Artichoke Thistle, near the start of the trail - beautiful, but invasive!
It’s time for some not-so-shocking true confessions today: I’m that person who stops when he thinks that he seems something interesting. I’m the person who, when he sees something interesting goes, “Hey, that looks really neat/interesting/what-is-that/different, I should check that out!” Then, I safely determine how to check it out, or, if there’s time or other constraints, mentally file the location and mysterious (or not so mysterious) thing away for a future visit. Sometimes, these places are as awesome as I think they are. Then again, sometimes, there’s a colossal letdown when I visit these spots.
Fortunately, one of San Diego’s “newer” trails is on the more awesome side of life. For years, I’ve been driving along Del Dios Highway and through the Del Dios Gorge, and have always wondered what exactly was down there. In the brief stretches where the road was not curvy, I’d peer into the gorge, and consider whether I could bushwhack through the terrain to Lake Hodges Dam. I never did this because I knew it would be hard on the environment); hard on my body (if you’ve ever traveled cross country through heavy brush, you know what I’m talking about; and because I never had the time. In 2006, the San Dieguito River Park unintentionally read my mind, and began construction of this trail in the exactarea where I had always wanted to go as part of the “coast-to-crest” path; and in 2010 the trail opened to public use. I’m not sure what was holding me back from visiting this area the last two years, but based on my hike the other day; I’ll definitely be going back in the near future.
Del Dios Gorge Bridge
Directions: The trailhead is located in the Del Dios Gorge parking area, which is located directly off of Del Dios Highway. If you are traveling east on Del Dios Highway, you will pass Calle Ambiente on the left, and then there will be a fruit stand that is present that will be on your immediate right. At the location of the fruit stand, there is a road that is marked with “SDRP” signs that leads to the parking area. Similarly, if you’re heading west on Del Dios, you’re going to want to find a way to turn into the fruit stand and follow the access road. Do note that this access road is closed at night, so if your car is in the lot past sunset, you may be locked in the parking area. The map from the SDRP, presented as the first link below does a great job of showing where you will turn.
From the parking area, follow the remainder of the access road to the top of a slight rise to the south, where the road dead-ends next to the Crosby Estates. This is where the Del Dios Gorge Trail starts (to the east); and where the Santa Fe Trail starts (to the west). The trail from this point is well marked, and for the first quarter to half mile, heads slightly uphill along the boundary of the Crosby Estates. While it is a bit disappointing to be directly next to civilization during this section of trail, there are great views of the mysterious Del Dios Gorge below. Depending on what season it is, you will also be able to view larger stretches of flowing water. When I went two weeks ago, there was not much water flowing, but 2012 has been a dry year, and it is summertime – but it was still cool to see what was heading through the gorge.
Lake Hodges Dam
After the initial section along, the trail traverses along the gorge, before dropping down past some interesting interpretive panels about bats, and then down into the gorge proper, where it crosses a fancy bridge that was installed specifically for the trail. This is a great spot to peer into the river, and check out the riparian terrain all surrounding you at this point. From the bridge on, however, was my favorite stretch of trail, as you are in the Del Dios Gorge proper, under partial tree cover, and next to the river. While you are technically beneath/next to Del Dios Highway at this point, I found the trail to be fairly quiet from ambient vehicle noise. At this point, the trail also begins to ascend along the side of the gorge to provide you with a great viewpoint to view the Lake Hodges Dam. At around the 1.75 mile mark, one way, there is another great interpretive panel display about wildfires, and the Dam itself. From that point, it is another slight uphill grade to have a great view of the Dam proper at the two mile point. At this point, you can elect to turn back to your car for a moderate four mile hike, or you can continue along the well-marked trail along the North Shore of Lake Hodges for an extended distance.
Tips: At 1.5 miles from the parking lot, there is a dirt access road turnoff for Lake Hodges Dam. It is impossible to miss, as it is well-marked with a plethora of “Keep-Out” signs. Although I personally would never venture into an area marked “Keep-Out”, I would suspect that if you follow it, you would have a great view of the lower area of the Lake Hodges Dam. I’m only telling you, the reader this, so you do not get lost and venture down to the Dam and receive a ticket, or get arrested, so you may consider that tip for informational use only. As for the rest, this is a great spot to jump off for a longer hike; and although I haven’t been here during the spring, I’d suspect that springtime is the best time for this trail due to wildflowers, and higher water flow in the river, and potentially over the Dam.