This post was most recently updated on January 13th, 2022
One of the best ways to get a feel for an area is to get outside and explore. Escondido, CA, is a great place to do just that. It’s a relatively small city (population 150,000) 20 miles north of San Diego. In fact, its name is Spanish for hidden. And “hidden” here are two Escondido hikes for all to enjoy.
One of these is the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve, and the other is Daley Ranch. Let me share a little about each of these Escondido hikes with you…
Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve
Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve is a 784-acre open space reserve that includes Mount Israel (1346 ft elevation), the Escondido Creek, and the Olivenhain Reservoir. With a cute little interpretive center, an easy 1-mile botanic loop trail, picnic areas, equestrian trails, a bicycle station, and 11 miles of hiking trails, it’s a popular place to be, especially on the weekend.
Elfin Forest is part of the Escondido watershed area, and exhibits in the interpretive center give more detailed information about its purposes. The main parking lot, the trailhead for the Way Up Trail, and interpretive center (as well as portable restrooms) can be found at 8833 Harmony Grove Rd, Escondido, CA 92029. The botanic trail loop also starts here. There is a second parking lot, as well as parking along the highway, should the main parking lot be full.
What You Can Expect
On a recent visit, we opted to hike the Way Up Trail to the Ridgetop Picnic Area where we could see the Olivenhain Reservoir. It’s a 1.5 mile, 600-ft climb. Trails are well marked, but all of the trails are also listed on the All Trails app, and that makes it easier to find your way.
Following a wet spring, there was an abundance of wildflowers in bloom, as well as lots of green – trees, bushes, and ground plants. We heard plenty of birds and saw a few. Most of the wildlife we encountered were lizards scurrying across the path, or black stinkbugs.
While we saw several cyclists at Ridgetop Overlook where it is relatively flat, the trails leading to the top seemed challenging for a bicycle to navigate.
Hiking the Trails
As we climbed up the moderate and sometimes rocky trail, the views of the preserve and neighboring valleys opened up to us. When we reached the top, we could easily see the Olivenhain Reservoir. Picnic tables set apart in separate alcoves invited us to sit for awhile and enjoy the view (and some snacks we had packed with us).
From here, we could see several other trails we could have taken to explore more, including a trail to a Lake Hodges overlook. Perhaps we’ll come back to try that another time. Our hike, while stopping often to take photos, was an easy hour up Mount Israel and a little less time going back down to the staging area and parking lot.
Interpretive Center and Escondido Creek
Back near the visitors center, we enjoyed watching a few young boys fishing in the creek. The water is clear enough that you can easily see the fish, some nearly a foot long. Signs along the creek warn that water may not be clean enough for wading. But little waterfalls and gracefully sloping oak trees made for a very peaceful setting. A family picnicked on a blanket nearby.
The visitor center displays some permanent art and is staffed by a ranger or volunteer, who is happy to answer any questions you may have about Escondido hikes and activities. There are pamphlets with maps and other information available. Dogs are allowed on leashes; be prepared to clean up after them!
Daley Ranch once belonged to English immigrant Robert Daley, and his family. They raised cattle/horses and ran a dairy too. After Robert died in 1916, the family moved to Jamul and leased out the dairy. When that was no longer profitable, they used the ranch for summer vacations and community fiestas.
In 1996, the Escondido City Council halted plans for a huge housing development by purchasing the ranch and creating a habitat preserve.They wanted the beautiful land and features to remain available for all to enjoy.
What You Can Expect
Today, it is much as it was when the Daley family lived here. With 3,150 acres and 25 miles of hiking trails, many scenic viewpoints, large ponds, and a ranch home/barn, it is easy to see why Robert Daley was attracted to the property in the first place.
There is a lot of wildlife that also make Daley Ranch home. We saw lots of ducks and frogs, various birds, and lizards, and signs of larger animals like coyote and deer. Wildflowers were growing in abundance here as well. (Click on any image to enlarge)
Hiking the Trails
Beginning from the parking lot at 3024 La Honda Drive (next to Dixon Lake), we headed to the right on a dirt trail, to Creek Crossing Trail, and then took East Ridge Trail a short distance to connect to Coyote Run trail. We turned left on Diamond Back trail and left again on Sage Trail, passing a pond. When we came to a “T”, we turned left and took another left on East Ridge Trail; that took us past another pond with lots of baby frogs and then to a paved road near the ranch house and barn. That same paved road looped back to the parking lot where we began. (We had originally planned to do just the Coyote Run loop, but wanted to see the ranch house and asked for directions from a passing hiker.) This map of Daley Ranch may also be helpful to you.
Trails here are relatively easy to hike. In fact, we came with our son and daughter-in-law and their three young children, ages 2, 4, and 6. While the 2-yr old often ended up in his Dad’s carrier, our granddaughters were just fine with the terrain, as long as we took a few breaks.
They were all absolutely thrilled with the baby frogs we saw nearly everywhere!
From the ranch house, it was an easy walk out to the parking lot on a wide road. All in all, we hiked about 4+ miles total, in about 2 ½ hours.
Trails available to hike at Daley Ranch range in elevation from 738 ft to 1975 ft (Stanley Peak) and 2135 ft (Burnt Mountain, currently off limits). Dogs are allowed, but must be on a leash; please clean up after your dog! Horses are also allowed.
Comparing these Escondio Hikes
- Both Elfin Forest and Daley Ranch have free parking lots. Overflow parking is also available at additional lots or on the street.
- Elfin Forest is probably the more popular of these Escondido hikes. You will be sure to see many others on the trail. Whereas, at Daley Ranch, you may hike for quite a while without seeing anyone else.
- On a hot day, you would be less protected from the sun at Elfin Forest, but both locations do offer some shade. Use sunscreen and bring plenty of water.
- Elfin Forest has steeper trails as you climb Mount Israel, and some of the trails are rather rocky. Trails at Daily Ranch were much easier to manage, especially with young children, although there are a few inclines.
- Both have beautiful landscapes, wildflowers, and views of the surrounding areas. And both have creeks running through the property. Why not just plan to do both?!
And if you’re interested in some more challenging hikes, read Three Mountain Hikes & A Castle in San Diego County for information about hikes with mountaintop views.