilderness area. Even if you're hiking for only a few hours, it's critically important that you carry plenty of drinking water. Early spring temperatures can easily reach into the 80s here. Call Cleveland National Forest, 760-788-0250, for more particulars.

After walking south through the campground, you hop across Arroyo Seco Creek on stones, pick up the Dripping Springs Trail, and begin a switchbacking ascent through sage-scrub and chaparral vegetation, liberally sprinkled with a dozen or two kinds of wildflowers. After only 0.1 mile, there's a trail junction. Choose either way: the Wild Horse Trail, on the left, gains elevation relatively slowly. The Dripping Springs Trail, ahead, begins a steady and very crooked ascent of Agua Tibia Mountain's north flank. The "mountain" is actually the westward extension of the long ridge commonly known as Palomar Mountain.

The 20-mile-round-trip hike to the crest and back on Wild Horse Trail and its extension, Crosley Trail, is obviously too far for casual hikers. Perhaps better (and highly recommended if the air is transparently clear) is the shorter, steeper summit climb on Dripping Springs Trail -- 14 miles round trip. Don't let this distance deter you; just climb as far as you like. The higher you go, the better the view. At two to three miles up, you're treated to a spectacular northern vista of Southern California's highest mountains -- San Antonio (Old Baldy), San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto -- each wearing a snowcap well into the spring season.

At 4.5 miles, the trail descends a little and you'll spot the white dome of the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory gleaming on a ridge about nine miles southeast. Many hikers turn back at this point. The pine- and oak-fringed summit ridge of Agua Tibia Mountain lies in view ahead -- fair game for energetic day hikers and backpackers.

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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