With about 11 miles of trails, the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve (EFRR) presents many different hiking possibilities, among which are a leisurely stroll along an oak-shaded stream, an easy hike along a nature trail, or a heart-pumping, multi-hour workout. Native plant communities in the reserve include oak riparian, oak woodland, coastal sage scrub, and chaparral. The best time to visit is from January through May, when the landscape awakens, the shrubs and trees produce a fresh set of leaves, and flowers greet you wherever you hike.
The Way Up Trail is the most heavily used trail in the reserve, not only by hikers, but also by equestrians and mountain bikers. After leaving the staging area, the trail crosses Escondido Creek on a concrete bridge and then proceeds sharply up through a shady coast live oak forest. With increased elevation, the trail transitions into lush chaparral, the “Elfin Forest” for which the reserve is named. Chaparral plants have adapted to dryer conditions and are generally shorter, smaller, and more compact than plants found elsewhere.
In a little over a mile, the trail levels out on a plateau and your efforts are rewarded by an inspiring view off to the northeast. Continue another half a mile to the Ridgetop Picnic Area, where there is drinking water, portable toilets, picnic tables, and a view of the Olivenhain Reservoir. Viewpoints in the reserve are shade-covered.
After taking in the view, return to the Ridgeline Maintenance Road and go right, up another steep hill. Just over the top of the hill is another shade structure and the beginning of the Lake Hodges Overlook Trail. Just as the name describes, the trail leads to a place where the view looks down to Lake Hodges far below. You can return to your car the way you came or explore the many other trails in the reserve before you leave.
One highly recommended alternative hike is the Botanical Trail. The Botanical Trail will be on your right as you descend the Way Up Trail. It is also a nature trail with 24 numbered posts to identify chaparral plants. To translate the numbers to names, you must pick up the Botanical Trail Guide before you leave the staging area. One caution: if you take the Botanical Trail, you must ford Escondido Creek to get back to your car. Escondido Creek, which flows from Lake Wohlford to San Elijo Lagoon, has a perennial flow that could be treacherous after a big rain storm.
Distance from downtown San Diego: About 35 miles. Allow 42 minutes of driving time. Take I-15 north to Escondido. Take the Auto Parkway exit and go west. Go about 0.2 mile after crossing under I-15, and then take a left at 9th St. In 0.6 mile, 9th St. takes a sharp left and becomes S. Hale Ave. Turn right in 0.3 mi onto Harmony Grove Rd. and follow it about 3.5 miles to the reserve staging area on the left.
Hiking length: 3 miles out and back. Allow at least 2 hours. Shorter or longer treks possible.
Difficulty: Moderate with 800 feet of elevation gain/loss. Portable toilets and drinking water located at several places in the reserve, as well as picnic tables, shade structures, and overlooks.