The trailhead for Love Valley Meadow can be easily missed when driving up the East Grade Road/S-7 into Palomar Mountain as it begins from the back of a deep turnout alongside the road. While not a particularly long or challenging trail, it offers the opportunity to spend a few hours enjoying the views and solitude of this pocket-sized mountain valley. Once owned by the Mendenhall family, who settled on Palomar Mountain in 1869, Love Valley has been part of the Cleveland National Forest since the 1980s. The Mendenhalls did, and still do, use Love Valley for winter grazing of cattle that summer in nearby French Valley.
The entrance gate to the trail is found at the rear of the turnout. The trail is on a wide dirt road, which is a former segment of East Grade Road. Before leaving the turnout, look for the small light blue, sometimes almost white, displays of baby blue eyes and the dark purple pea-like flowers of winter vetch.
As you descend into Love Valley, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of Lake Henshaw in San Felipe Valley. The lake came into being in 1923 with the construction of Henshaw Dam, an earthen dam 123 feet (37 m) tall and 650 feet (200 m) long. It is owned by the Vista Irrigation District, and its waters are used primarily for agricultural irrigation. It fills what is termed a sag basin caused by downward land movements beside the Elsinore fault.
If hiking in spring, look for the purple blooms of ceanothus and the hot pink flowers of rockcress sprouting from their long, slender stalks along the trail. Even the black oak will have color in spring. Although not a flower, the pink/red hue of new black oak leaves put on a colorful show before they turn to their summer green. While parts of this area were burned in the 1999 La Jolla Indian Reservation fire, the chaparral has recovered well.
Upon reaching the valley floor, the trail may be taken either to the right or left. Going right for a short distance (0.2 mile) will bring you to a dilapidated barn and corral. You may spot red-winged blackbirds atop the wooden fence. Look for the flash of the red chevron on their wings as they move from perch to perch. After visiting the barn, retrace your steps to the trail junction and continue south along the meadow while walking among stands of blue-gray leaved Engelmann oaks and their greener leaved cousins, the coast live oaks. Engelmann oak woodlands are one of the most endangered oak communities in California with 90 percent of the remaining stands occurring in San Diego County.
The meadow hosts a variety of wildflowers, depending on the season. Purple bouquets of lupine, seas of yellow buttercups, and the pink cup-shaped flowers of checkerbloom cover the meadow floor. There may also be seasonal ponds after the showers of winter and spring. You may choose to turn around at any point or continue along the meadow’s edge and eventually loop back to the old barn. In either case, retrace your steps back up the road to return to your vehicle.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 66 miles. Allow 1.5 hours driving time (Palomar). From I-15 N, exit on Via Rancho Pkwy and turn right (east) onto E. Via Rancho Pkwy./Bear Valley Pkwy. Turn right on Valley Pkwy/S-6, which turns into Valley Center Rd./S-6. Turn right onto SR-76 E and drive 14.6 miles to E. Grade Rd./S-7 and turn left just east of Lake Henshaw and go 3.3 miles. The trailhead is on the left.
Hiking Length: 2–4 miles.
Difficulty: Easy with 300 feet of elevation gain/loss. Hikers, bicycles, dogs (on leashes), and horses are allowed on the trail. No facilities. Adventure Pass required.