In the past couple of years, San Diego County has opened two new flora- and fauna-rich open-space preserves just south of Ramona. Both are key links in the county’s Multiple Species Conservation Program, which aims to protect as much natural habitat as possible in the rural parts of inland San Diego County.
The larger preserve, Barnett Ranch, spreads across about 1000 acres of gently rolling grasslands and sage- and chaparral-covered slopes. The well-marked entrance and equestrian staging area for the preserve is located at the intersection of San Vicente Road and Deviney Lane (mile 14.4, according to the green mileage markers posted on San Vicente Road).
From the Barnett Ranch staging area, you can choose to hike (or run, bike, or ride a horse) on two out-and-back routes: the Rattlesnake Trail and the Valley View Trail, 2.5 miles round trip on either one. The Rattlesnake Trail is terrific — once you get beyond the initial half mile, which is simply a dirt path right alongside a rural driveway. You curve into a sensuously rounded vale, cross a freshwater marsh with verdant grasses and swaying cattails (and a nearby picnic table), and climb a bit more to a second picnic table next to some oaks singed by the 2003 Cedar Fire. On a visit during a tepid, cloud-flecked day last month, ravens and hawks glided on thermals, and mini-vortexes of heated air carved raspy-sounding grooves through the dry grasses, like ghosts dancing.
In comparison to Rattlesnake Trail, Valley View Trail seems inferior, as its destination is a pair of vantage points also occupied by steel pylons supporting a high-voltage powerline. You do get a view, though, of San Vicente Creek’s valley below, which is not-so-picturesquely dotted with various dwellings and ranching infrastructure.
Not far away from Barnett Ranch is a pint-sized (90-acre) preserve with an unpronounceable name: Luelf Pond. It’s also tough to find without explicit directions. From Dye Road, turn south on Southern Oak Road. Go one mile to Willow Oak Drive and turn right. Proceed 0.1 mile to what appears to be a cul-de-sac. Continue straight across that apparent dead-end to the narrow lane signed “Duck Pond.” Proceed another 0.15 mile to Luelf Pond (the duck pond) on the right and the signed Luelf Pond Open Space Preserve on the left. Park by the curbside and enjoy a fine stroll of about 2/3 mile (round trip) under a magnificent canopy of singed-but-surviving live oaks and post-Cedar-Fire pioneering vegetation. Note: those “pioneers” include plenty of poison oak in both bush and vine form.
The deeply shaded Luelf Pond Preserve stays cool nearly any time of day, but as summer heats up, you’d best visit Barnett Ranch when it opens at 8 a.m. or near its closing time, sunset.