Fanciful fence welcomes visitors to the preserve
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Wilderness Gardens Preserve

14209 Highway 76, Pala

The 737-acre Wilderness Gardens Preserve is the oldest open-space preserve managed by the San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation. It sits astride the San Luis Rey River and includes a wide river valley with lush (in places) riparian and oak woodland vegetation and chaparral-cloaked hills rising to the top of Pala Mountain. It has over 4 miles of hiking trails, most of which follow along the river and wrap around a pond, providing easy hiking from October through June. Picnic tables are available under shady oaks. The preserve has a reputation as a birdwatcher’s paradise.

The preserve has an interesting history. For thousands of years this site was a Native American encampment during the fall acorn collection season. Scattered about are deep-holed mortero grinding sites where the acorns were processed. The ruins of the historic Sickler’s Grist Mill, which flourished here in the 1880s, remain and can be toured by appointment. Its last private owner was Manchester Boddy.

Boddy was the developer of Descanso Gardens in La Canada as well as a Los Angeles politician, publisher, and horticulturist. He purchased the property in 1954 with the intent of creating a public garden along the lines of Descanso, which he had donated to Los Angeles County as a public park. He gave the property the name “Wilderness Gardens,” and he was well on his way of making it a garden to rival Descanso. He dug five ponds, built greenhouses, and developed an extensive irrigation system, making it possible to grow an estimated 100,000 ornamental plants, including camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons, eucalyptus, roses, and oleanders.  However, he died in 1967, before this project was completed, and the property languished for several years thereafter. 

Several proposals were advanced to develop the property, but in the early 1970s San Diego County purchased it to create its first natural lands preserve. Of course, thanks to Mr. Boddy, it is far from a natural wilderness.  Although most, if not all, of the camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons and roses died as Boddy’s irrigation system decayed, eucalyptus and oleanders are quite drought-hardy and continue to thrive, particularly along the trails by the river. Only one pond has survived, but its banks are choked with a dense growth of cattails, making it difficult to see the water from all but a few vantage points. Natural eutrophication will turn this small pond into a meadow in the not too distant future as the preserve becomes less a “garden” and more of a wilderness.

Call the preserve office at 760-742-1631 if there has been either continuous or significant rainfall, as the park may be closed.

Distance from downtown San Diego: About 56 miles. Allow at least 1 hour and 15 minutes’ travel time. Drive north on SR-163 and merge with I-15 after 11 miles. Drive north 34 miles on I-15, exiting east on SR-76. Drive east on SR-76 about 10 miles to the Wilderness Gardens Preserve entry road. The preserve is open Friday through Monday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The gate is locked at 4 p.m. Closed in August due to high temperatures. Parking $3 per car. Facilities available. Bring at least two liters of water per person.

Hiking length: 4 miles of trails in the preserve.

Difficulty: Easy hiking trails with an elevation gain/loss of 200 feet. Good for children.

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