Stop the presses. I have found the quietest place in San Diego County to go hiking. That’s right. There are many quiet places, but this place is the quietest. It is a place where silence is silent. It is a place where you can not only feel, but hear the sounds of grasshoppers bouncing off your shirt. It is a place where ground squirrels sound like lions crashing through the underbrush. It’s a place with a small babbling creek, a secret lake, and plants rustling in the afternoon breeze – but nothing else. It’s also a place that looks suspiciously like a “Happy Cow” commercial from the State of California. And, if you’re lucky, you too can visit it on a day when it is not that busy, because it is not that busy almost every day.
Directions: The Preserve is located one mile west of Santa Ysabel directly off of Highway 78 on the north side of the highway. If you are coming from the west on Highway 78, the Preserve is located thirteen miles east of Ramona. The entrance/parking area is clearly signed, and there is ample parking next to the trailhead, which leaves directly from the parking lot. The trail that leaves from the parking lot is the Lower Creek Trail, and it starts out level before gaining some elevation at around the half mile mark.
The trail then descends for a little over a mile down to Santa Ysabel Creek. During this time, there are excellent views of the surrounding terrain, as well as great views of the many Engleman’s Oaks that are in the Preserve, along with some California Oaks as well. At Santa Ysabel Creek, the Lower Creek Trail comes to an end after 1.8 miles. If you are a novice hiker, or just out for a walk, this is a great spot to turn around for an easy 3.6 mile roundtrip hike; although it is worth noting that there is a bit of elevation gain coming back up the trail from Santa Ysabel Creek (which may or may not be present, as it is a seasonal water source).
For a little extra effort, however, you can cross the Creek and you can continue on to either the Ridge Trail or the High Creek Trail for some more stunning views. From this point, it does not matter which trail you take, as they both connect via the Coast to Crest Trail or the Shortcut Trail in a small loop. From Santa Ysabel Creek, the loop is 2.1 miles total distance. When I did this hike yesterday, I headed up the Ridge Creek Trail initially, which had the advantage of providing me with all of the elevation gain for the hike during the first half of the loop, and which meant that I had great views of the surrounding area, and had great views of the secret lake/pond which exists slightly to the west of the intersection of the High Creek and Coast to Crest trails on my descent from the Ridge Trail. The total distance for hiking all of the trails in the Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve (West) from the trailhead to the High Creek/Ridge Trail/Coast to Crest Trail loop is 5.7 miles roundtrip, and in my opinion, is a great hike to get away from everything.
Tips: As I mentioned above, I did this hike yesterday morning. As I drove up to Santa Ysabel, I passed Iron Mountain and its parking lot at 11 a.m. (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/2/11/iron-mountain.html). At that point, the parking lot was full, and there were a ton of cars on the side of the road. Look, I get it: Iron Mountain is a challenge, and is a great hike in its own respect. If you’ve never done it, and you want the satisfaction of attaining the summit, or you’re training for something, then, by all means, hike Iron Mountain. But, if you’re looking for actual quality time with Mother Nature, then I humbly suggest this network of trails (or the Sycamore Canyon/Gooden Ranch area: http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2011/11/30/goodan-ranchsycamore-canyon-preserve-cardiac-hill-to-ridge-t.html). When I arrived at Santa Ysabel (West), there were no cars in the parking lot, and I saw no one on the trail. Let me repeat that for a second: there was no one else there. Solitude doesn’t get much better than that!
Other things you should know: right now, its summertime, which means it’s warm. Be sure to bring plenty of water, as it can get warm, and the oaks don’t provide that much shade. Also, the trail from Santa Ysabel Creek to the Ridge Trail/High Creek Trail is somewhat steep, so be ready for a short but steep ascent. Do also note that the Preserve is home to cows. Do not chase the cows, they will chase you, and they can and will run much faster than you. My suggestion: if you leave the cows alone, they’ll leave you alone. It’s a happy arrangement for all parties. Other than that, the trails are well marked, and well maintained, and enjoy the silence and beauty of the region.
More Information: http://www.co.san-diego.ca.us/reusable_components/images/parks/doc/SantaYsabelWest_Trails.pdf, http://www.co.san-diego.ca.us/parks/openspace/Santa_Ysabel.html, http://www.100peaks.com/2011/01/16/santa-ysabel-open-space-preserve-west-no-peaks-but-a-beautiful-hike/, http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2010/apr/18/santa-ysabel-west-is-a-foothill-adventure/?page=1#article