Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Best Day Hike in Daley Ranch: "The Whole Enchilada"

If the world was perfect and I could control the outcome of all things, I would have my own private Daley Ranch. It is for me a refuge where it is possible to replace the sound of highway traffic with bird song and the sound of my own breathing. It is a place where I can see an expanse of only wild things rather than Wal-Marts. Within its 3,000 plus acres I can walk and take in the soul healing power of a dirt path and open sky. It is a small sliver of wilderness within a short distance of a freeway offramp. It is heaven within reach.

Located at northeast end of Escondido, California, Daley Ranch is a secluded valley that is an unique amalgam of rolling ridges, boulder decorated hills, ponds, wetlands, wildlife, massive oaks and view-worthy peaks. At one time, the land was owned by the Daley family who would use the property as a summer retreat and quasi-dairy operation. Though the land changed hands a few times, the City of Escondido wisely purchased the property, added a few additional acres to include Stanley Peak and dedicated it as a wilderness recreation park in 1997. Immediately adjacent to the park is Dixon Lake a small fishing lake with picnic areas and paddle boats. Though Daley does not charge for parking or admission there is a fee for entering the Dixon Lake area.

For a day-hike area, it’s really hard to beat if you live in the North San Diego or South Orange County areas. The hiking varies from relatively easy to moderately difficult as the network of over 20 miles of trails traverses across ridge lines and meanders through rare Engelmann oaks. In addition to the nice selection of short hikes available, I think it’s the oaks and boulders that appeal to me most. For being so close to home and major metropolitan areas, it’s a beautiful place to visit now and again.

There are three recognized trailheads to the park, the primary one being near the Dixon Lake entrance off of La Honda. Free parking is available immediately in front of the Ranch’s main gate. Parking in the main lot is permitted until dusk. (NOTE: On weekends, a shuttle service offers rides to folks wanting to visit the main ranch house, barn and picnic area. Watch out for the bus and the mountain bikers sharing the main access road.) Two of the most popular hikes are the Boulder Loop; moderate 3.5 mi and what I call the Sage Loop; moderate 4.5. Each of those hikes will lead you back to the main gate.

My hike of choice (when I have the time) encompasses the entire ranch area, providing a chance to see just about all of the terrain and beauty the place has to offer. You’re also likely to find some solitude once you hike to the outer edges of the park as few people tend to go north of the ranch house. I call this hike, “The Whole Enchilada Loop.”

By following the below list of trail names in order, you’ll get in just under 14 miles of good hiking and a peak to boot. Download the trail map located at the link below as a reference to this hike.

  • Creek Crossing (look for Dixon Lake to the south)
  • East Ridge
  • Sage (look for seasonal ponds in the area)
  • Stanley Peak (nice views to the east)
  • Sage (pass by Mallard Pond on your left)
  • Ranch House (chemical toilets and picnic tables)
  • Jack Creek Meadow (eastern loop portion)
  • Hidden Springs (the steepest one-mile section in the park)
  • Engelmann Oak (head north at the junction)
  • Cougar Ridge (nice views to the west)
  • Boulder Loop (favorite section of the hike)
  • Ranch House (head south to the parking area)

If you find that daylight is rapidly vanishing or your endurance is lagging a bit, the hike itinerary can be easily be shortened to shave off a few miles by taking any number of shortcuts. One of the surprisingly nice shortcuts is via “Bobcat Trail” which bisects the Engelmann Oak Loop. On a very warm day a few summers ago, I began to run out of water so took this trail to shave off a mile. The Bobcat trail is a shaded, one track trail that was a nice change of pace from the hot sun that day.

Water is only available at the La Honda parking area and during the summer, this rocky, inland valley can become quite warm so bring plenty. A pay phone and chemical toilets are available at the ranch house.

I'm not sure if I'd label the trails at Daley Ranch as "destination hikes," but you really shouldn't miss the place if you're within a hour's drive. Actually, heaven's worth even a two hour drive if you need a little slice.

Daley Ranch Trail Map

Daley Ranch Information

Daley Ranch Photo Set

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