Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve West

Everybody knows that happy cows come from California. However, many of them live of polluting and foul smelling feed lots in the Central Valley, which, upon approach, fill the unsuspecting traveler with disgust and nausea. The real happy cows hang out at Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve, which have all of the rolling hills, trickling streams, and oak trees that a happy cow would want.

Distance: 4.3
Elevation Gained: 1,200′
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 1:25
Critters: Bovines, hawks, ravens

Get there like this. 


After a long, dry trek through desert canyons, I hit the Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve West for a cool, green chaser. Santa Ysabel has two segments of open space preserve. The larger east preserve covers a portion of the mountains north of Julian and includes gorgeous Kanaka Flat and a long segment of Santa Ysabel Creek. This segment is one of the most gorgeous open space preserves in the county, and bovines aside is one of the better hikes in the region.

The west portion also features a segment of the creek in a sliver of public land that runs north-south at a point on the north side of Julian Rd/Highway 78 just west of the village of Santa Ysabel. This rolling topography is everything one would expect from a California cheese commercial, as there are green (in season) hillsides studded with oaks as far as the eye can see. This is a gorgeous part of San Diego County, and, unsurprisingly, the majority of the land is privately owned. This segment is left preserved for the rest of us, and it is worth a visit, especially if you need to work off that pie you just ate in Julian.

This area also joins Daley Ranch and the Santa Rosa Plateau as a preserve that protects the increasingly rare Engelmann Oak. This oak, which was once widespread, now exists in relic populations in a handful of locales in Riverside and San Diego Counties. This trees was once called the “Pasadena Oak,” although the only ones near Pasadena are preserved near the Huntington Library. Urbanization has been the chief culprit, although you will see about one in every ten trees at this preserve are dead or dying from Gold Spotted Oak Borer attacks. This pernicious critter has wiped out a substantial portion of San Diego County’s oak trees, and so far there has been no remedy.

Those sad facts don’t severely diminish the beauty of the place. And nor do the cows. While this is not a natural habitat, strictly speaking, it is an image of pastoral California that is satisfying, and in some spots surprisingly challenging. There’s one hill that is absolutely brutal as it climbs up from gurgling Santa Ysabel Creek. That creek is also a wonderful sight as many of the creeks in the area remain dry or with paltry flows in spite of the recent rains. Santa Ysabel Creek keeps bubbling along though, and I hope it swells until it reaches its normal flow. Rain, dammit! Rain!

Another welcome factor to this preserve is the convenience of access. Many hikes require driving some distance off of the main artery before you can find the trailhead. While this preserve pays a small price due to the presence of road traffic on the sporadically busy Julian Road, it is easily accessible while also offering a feeling of remoteness once you hike past the first hill. After dipping into the creek canyon, most of civilization vanishes, save for a few rustic farmhouses.

I’m hopeful that, in the future, more of the segments of land are bought and preserved. The entire region between Ramona and Julian is absolutely lovely and relatively undeveloped. Perhaps the county will remain aggressive in taking the opportunities to annex large tracks of land for preserves in order to allow these islands of tranquility to flourish.

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