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  • Vien R. Guenther

Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve (East & West Trails) – San Diego County, California

Updated: Jan 6

Another pleasant system of hiking trails in San Diego County is in the Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve. The preserve, separated into two areas, the West and the East Side, north of Julian, This area was once thriving dairy and cattle country, so don't be surprised to see some cows grazing here. Though there are some steep uphill and some elevation gains on these trails, these are relaxing hikes, a different experience from other hiking trails in the county. Parts of the trails are included in the Coast-to-Crest Trail, a trail planned to be about 71 miles once it is completed, which begins at the coast in Del Mar and ends at the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve.

View of Cuyamaca Peaks from the trail


West Preserve: Coming from downtown San Diego is about a little over an hour drive to the West Trailhead (Santa Ysabel West Preserve) via CA-94 E. Take Exit 18B to I-8/Kumeyaay Highway and Exit 17 B to State 67. Past the town of Julian, the road becomes State 78/Julian Road, follow it all the way to the Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve West.

East Preserve: There are two trailheads on the either side of the East Preserve. One along Highway 79 (Santa Ysabel East Preserve, Highway 79 Staging area). The other is along Farmers Road, To Farmer Road, continue on Highway 78 past Santa Ysabel and then to 79/Julian Road. Head east to Wynola Road and then north to Farmer Road all the way to the Santa Ysabel East Preserve trailhead.


The 4,600-acres of the combined preserves consists of stands of oak trees, grasslands and open meadows with wildflowers some times of the year. They have more than 15 miles of trails open for hikers, bikers and equestrians. There is no shade most of the way so it’s best to hike here when the weather is cool, such as early Spring, Fall and Winter. One of the best incentives of hiking here is stopping for a pie after the hike. Julian is well-known for their apple pies. It's the best afternoon snack you can get to restore your energy, hopefully not your weight, as far as we are concerned.


It was a cool sunny day when we hiked here. It snowed nearby the night before so weather conditions were great for a hike. From the trailhead, the first mile of the trail is gentle, slightly downhill, ideal for when you have kids with you and want a short hike. Within a few yards you will find some shade under the Engelmann Oaks along the trail.

Then the trail climbs significantly after a mile or so and the view opens up as you continue on to the high point of the hike. That day the mountains were covered with snow, which added to the beauty of the surrounding landscapes. It kind of reminded us hiking in Colorado, except out here the oak trees populate the area, not pine trees. Then the trail descends steeply as you hike down to the crossing of the Santa Ysabel Creek, which is really worth doing. You can turn around here or continue up on the other side of the creek; that's what we did and I really recommend doing this.

The creek crossing is about 1.7 miles from the trailhead. I would say the area by the creek is the prettiest part of the trail. You probably wonder where the water is coming from. Its source is on the slopes of Volcan Mountain where it flows down this creek and then to the San Dieguito River Watershed. There was not much foot traffic here, at least when we were there, so it's kind of a pleasant day hike.

Santa Ysabel Creek

If you continue onward from the creek, the uphill trek begins. Then, once you reach the ridge, look back and you will see how steep the trail is that you took coming down to the creek. Ah! Don't think about how you will have to tackle that steep uphill going back.

The steepest part of the trail

You got this far then you might as well take the loop. At the beginning of the loop you will find a one-of-a-kind trail sign, a wooden slingshot with a cute wooden owl peeking in between. Good job to whoever made this sign. From here, you can either start the loop going clockwise or counterclockwise. To the right is the Ridge Trail and to the left is Upper Creek Trail, either way will give you a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape. Part of this loop, about 0.4 miles, is included in the Coast-to-Crest Trail.

There’s a "Shortcut Trail" on this loop, about 0.17 mile, that you can take but why would you, unless you decide to shorten the hike and not complete the whole loop. If you are not paying attention, you will pass the highest point of the loop without knowing it. There is no "summit" here as is usually found in mountain hikes.

Oak trees by the trail

You can admire how huge the oak trees are here, although some are dead, unfortunately. Under one of these trees is a rest area where you can spend a bit of time enjoying the view and have a snack before tackling the steep uphill hiking back.

Engelmann Oak tree
Rest area under the oak tree

SANTA YSABEL EAST PRESERVE (Kanaka Loop Trail) – 8 miles Round Trip

Farmer Road Trailhead

You can either begin your hike here along Highway 79 (Staging Area) or at the parking lot along Farmers Road, depending on which trail you want to tackle. But if you plan on taking the whole trail, 15 miles in all one way, then you might want to take two cars, parking one at each trailhead.

The Kanaka Loop Trail begin along Farmers Road. Hiking here you will find some spots of shade from the oak trees, but most of the way is through open meadows where you will find some cattle grazing on the green grass. The trail is gentle with some elevation gain in some areas, but overall this is a pleasant hiking trail.

A few yards from the trailhead, you will cross the Santa Ysabel Creek. You will pass cross this creek again after about 1.4 miles. Near the creek you will pass a shapely looking rock (you can use your imagination).

Crossing the Santa Ysabel Creek
First part of the trail

Along the trail you will find a wooden "throne"; well, a high chair actually cut out from a huge dead tree. They even provided a step stool, and a step, for vertically challenged people like me. Kudos to those people who carved this chair.

A wooden throne

Soon enough you will encounter cattle along the trail, a dilemma for some who haven't encountered bovines up close and personal. They will stare at you, but will not get out of your way, so you just have to walk around them, cautiously. Needless to say, I was hesitant (picture below) especially with mama with the baby, but we passed through unharmed. Passing the next herd of cattle is easier afterward.

More cattle

Check for the sign along the trail so you won't get lost. People miss signs sometimes, if they are busy chatting amongst themselves; believe me it happens, we've seen that.

That way

Upon crossing the creek the second time, the trail starts to gain elevation, but for a short distance only. The beginning of the loop is about 0.7 miles from the creek. You will see a sign pointing you to the right direction. There are two signs 0.3 miles apart. This portion of the trail is part of the Coast-To-Crest Trail so pay attention to the signs.

Sign along Kanaka Loop

The Kanaka Loop crosses open meadows - a pasture for cattle so look where you step. Along the trail look on the sides and you will find small, but beautiful, wildflowers. Some are so tiny it's hard to take photos of them.

All in all this is a nice hiking trail. It's not challenging, but good for all hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. There are few hikers here. We met a few on the way back.

View from the trail


Dogs are allowed but must be on a leash. Sant Ysabel is a historic place. Near the West Preserve, just at the edge of the town of Santa Ysabel, is a 6,000 square foot Nature Center, if you want to learn about the area’s ecology, natural and cultural history.


Santa Ysabel Trails, captured by GPS and downloaded to Google Earth


Nature Center and West Vista Loop Trails, Santa Ysabel Nature Center and Preserve

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