Between Interstate 15 and the town of Ramona lies a gem for San Diego outdoor enthusiasts. The Ramona Grasslands Preserve allows hikers, joggers, and horseback riders to explore oak woodland, grasslands, chaparral, and wetland habitats.
The preserve is in the Santa Maria Valley, west of Ramona and northeast of Mount Woodson, set in rolling pasturelands. At more than 3,500 acres, the preserve protects a large portion of a diverse ecosystem that is elsewhere at risk from residential development and other human encroachments. A 3.5-mile trail system allows visitors to explore approximately 480 acres that include vernal pools, alkali playas, and riparian areas along the Santa Maria Creek, as well as chaparral and grassland. Additional trails are planned for the future.
Two main loops constitute the trail system at Ramona Grasslands Preserve. The 1-mile Meadow Loop explores some typical grassland habitat and can be reached by taking an immediate left once you’ve passed through the gate at the rear of the parking lot. Take another left at the intersection with the main trail 0.5 mile from the parking lot to reach the Wildflower Loop where a few more habitat types can be explored. Begin by turning right at the fork and meander along a small creek and some low-lying grasslands. Look for birds in the various trees lining the broad dirt trail. The trail soon begins a small climb into classic chaparral habitat for the most challenging part of the hike, although still relatively easy at only about 200 feet of elevation gain. Descend back down towards the grasslands where you will find a pleasant lake with a picnic table before making your way back to the parking lot.
We’ve rated the difficulty for this hike easy, with minimal elevation gain. Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. More detailed information about the area can be found at Ramona Grasslands.
Particularly popular with birders, the preserve is a safe haven for large raptors, such as the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and even golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), so be sure to bring your binoculars. Many bird species that love to overwinter in San Diego begin arriving in fall, with cooler months being an ideal time for spotting these magnificent birds. In fact, throughout the months of January and February, the Wildlife Research Institute, Inc. hosts a free public Hawk Watch every Saturday morning. Check the website for dates and information.
Large congregations of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) can sometimes also be seen. Turkey vultures are scavengers with a keen sense of smell that leads them to carrion, or dead animals. The name vulture comes from the Latin vellere, meaning “to tear.” There are no feathers on a turkey vulture’s red head, minimizing soiling as it eats carrion. Vultures have a very strong immune system that prevents them from getting sick from botulism, salmonella, or anthrax. They soar in groups and roost together.
Many types of earthbound wildlife find their homes in the preserve. With even a short walk you will see large populations of California ground squirrels (Otospermophilus beecheyi). Their furry heads are regularly seen emerging from the entrances to extensive burrow systems. There is little doubt that at such high numbers they play an integral part in this ecosystem, supporting not only birds of prey but other predators such as snakes, coyotes (Canis latrans), and bobcats (Lynx rufus). Even if the coyote isn’t seen, its stirring vocalizations reveal its presence in the late afternoon and evening.
One of the birds that you might see is the lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria). A small songbird, the males have a black cap, bright yellow underparts, a green back, and black and white wings. It is one of the most widespread birds of the county, feeding in small flocks on seeds, including those of many exotic weeds.
From CA-67 go north on Highland Valley Road for 2.3 miles. Turn left to stay on Highland Valley Road. Go 0.8 mile. Parking lot for the Ramona Grasslands Preserve is on the right. GPS: N33.03423, W116.95022
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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