Between Interstate 15 and the town of Ramona lies a new gem for San Diego outdoor enthusiasts. Only recently opened to the public, the Ramona Grasslands Preserve allows hikers, joggers, and horseback riders to explore several different ecosystems, such as prairie grasslands, chaparral, and wetland habitats.
The preserve sits opposite the Ramona Airport in the Santa Maria Valley, south of Ramona and north of Mt. Woodson, in a wide, grassy valley of rolling pasturelands. The large, open spaces within and around the preserve offer a glimpse of southern California that is becoming more and more difficult to find. At 3521 acres, the preserve protects a large portion of a diverse ecosystem that is elsewhere at risk from residential development and other human encroachments. A four-mile trail system allows visitors to explore approximately 480 of these protected acres that include vernal pools, vernal swales, alkali playas, and riparian areas along the Santa Maria Creek. Additional trails are planned for the future.
Particularly popular with birders, the preserve is a safe-haven for large raptors such as red-tailed hawks and even golden eagles. Winter is optimal for spotting these magnificent birds as a number of raptor species overwinter in the area. In fact, throughout the month of January, the Wildlife Research Institute, Inc. hosts a free and public HawkWatch every Saturday morning. Large congregations of turkey vultures can also be seen throughout the park, providing a rare opportunity to see these high-soaring birds up close.
Many earthbound critters find their homes here too, and just a short walk on the trails will leave little wonder as to how the preserve can support such great numbers of carnivorous birds. Large populations of ground squirrels are present here; their furry heads regularly seen emerging from the origins of extensive burrow systems. There is little doubt that at such high numbers they play an integral part in this ecosystem, probably supporting birds as well as other predators, such as coyotes. Although not likely to be seen, the stirring vocalizations of the coyote reveal its presence in the late afternoon and evening.
Two main loops make up the trail system at Ramona Grasslands Preserve. The 1.0-mile Meadow Loop explores some typical grassland habitat and can be reached by taking an immediate left at the preserve entrance after entering from the staging area/parking lot on Highland Valley Road. Take another left at the intersection with the main trail from the parking lot to reach the second loop, where a few more habitat types can be explored. Begin by turning right at the fork and meander along a small creek and some low-lying grasslands. Look for birds in the various trees lining the broad dirt trail. The trail soon begins a small climb into classic chaparral habitat for the most challenging part of the hike (though still relatively easy at only about 200 feet of elevation gain). Descend back down toward the grasslands where you will find a pleasant lake with a picnic table. Take a moment to rest the feet or enjoy a picnic or simply complete the loop and make your way back to the parking lot.
Distance from downtown San Diego: About 40 miles. Allow 50 minutes driving time. From I-8 go north on Hwy. 67 toward Ramona. Turn left (north) on Archie Moore Road Go east on Highland Valley Road
Hiking length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy, up to 300 feet elevation gain
Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors. For a schedule of free public hikes: http://www.sdnhm.org/education/naturalists-of-all-ages/canyoneer-hikes/