Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve is one of the best-kept secrets of San Diego County. The preserve offers hikers a little over 11 miles of oak woodlands, riparian, chaparral, and grassland habitats. With 3800 acres of wilderness, this preserve offers something for everyone and is well worth a day trip.
The Nature Conservancy bought the land in 1999 from its longtime owners, the Edwards family of Julian. The State of California purchased the land from the conservancy, and in 2001, San Diego County acquired it with help from the state Wildlife Conservation Board. The county continues to provide land for grazing cattle and opened the area to the public in 2006.
Agricultural and grazed lands often attract ground squirrels, which are a favorite food of the badger (Taxidea taxus), found here. Badgers frequent dry open grasslands, fields, and pastures where they can hunt for gophers, squirrels, and mice. They will also eat whatever else they can catch including birds, lizards, fish, insects, and amphibians. The badger has a distinctive patterned head, with the throat and chin whitish, black patches on the face, and a long white dorsal stripe running from the nose back. Badgers are solitary, nocturnal, weigh from 10 to 26 pounds, and have powerful forearms enabling them to dig rapidly, especially in pursuit of prey.
Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve East straddles two of San Diego County’s major watersheds. The headwaters for the San Diego River are located in the southern section of this preserve. Santa Ysabel Creek, with its origin in the Volcan Mountains, flows through the northern section of the preserve and is the source for the San Dieguito River watershed that flows down toward Del Mar. San Dieguito River Park’s Coast to Crest Trail crosses the preserve.
Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. Visit the County of San Diego Parks & Recreation website to learn more.
Begin at either the Highway 79 Trailhead or the Farmer Road staging area. Both entrances start with an easy hike through grasslands and wildflower meadows on a wide firmly-packed dirt trail. The best time to see wildflowers is March through June after the winter rainfalls, but fall brings out a beautiful change of foliage colors, while winter may leave a magical dusting of snow. Visitors will be surprised to be met with a herd of cattle and their calves grazing along the trail. Do not approach or spook the cows as they are very overprotective when their calves are near. Seasonal rainfalls feed the Santa Ysabel Creek that flows through the Kanaka Loop Trail. There are also several perennial springs and cattle ponds along the hike. The inclines can be steep and challenging, but once you reach the top of a hill, the view is spectacular. The landscape is dotted with giant sycamores and several varieties of oak trees, some majestic in size: coast live, Engelmann’s, scrub oak, California black oak, and the occasional hybridized mixed oak.
Look among the tree crevices, under the bark of dead trees, or in the soil for nests with long foraging trails of California velvety tree ants (Liometopum occidentale) that can extend 200 feet or longer. House ants also are found here. House ants (Tapimona sessile) often protect and tend aphid and scale insects and harvest the honeydew, a sugary, sticky liquid these insects produce as they suck sugars from plants. In other words, the ants are harvesting the poop of those insects!
The most common ant found here is the big-headed ant (Pheidole hyatti), which has a distinct worker cast polymorphism (different body types within the species) with major workers being considerably larger than minor workers and having disproportionately large heads. Big-headed ants seem to move randomly in large groups. They nest under stones or in soil with abundant rocks and will try escape instead of protecting the nest from outside harassment. They are primarily active at night.
After 3.3 miles on the West Vista Loop Trail, you can continue another 3 miles on the Coast to Crest Trail to meet up with the 4.8-mile Kanaka Loop Trail at the end of the Farmer Staging Area Trailhead. Be sure to position another vehicle at the second trailhead if you are planning on a 11.1-mile hike that includes both loops or a 7.4-mile hike from one trailhead to the other, point-to-point, on the Coast to Crest Trail. Alternatively, you can choose to take a leisurely 2- to 4-hour hike through one of the loops. The trailhead and trails are all well marked, including points of interest along the way.
If you continue on the Coast to Crest Trail, the habitat abruptly changes from grassland and oak woodland to chaparral. Plants in this part of the preserve are dense and shrubby.
The preserve is closed after rain or snow to prevent damage to the trails and reopened when the trails dry out. Be sure to carry plenty of water as Santa Ysabel can be hot and dry during the summer, and there is no water available on the trails.
There are two trailheads. CA-79 Trailhead: From CA-79 drive 1.5 miles north of Santa Ysabel and just south of the Santa Ysabel Mission. Park along side of road. Trailhead is on east side of road. Farmer Road Staging Area: From CA-78 in Julian take Main Street north out of town for 2.2 miles (Main St. becomes Farmer Road). Turn right on Wynola Road. Go 100 yards and then take the first left, which is a continuation of Farmer Road. Go 1.3 miles. Parking lot on left. Trailhead GPS: N33.12009, W116.60296
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.
Sign up for our Outdoor Enthusiasts email to get great trail recommendations and other outdoor activities and information delivered to your inbox.