With about 11 miles of trails, the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve, managed by the Escondido Creek Conservancy, presents many different hiking possibilities. Here you’ll find a leisurely stroll along an oak-shaded stream, an easy hike along a nature trail, or a heart-pumping, multi-hour workout.
The Way Up Trail is the most heavily used trail in the reserve (for equestrians and mountain bikers, too). After leaving the staging area, the trail crosses Escondido Creek on a concrete bridge and then proceeds sharply up through a shady coast live oak forest. With increased elevation, the trail transitions into lush chaparral, the “Elfin Forest” for which the reserve is named.
In a little over 1 mile, the trail levels out on a coastal sage shrub covered plateau, and your efforts are rewarded by an inspiring view off to the northeast. Continue another 0.5 mile to the Ridgetop Picnic Area to relax and take in a view of the Olivenhain Reservoir. Viewpoints in the reserve are shade-covered. After taking in the sights, return to the Ridgeline Maintenance Road and go right up another steep hill. Just over the top of the hill is another shade structure and the beginning of the Lake Hodges Overlook Trail. Aptly named, the trail leads to a view of Lake Hodges far below. A hike down this steep gravel road will take you to the lake, but getting back up is strenuous. You can return to your vehicle the way you came or explore the many other trails in the reserve before you leave.
One highly recommended alternative hike is the Botanical Trail. The Botanical Trail will be on your right as you descend the Way Up Trail. It is also a nature trail with 24 numbered posts to identify chaparral plants. To translate the numbers to names, you must pick up the Botanical Trail Guide before you leave the staging area. One caution: if you take the Botanical Trail, you must ford Escondido Creek to get back to your vehicle. Escondido Creek, which flows from Lake Wohlford to San Elijo Lagoon, has a perennial flow that could be treacherous after a big rain storm.
We’ve rated the difficulty for this hike moderate, with elevation gain/loss of up to 800 feet. Dogs, bicycles, and horses are limited to designated trails. Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. More detailed information about the area can be found at Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve.
The best time to visit is from January through May when the landscape awakens, the shrubs and trees produce a fresh set of leaves, and flowers greet you wherever you hike. Native plant communities in the reserve include oak riparian, oak woodland, coastal sage scrub, and chaparral. Chaparral plants are woody shrubs, adapted to dryer conditions and are generally shorter, smaller, and more compact than forest trees.
The southwest trail goes to the dam that formed the Olivenhain Reservoir. Although you are not allowed to go to the dam itself or into the water, there is an exhibit just above the dam describing how it was built. The Olivenhain Dam is a storage facility capable of holding almost eight billion gallons of water (24,000 acre-feet). Instead of impounding a river, the dam was built in a dry box canyon and is used as an emergency water storage facility. The water is imported from the Colorado River and the Metropolitan Water District.
The plateau at the top is one of the few places in coastal San Diego County where the Sage or Bell's Sparrow persists—of all San Diego County birds, the species most sensitive to habitat fragmentation.
The reserve also is home to the Elfin Forest Interpretive Center housed in a relatively new green building. It is shaped somewhat like a large mushroom with a living roof making the adorable structure alone worth checking out.
From I-15 go west on Valley Parkway for 1 mile. Turn right on Avenida Del Diablo. Go 0.6 mile. Turn right on Citracado Parkway. Go 0.1 mile. Turn left on Harmony Grove Village Parkway. Go 0.4 mile. Turn left on Harmony Grove Road. Go 2.2 miles to the reserve staging area on the left.
Trailhead GPS: N33.08656, W117.14526
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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