Daley Ranch

Ponds Trail – Jack Creek Meadow Trail – Engelmann Oak Trail – Cougar Ridge Trail – Boulder Loop Trail.

Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Distance: 10.6 Miles
Elevation Change: +1,886/-1746
Critters seen: None
New/rare flora: The Engelmann Oak

Daley ranch

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So, I’m a dork about trees. I’m not simply content to walk along a trail and enjoy the way a tree breaks the scenery or provides shade after a sunny stretch. It’s not enough that trees are a part of a landscape which I can enjoy casually. No, for me, I have to know what that tree is called, why it grows where it grows, what goes into its name, and why it is different from its neighbors. I can tell you the difference between a coast live oak and a valley oak, why those trees are different yet similar, and why they grow where they grow. I do this not just because I like to privately feed my bookish-nerd side (which I do), but because I spend enough time amongst these trees that I feel it is only polite to know a thing or two about them. Besides, knowing more about what is around you and what you are experiencing can only serve to deepen the experience, and isn’t that what life is about?

Take the Engelmann oak. The Engelmann oak looks much like a coast live oak, which looks much like any other oak tree you might consider. They’re roughly the same height, similarly shaped, similarly colored, and they both provide a welcome respite from sun. But spend a little time with the Engelmann (and a book that identifies Northern American trees) and you learn that it differs from its neighboring coast live oak – a water thirsty, densely foliaged tree that likes to blot out competition from other trees along creeks – in that is a subtropical oak closely related to the larger and grander live oaks of the south and southwest. It thrives on dryer hillsides, away from creeks dominated by thirsty coast live oaks, but they do not survive above 4,000 feet, where black oaks and towering canyon live oaks dominate. Following the ice age, the Engelmann was cut off from its eastern cousins by the then rapidly expanding mojave desert and now only remains in small pockets (with an assist from urban development) of woodland mainly throughout San Diego and Riverside counties. It is neither deciduous, like the valley and black oaks, nor evergreen, like a live oak. It tends to keep its leaves through winter only if water supports it. If there is a drought, the Engelmann will then shed its leaves. It lives for more than 200 years, and yet it is the most endangered oak in California.

Learning about this oak was one of the many pleasures of the Daley Ranch loop hike. This loop is not official – I pieced it together from various trails highlighted in Jerry Schad’s excellent Afoot and Afield in San Diego County. Taken together, the trail passes through sage-scrub and chaparral covered hillsides, natural ponds, a linear meadow that stretches in a nearly straight line for a mile and a half, up and around the flanks of the modest Burnt Mountain (2160′) through rolling savannah dominated by Engelmann oak, down 700′ into a canyon carved out by a bubbling creek, back up 700′ in under a mile along cougar ridge, and finally through a maze of granite boulders. There is nothing particularly strenuous about this hike, although one shouldn’t underestimate water needs due to long shadeless stretches. Keep chugging along, and you’ll be treated to one of the best hikes I’ve taken so far (along with Palomar) in San Diego county.

Perhaps the thing that I like so much about this trail is that it contains some of what I love so much about the Santa Monicas, the range west of Los Angeles that separates a million people in the Valley from the coast and has made real estate agents in Malibu filthy rich. The Santa Monicas feature the ever-present chaparral and sage-scrub covered hillsides with the occasional sandstone outcroppings. But where the Santa Monicas are at their best is in their spacious oak woodlands dominated by the massive valley oaks and sycamores, as well as in the densely shaded and narrow riparian forests created by coast live oak, sycamores, bays, cottonwoods, and willows. With a few exceptions, any trail in the Santa Monicas will feature at least one stretch of dense shade along a creek or towering valley oaks under which one can sit and doze off or read a book. Those cool, shady places are what led me to love being out in the middle of nowhere to begin with. I can appreciate and admire the desert, but I will always want to find myself under a tree at some point in a hike, peeling an orange, reading a book, and napping until tree bark starts digging into my back.

San Diego impresses with its endless views in all directions, including the Pacific Ocean, but in terms of shady respite, San Diego  trails (mountains excepted) so far have been relentless and unforgiving. Daley Ranch changes this in that it offers several smaller loops, or the larger loop, that feature all the things I love about the Santa Monicas.And in that way, I began to feel even more at home in the city to which I will soon move.

Miles hiked in January: 25.1
Miles hiked on the year: 25.1

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