Thanks to the crusading efforts of Descanso cabinetmaker Duncan McFetridge (affectionately known by some as the “Robin Hood of Cleveland Forest”), certain privately owned lands in Cleveland National Forest near Descanso, formerly slated for housing development, were saved as permanent open space. One key parcel called “Roberts Ranch” was incorporated into the national forest in the late 1990s. Where cattle once grazed contentedly on this property, hikers can now contemplate spacious vistas of oak-studded grassland. During the next week or two, those vistas will likely include colorful displays of wildflowers and blades of grass fading from spring green to summer yellow.
To get to the Roberts Ranch entrance from San Diego, drive east on Interstate 8 and take the Highway 79/Japatul Valley Road exit near Descanso. Turn right (south) on Japatul Valley Road, and continue 0.2 mile to a pipe gate in the wire fence on the left, just short of a CalTrans maintenance station. Park on the road shoulder, and be sure to post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your car.
On foot now, pass through the gate and follow an old roadbed north across a flat, then east up through live oaks. After 0.5 mile, stay left and start bending north to enter an expansive meadow dotted with solitary and statuesque Engelmann oaks. The scene is reminiscent of the Old West, save for the slightly annoying hum of cars on the nearby freeway.
If you walk all the way across the meadow, about 0.5 mile farther east, you’ll come upon the remnants of a century-old ditch designed (but never used) to shunt water from Pine Valley Creek into the San Diego River drainage. Other segments of this would-be aqueduct can be seen along the Secret Canyon Trail, which runs south from Pine Valley through the Pine Valley Creek gorge.
The hiking route through Roberts Ranch is largely free-form, so when it’s time to go, improvise your own path back to your car.
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.
A quintessentially Californian vista of oak and meadow awaits you at Descanso’s Roberts Ranch.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 37 miles
Length: 2 miles