The varied topography and ecosystems of Louis A. Stelzer County Park make this 420-acre reserve a delight to visit. It is situated along Wildcat Canyon Creek and includes the rocky hillsides, ridgeline, small meadows, and a peak with 360-degree views of the surrounding area. Louis Alexander Stelzer deeded the land to the county upon his death so that children would have a place for outdoor education and recreational opportunities. The park is named in his honor and was dedicated in 1982 and became the first recreational facility in southern California designed to accommodate visitors of all abilities.
The hike begins at the entrance gate following the Riparian Trail. You'll want to be on the lookout for western poison-oak—there is some signage to help you identify it. The trail is shaded by a variety of trees including coast live oaks, western sycamore, and western cottonwoods. The oaks are festooned with wild grape. A series of small wooden bridges crosses the creek. The trail abruptly turns to the left as the Wooten Loop begins and climbs up the hillside into the chaparral and surrounding meadows. At the junction with the Stelzer Trail, hikers have the choice of either cutting their hike short by turning to the left and heading 0.3 mile to the campground area or going to the right 0.24 mile up a zig zag trail to meet the Summit Trail.
At the top of the Summit Trail there are two options. We suggest following the service road to the left 0.4 mile to the top of Stelzer Summit, the highest point in the park at 1,179 feet. The climb is very steep, and the view is worth the effort. Retrace your steps back to the junction with the Stelzer Trail and follow it to the campground. Cross the campground area to return to the trailhead.
We’ve rated the difficulty for this hike moderate, with elevation gain/loss of up to 600 feet. Dogs (on leashes) are allowed. Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. More detailed information about the area can be found at Louis A. Stelzer County Park.
You may find examples of our very own southern California wild grape (Vitis girdiana). Southern California wild grape fruits are edible but most people find their fruit too bitter (due to a higher concentration of tartaric acid) to be enjoyable. The southern California wild grape is a climbing woody vine with heart-shaped serrated pale-green, velvety leaves with a pointy tip. The leaves turn dark red in the fall when the pea-size black grapes are ripe.
A narrow granite-lined passage follows the creek bed where gabbro is the dominant rock. You’ll also be plenty of lichen on the rocks around here. Lichen is an organism consisting of a fungus and an alga. The fungus (phylum Ascomycota) and a species of green algae (Trebouxia spp.) are in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus attaches the organism to the substrate, rocks, or tree bark, and protects the alga from harmful ultraviolet light. The alga provides food for both through photosynthesis. Lichens are extremely hardy; however, they are very sensitive to sulfur dioxide pollution in the air and so are good indicators of air quality. They are ecologically important as they are one of the first plants to appear after a glacier has receded or a landslide has exposed bare rock. They are able to grow on the bare rock where they secrete acids that help break it down, forming soil that permits the growth of other plants.
One of the harmless snakes that you might see in this park is the rosy boa (Lichanura trivirgata). This docile, slow-moving snake, which can come in many colors, is also not prone to bite. The species name refers to the three stripes found on the length of their body—one on top and one on each side. The color of the snake and its stripes will vary with stripes on some individuals being barely visible but still there and an identifier for this species. Stripe colors can be rose, maroon, orange, rust gray, bluish-gray, brown, or black. The name rosy refers to a pink coloration on the ventral side of some individuals.
This park also provides a good example of fire recovery. In October 2003 the Cedar Fire raged, burning 15% of San Diego County and charring over 380,000 acres. Over 15,000 acres of county parklands burned, including 95% of Stelzer County Park. Many of the oaks in the park survived, as they are fire-adapted with thick bark that does not readily burn.
From CA-67 in Lakeside go east on Willow Road for 0.9 mile. Turn left on Wildcat Canyon Road. Go 1.0 mile. Turn right into the entrance for Louis A. Stelzer County Park. Take care in exiting the park due to heavy traffic in both directions on Wildcat Canyon Road. Trailhead GPS: N32.88287, W116.89689
Looking for more great hikes? Check out our Canyoneers page or purchase the book, Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.
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