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  • Writer's pictureVien R. Guenther

Way Up Trailhead/Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve – San Diego County, California

One of the best trails to hike in Escondido is in Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve. Though hiking here is not a wilderness experience, the area is a habitat to many endangered, rare, sensitive and threatened species. This is a trail fit for family. The reserve has six overlooks with views (on a clear day) of the Pacific Ocean, nearby islands and mountain ranges, including Olivenhain Dam and reservoir found on top as well as Lake Hodges below.

View of Lake Hodges from the trail


Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve is part of the dedicated open space of Elfin Forest. The reserve, first opened in 1992, sits within the Escondido Creek watershed. It comprises 784 acres with about 11 miles of hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails. The park, developed by Olivenhain Municipal Water District (OMWD), is in partnership with the San Diego County Water Authority and the U.S Department of the Interior-Bureau of Land Management.

The Elfin Forest valley contains one of the largest areas of virgin coastal scrub in Southern California. It was described by naturalist as "Elfin Forest", from the vegetation used to cover much of Southern California, which is predominantly covered by chaparral, a Spanish word “chaparro”, meaning live oak. This area was said to be a meeting ground for many tribes. Evidence suggests that Northern Diegueños and Luisenos have lived in this area for thousands of years. What’s more, the area is rumored to be haunted, from stories of white witches to gypsies who once lived here and were forced out of the valley.


The Interpretive Center found in the park honors Susan J. Varty, a board director for OMWD from 1994-2009. The center was designed by renowned local artist James Hubbell and architect Drew Hubbell. This center was created to inspire visitors to appreciate the value of the open space and the plants and wild animals found in the park. School children take field trips here in the park annually.


Coming from downtown San Diego is about a 48-minutes drive via CA- 163 and I-15 heading north. Take Exit 27 to West Via Rancho Parkway then right to Del Dios Road. Turn left to Citracado Parkway and follow Harmony Grove Village Parkway, then left to Harmony Grove Road to the main trailhead. Parking here is limited so plan your hike.


Although this park can be busy at times, it’s one of our favorite places to hike in San Diego. We’ve been hiking here even before we permanently moved to the county. You can vary your hike here and make it shorter or longer. The Way Up Trail, considered moderately challenging route, has several tributaries which you can take to enjoy various views from the trails and overlooks.


At the beginning of the trail, you will cross the Escondido creek. The creek, which flows year-round, is home to many endangered species. On the trail is a junction to the Botanical Trail. Either way will take you to Harmony Grove Overlook, about a mile of uphill, with a series of switchbacks as you get near the overlook. Here, you can sit on a bench and catch your breath before continuing on to the Ridgetop Picnic Area.

Escondido Creek


To the Ridgetop Picnic Area is about 1.6 miles. Just above the picnic area is an overlook from where you will have a beautiful panoramic view of Olivenhain Dam & Reservoir. The reservoir was built for emergency and carryover storage for the county of San Diego. It has a storage capacity of 24,000 acre-feet of water; one acre-foot is typically enough water for a family of four for a year.

Olivenhain Dam & Reservoir from the trail


You can end your hike at the Ridgetop Picnic area, but you can extend your hike to get the best views. From the picnic area, you can take an additional 1.4 loop hike on the west side to the dam or while on the east side, Lake Hodges overlook is about 1.5 miles one way. Remember, you have to hike back so take plenty of water. There is no shade at the top and you will be under the sun the whole time.

Winter time is the best time to hike here and we hiked both sides one time, which took about 8.5 miles. Either trail you take will have great views, but the best views are on the east side of the reservoir.

View of Lake Hodges from the trail
View of urban sprawl from the trail

From the Lake Hodges overlook, you will see Olivenhain Dam to the west and Lake Hodges down the valley on the east side of the reservoir. Take your pick as you have your snack or lunch - you can't go wrong either way. This is the best spot to boost your energy and rest since you are only halfway, you still have to hike back.

View looking east
View looking west
Lake Hodges
Lake Hodges

On the way back down, before we reached the staging/parking area, we took the Botanical Trail. Hiking on this trail is very refreshing after a long exposure to the sun. The lush vegetation and shade from the trees have an instant cooling effect. We always take this route going back down. Stop and read the interpretive signs along the way. It's very interesting. From the lower part of this trail you will get to a crossing of Escondido Creek - but you will need to do some rock-hopping to cross here.


E-bikes are not allowed here. Dogs are welcome but must be on leash. Permit is required for groups of eight or more.



Way Up Trailhead and trails to the east and west overlooks captured from GPS and downloaded to Google Earth

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