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Roberts Ranch denied developers and spared from 2003 fires

An easy walk through open grassland meadows and mature oak groves

Roberts Ranch is a hidden jewel nestled on either side of I-8 at the foot of the Cuyamaca Mountains. There is no sign announcing its presence, so this is a hike experienced only by those in the know. The land was formerly the Roberts and Ellis ranches and was on the road to becoming a housing development. Thanks to the work of Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, the Back Country Land Trust, and concerned citizens, the development was halted in the late 1990s. Today the 714 acres of oaks, meadows, and hills are part of the Cleveland National Forest. The ranch is divided into north and south sections by I-8. Fortunately, this area was spared from the devastating fires of 2003.

Begin the hike by entering at the unmarked pipe gate just north of the Caltrans maintenance yard. There are no officially marked trails and no trail signs here. Instead, you are free to follow once graded, but now rutted, dirt roads, vehicle tracks, cow paths, or even devise your own way by heading out across the open fields. The terrain is mostly flat and provides easy walking.

Look for ground pink or fringed linanthus in spring.

The most traveled route strikes out from the gate toward the oaks to the east, keeping I-8 on the left. A deteriorating road leading through the oaks turns southward and after about 0.5 mile leads to a large grassland meadow surrounded by groves of Engelmann oaks. The flat, open area is filled with nonnative grasses probably brought in by grazing cattle that can be seen roaming the fields. In the spring, the hillsides are dotted with clusters of California peony and some of our low and diminutive wildflowers such as baby blue eyes, red maids, and ground pink.

Keep a sharp eye out for the white-breasted nuthatch, creeping head-first down the trunks of the oaks in its search for insects. Be listening for the raucous chattering between flocks of acorn woodpeckers. Other possible bird sightings might include Pacific-slope flycatchers and western wood pewees in summer and ruby-crowned kinglets, dark-eyed juncos, Say’s phoebes, and white-crowned sparrows in the winter.

Upon entering the grasslands, there are a multitude of paths to choose from. Going east for another 0.5 mile brings one to the never completed remains of a century-old ditch designed as part of an aqueduct and flume to bring water from a proposed reservoir on Pine Valley Creek to King Creek, a tributary of the San Diego River on the western slopes of the Cuyamaca Mountains. Other sections of this abandoned aqueduct can be found along the Secret Canyon Trail, which runs south from Pine Valley through the Pine Valley Creek gorge.

Roberts Ranch trail map

Continuing from the ditch, go due south for another 0.75 mile until there is a fire road, which is a continuation of the road from Horsethief Canyon. Turning right leads to a locked gate while the road left can be followed for several miles before eventually encountering another locked gate. However, for this hike, this will be the turnaround point at 1.75 miles. Return by retracing your path or choose any one of the other meandering trails heading back in the general direction from which you came.

Roberts Ranch

Distance from downtown San Diego: 40 miles. Allow 50 minutes driving time (Descanso). Take I-8 E toward El Centro and exit at SR-79/Japatul Valley Rd. Turn right onto Japatul Valley Rd. and drive 0.2 mile; park just north of the Caltrans maintenance facility on the side of the road. Entrance gate is on the left. Hiking Length: 1 to 5 miles (3.5 miles described here). Difficulty: Easy with less than 200 feet elevation gain/loss. Hikers, bicycles, and dogs on leashes are allowed. No facilities or water.

For more information, call 619-445-6235.

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An oak woodland is one of the many habitats found in the county.
An oak woodland is one of the many habitats found in the county.

Roberts Ranch is a hidden jewel nestled on either side of I-8 at the foot of the Cuyamaca Mountains. There is no sign announcing its presence, so this is a hike experienced only by those in the know. The land was formerly the Roberts and Ellis ranches and was on the road to becoming a housing development. Thanks to the work of Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, the Back Country Land Trust, and concerned citizens, the development was halted in the late 1990s. Today the 714 acres of oaks, meadows, and hills are part of the Cleveland National Forest. The ranch is divided into north and south sections by I-8. Fortunately, this area was spared from the devastating fires of 2003.

Begin the hike by entering at the unmarked pipe gate just north of the Caltrans maintenance yard. There are no officially marked trails and no trail signs here. Instead, you are free to follow once graded, but now rutted, dirt roads, vehicle tracks, cow paths, or even devise your own way by heading out across the open fields. The terrain is mostly flat and provides easy walking.

Look for ground pink or fringed linanthus in spring.

The most traveled route strikes out from the gate toward the oaks to the east, keeping I-8 on the left. A deteriorating road leading through the oaks turns southward and after about 0.5 mile leads to a large grassland meadow surrounded by groves of Engelmann oaks. The flat, open area is filled with nonnative grasses probably brought in by grazing cattle that can be seen roaming the fields. In the spring, the hillsides are dotted with clusters of California peony and some of our low and diminutive wildflowers such as baby blue eyes, red maids, and ground pink.

Keep a sharp eye out for the white-breasted nuthatch, creeping head-first down the trunks of the oaks in its search for insects. Be listening for the raucous chattering between flocks of acorn woodpeckers. Other possible bird sightings might include Pacific-slope flycatchers and western wood pewees in summer and ruby-crowned kinglets, dark-eyed juncos, Say’s phoebes, and white-crowned sparrows in the winter.

Upon entering the grasslands, there are a multitude of paths to choose from. Going east for another 0.5 mile brings one to the never completed remains of a century-old ditch designed as part of an aqueduct and flume to bring water from a proposed reservoir on Pine Valley Creek to King Creek, a tributary of the San Diego River on the western slopes of the Cuyamaca Mountains. Other sections of this abandoned aqueduct can be found along the Secret Canyon Trail, which runs south from Pine Valley through the Pine Valley Creek gorge.

Roberts Ranch trail map

Continuing from the ditch, go due south for another 0.75 mile until there is a fire road, which is a continuation of the road from Horsethief Canyon. Turning right leads to a locked gate while the road left can be followed for several miles before eventually encountering another locked gate. However, for this hike, this will be the turnaround point at 1.75 miles. Return by retracing your path or choose any one of the other meandering trails heading back in the general direction from which you came.

Roberts Ranch

Distance from downtown San Diego: 40 miles. Allow 50 minutes driving time (Descanso). Take I-8 E toward El Centro and exit at SR-79/Japatul Valley Rd. Turn right onto Japatul Valley Rd. and drive 0.2 mile; park just north of the Caltrans maintenance facility on the side of the road. Entrance gate is on the left. Hiking Length: 1 to 5 miles (3.5 miles described here). Difficulty: Easy with less than 200 feet elevation gain/loss. Hikers, bicycles, and dogs on leashes are allowed. No facilities or water.

For more information, call 619-445-6235.

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