Santa Ysabel Nature Preserve is one of the best kept secrets of San Diego County. The preserve’s west area offers hikers a little over 11 miles of oak woodlands, riparian, chaparral, and grassland habitats. With 3,800 acres of wilderness, this preserve offers something for everyone and is well worth a day trip.
The Nature Conservancy bought the land in 1999 from its longtime owners, the Edwards family of Julian. The State of California purchased the land from the conservancy and in 2001 San Diego County acquired it with help from the state Wildlife Conservation Board. It was opened to the public in 2006 and continues to provide land for grazing cattle.
Begin at either the Hwy 79 Trailhead or Farmer Staging Area. Both entrances start with an easy hike through grasslands and wildflower meadows on a wide, firmly packed dirt trail. The best time to visit the preserve is March through June, when rainfalls welcome stalks of purple lupines, a variety of blooming ceanothus, delicate checkerblooms, four- to eight-foot-tall yucca whipplei with purple-tinged white flowers, white and black sage covered with nectar-gathering bees, and a colorful assortment of wildflowers. Visitors will be pleasantly surprised to be met by a herd of cattle and their calves grazing along the trail. Do not approach or spook the cows, as they are overprotective when their calves are near.
Seasonal rainfalls feed the Santa Ysabel Creek, which flows through the Kanapa Loop Trail. There are also several perennial springs and cattle ponds along the hike. The inclines can be steep and challenging, but once you reach the top of a hill, the view is spectacular. The landscape is dotted with giant sycamores and several varieties of oak trees: coast live, Englemann, scrub oak, black oak, and the occasional hybridized mixed oak. Look up higher and you will likely see a soaring red-tail hawk, turkey vulture, or even an eagle. Look lower and you might spot a rafter of wild turkeys.
After 4.8 miles on the West Vista Loop Trail, you can continue another 3 miles on the Coast to Crest Trail to meet up with the 3.3-mile Kanaka Loop Trail at the end of the Farmer Staging Area Trailhead. Or you can choose to take a leisurely 2–4 hour hike through one of the loops. The trailhead and trails are all well marked with trail maps and points of interest along the way. If you continue on the Coast to Crest Trail, the habitat abruptly changes from grassland and oak woodland to chaparral. Plants in this part of the preserve are dense and shrubby, including chamise, scrub oak, mountain mahogany, matchweed, basketbush, and buckwheat.
To prevent damage to the trails, after rain or snow, the preserve is closed until the trails dry out. Be sure to carry plenty of water, as Santa Ysabel can be hot and dry during the summer and there is no water available on the trails. There are no trash receptacles, so please pack-in, pack-out.
Distance from downtown San Diego: About 54 miles. There are two trailheads. Allow 1.5 hours’ driving time. No facilities.
Highway 79 Trailhead: Take Hwy 78 into Santa Ysabel. Turn north onto Hwy 79. Trailhead is 1.5 miles north of Santa Ysabel or just south of the Santa Ysabel Mission. Parking is available along Hwy 79.
Farmer Staging Area: From Julian take Main St. north out of town for about 2.2 miles (Main St. becomes Farmer Rd.). Turn right on Wynola Rd. for about 100 yards and then take the first left, which is a continuation of Farmer/Volcan Mtn. Rd., about 1 mile to parking lot on left.
Hiking length: 4.8-mile and 3.3-mile (Hwy 79 Trailhead and Farmer Staging Area, respectively) loop trails at the beginning of each staging area with a 3-mile trail connecting the loops. Difficulty: Easy to moderate with 250 feet elevation gain/loss.
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: