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  • Writer's pictureVien R. Guenther

Nature Center & West Vista Loop Trails – Santa Ysabel Nature Center and Preserve, San Diego County

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

The Santa Ysabel Nature Center Loop Trail is quite new. It’s not even marked on Google Maps yet, except the West Vista Loop Trail/Coast to Crest Trail. These trails are part of the Santa Ysabel Preserve East and connect to the park’s other east trails - the Kanaka Loop Trail. This is a very pleasant trail combination though it’s best to hike here when the weather is cool. Although there is shade on parts of the trails, much of the hike is in an open area where the sun beats down on you. But you can cool down under the shade of the enormous Engelmann Oak trees scattered along the trails. At the end of the hike, you can refresh inside the nature center while browsing the exhibits. What's more, one other perk of hiking in Santa Ysabel is the popular pie shop (Julian Pie Company) at the center of the village where you can indulge after a hike for some afternoon snack. We stop here ourselves occasionally. How can you resist a good slice of apple pie?


The park's sign

The Nature Center is located on the west edge of the Santa Ysabel Preserve East, on Highway 79. The preserve is owned and managed by the County of San Diego’s Department of Parks and Recreation. In this 6,347-acre protected land is the modern Nature Center structure, a 6,000 square-foot LEED Gold and Zero Net Energy facility. It offers interactive exhibits, ranger offices, a community room and kitchen, as well as a water refilling station and rest rooms. Browsing the exhibits inside the center is a learning experience for everyone, not just for kids.

The building itself is slightly obscured from the highway, but the entrance sign is quite visible by the road. Since the Santa Ysabel Preserve consists of two non-connected segments (east and west), there is the possibility of visitors being confused because they are unfamiliar with the area. There are separate trailheads into both parts of the preserve, and people can find themselves on the wrong trail sometimes. We met a couple once as we were hiking in the west segment of the preserve who asked where the nature center is. They were obviously lost, not knowing about the two different segments.

Santa Ysabel Nature Center
Wild animals found in the area
Play area for kids


This trail can be reach via Highway 79 and Highway 78/Old Julian Highway. If you are coming from Ramona driving on Highway 78, turn left to Highway 79 as you reach the Santa Ysabel town. If you are coming from Julian, turn right at the center of town. From the town it is about 0.3 miles to the entrance of the nature center. There is ample parking space here.

If you are hiking the West Vista Loop Trail/Coast to Crest Trail, then park at the Santa Ysabel East Preserve staging area about 0.9 mile north along Highway 79 from the nature center. However, there is no designated parking at this trailhead, just a small widened area beside the road.


You have several options hiking here. You can either take the Nature Center Loop Trail alone, or combine it with the West Vista Loop Trail/Coast to Crest Trail. On this hike, we hiked both loops to make the hike longer. We had to repeat about a mile of the trail but the hike is short enough that we didn’t mind doing it.


The easiest way to hike this trail is by doing a counter-clockwise approach. The trail is less steep with plenty of shades and equally beautiful views The trailhead, if you are doing the counterclockwise approach, is just behind the nature center, past the hanging bells and before the children’s playground.

Nature Loop Trail

The trail is all uphill all the way to the first junction. This is where you decide if you want to take a longer hike, or not. The Nature Loop Trail continues down to the left while continuing uphill you will enter the West Vista Loop Trail/Coast to Crest Trail.

We took the “Figure Eight” approach. Since this was our first time to hike this trail, it's good to know the options, so we can get acquainted with what's in the park. Of course it's good to have cameras along. You never know what you will find in the park - views, wildflowers, wild animals.

Junction to Nature Loop Trail & Coast to Crest Trail
Nature Loop Trail

From the junction it is pretty much an easy hike. There are groves of Engelmann Oak trees and wide open meadows. I can imagine wild animals feeding on grass or wildflowers covering this meadow, but not that day. It was Fall and too late in the day to see any wild animals roaming.

Trail between the meadows along Nature Center Loop Trail

At a junction, you can either complete the Nature Loop Trail and head back down, or follow the West Vista Loop Trail/Coast to Crest Trail. As I mentioned earlier, we did the "figure eight" hike.

Junction sign
Coast to Crest Trail

After completing the upper loop, you arrive at another junction, where you will find a fenced-in picnic area with tables and attached benches. It is a very nice spot to have lunch or a snack to boost your energy, or simply hang out for a bit before continuing on the hike. You get shade from the oak trees here as well to cool you off.

Picnic area

The Coast to Crest Trail continues ahead from here. You have to pay attention, follow the sign to the Nature Center/Santa Ysabel Loop Trail. Otherwise you might find yourself following the Coast to Crest Trail and end up on Kanaka Loop Trail on the east side of the preserve. Hikers sometimes miss the signs if they are busy talking - believe me, we have encountered a few on our previous hikes.

With the West Vista loop completed and back on Nature Center Loop Trail, you would think it will be easy from here on, at least for a while. The long steep downhill is a "leg burner", as my husband, Hermann, always says. As you start the long steep descent, you will be in the open all the way, there is no shade on this part of the trail. But at the bottom of the steep hill is an open field. You still have a long way back to the nature center, but there are spots of beautiful Engelmann Oak trees along the way which provide shade to cool you off.


Bring plenty of water. You can easily get dehydrated hiking on this trail. Sunblock is a must and so is a hat, appropriate footwear (hiking boots) and hiking sticks.



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