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  • Writer's pictureVien R. Guenther

Hiking in Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary – Lakeside, San Diego County, California

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

This must be one of the best hikes in San Diego County. You don’t have to be a bird enthusiast to visit this place; there are hiking trails here to explore with family, although a couple of them are quite strenuous. When we hiked here, we expected to see the sanctuary teeming with hikers since it is only open to the public on Sundays. But we only met one group on the toughest trail. We enjoyed the many interesting plants, wildflowers, huge rocks, and amazing views along the trail and at the summit. Add to that the sound of the birds and the water as it flows from the many streams, it was a delightful experience. This is a must do again, but not on a typically hot day.


Sanctuary Sign

Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary is owned and maintained by San Diego Audubon Society. The 758-acre property preserves a prime area of coastal chaparral and riparian woodland where over 324 native plant species and 124 bird species have been recorded. As you can imagine, with the abundant flora and fauna, there are other species of wildlife living in this area as well. A sign at the base warns about the existence of rattlesnakes and mountain lions, for example. Although we love birds, my husband and I are not birding enthusiasts, but an observation area is provided for those who are.

Take note! The sanctuary is open to visitors from 9 am to 4 pm on Sundays only, from October to July. It is closed in August and September due to fire risk.


The sanctuary, although there is a sign, is easily missed if you are driving fast, unless you have the address (13003 Wildcat Canyon Road) on your car’s GPS, of course. If you are coming from downtown San Diego, it is about a 32-minutes drive via CA-94 E, or via I-8 E, to Wildcat Canyon Road. The sanctuary is near the El Cajon Mountain Trailhead and the Oak Oasis County Preserve.

Coming from the town of Ramona is about 20 minutes’ drive via San Vicente Road to Wildcat Canyon Road. The sanctuary is about 1.6 miles south of the Barona Resort & Casino - the best landmark to note if you go there to do some relaxation.



The sanctuary has five miles of interconnecting trails and the Circuit Trail is the longest and one of the most challenging ones. This trail has steep sections that young kids may not be able to cope with. It’s a tough hike, depending on your hiking capabilities. The best part is, the trails are well-maintained and well-built, and mostly in the open where you can see the views in most directions.

We started our hike by taking the Circuit Trail in the counter-clockwise direction. Take note of the signs along the trail. They are much lower than the typical signs found in other preserves. If you are not looking down you might miss them. If you suddenly decide it might be too hard to hike all the way to the summit, there are connecting trails that will take you back down to the parking area. It is best to bring a map so you won't get lost. Part of the trails are on solid bedrock, such as the "Big Rock Slab" (photo below); you want to make sure that your boot soles are clean and provide good traction to prevent from slipping. It is pretty steep.

Big Rock Slab

Finding wildflower fields along the trail was a surprise. We saw this spot of yellow from down below and sure enough, the yellow fields of flowers were at their peak. They're like a cascade flowing down the slope. What else can you ask for on a hiking trail like this one? The wildflowers and the open views are amazing - you just can't resist staying a while to take in the beauty of both.

Field of wildflowers on Big Rock Slab

From the Circuit Trail there is a sign to Howie Weir/Rudy’s View Trail which it will lead you to the summit. Pay attention to the sign pointing you to the right direction. A surprise along the this trail comes when you are heading towards the summit. Here you will find a wide panoramic view of the mountains as you turn a corner. The Silverdome mountain closest to the trail is lush with green vegetation, that it almost seems like hiking in the Alps and not in San Diego County (see picture below).

Howie Weir/Rudy’s View Trail

Also on this trail, the view to the west might easily distract you, where you can see the San Vicente Reservoir and the coast, as far as the eye can see. On the way back, we stopped here for lunch. How can we not? With all the recent rain we just had, everything looked so lush and green.

View to the west

At the end of the trail there is a narrow opening between huge rocks. It reveals a fantastic view of El Capitan Preserve, as well as part of the El Capitan Reservoir. From this point you can also see the top of El Cajon Mountain. It was like looking from a window as you stand between these rocks. We only had the place to ourselves for a few minutes, just enough to take some pictures, before a group came and waited to have their turn. There is not much room on the summit.

View at the summit
Part of the view is El Cajon Mountain
Closer look of the view from the trail

Back to the Circuit Trail, from where you can decide whether to continue the loop or go back the same way. Hiking the whole loop, however, will give you different views of the surrounding area. There are other interesting things to see such as the chaparral biome, woody plants that are unique to the Pacific Coast of North America.


If hiking the Circuit Trail loop is not enough for you, then explore the easy trails in the sanctuary. We did a short loop along Chaparral, Quail and Sunset Trails. You will find spots of wildflowers along these trails.

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