Denk Mountain (Rancho La Costa Preserve)


Rancho La Costa is a habitat conservation area in Carlsbad and managed by the Center for Natural Lands Management, consisting of several non-contiguous parcels of land. We had previously hiked the Ridgeline Trail above Box Canyon. For this adventure we were hiking Denk Mountain, slightly east of the Ridgeline area.

Denk Mountain is home to a pretty extensive network of trails, so you can plot out routes of varying length and difficulty depending on what you’re after. This was our first time here, so we picked out a shorter route that looked like it would still hit the highlights as we explored the area: take the Switchbacks Trail to the viewpoint atop Denk Mountain, then descend along the Mule Deer Trail and connect back to the Switchbacks Trail.

We parked along the street amid a small throng of mountain bikers unloading their bikes. It should be noted that this is a very popular mountain biking spot, so be prepared to share the trail. The trailhead was easy to spot near the beginning of the street.20160424DSC_7821DenkMtn

Near an informational kiosk, a wooden footbridge spanning a small culvert reminded visitors of basic trail etiquette.20160424DSC_7670DenkMtn

The trail was a narrow single track winding through coastal sage scrub. The buckwheat was blooming beautifully, adding bright splashes of white to the brown and green hillside.20160424DSC_7674-EditDenkMtn

Just under .5 mile we encountered a “Y” junction. The right fork led downhill towards another neighborhood access point. We turned left up the hill, following the sign for “Switchbacks.”20160424DSC_7687-EditDenkMtn

As promised by the name, the trail began to switch back up the flank of the diminutive mountain. It turned tightly at the end of each switchback, no doubt making for an exciting descent on bike. It also made for pretty easy going uphill on foot.20160424DSC_7695-EditDenkMtn

We found some spectacular sage blooms as we continued our climb.20160424DSC_7699DenkMtn

Our ascent was rewarded with some fantastic views. To the west we could see the blue expanse of Batiquitos Lagoon leading out towards the fogged-in Pacific Ocean.20160424DSC_7708Denk Mountian

Just under the 1 mile point, we passed through an interesting outcropping of boulders, which provided a tiny bit of shade and a potential spot to sit down and rest along side the trail.20160424DSC_7714-EditDenkMtn

Flowering Buckwheat cascaded over the tops of the rocks.20160424DSC_7713-EditDenkMtn

We continued on and quickly found ourselves on the open hillside again, surrounded by sage.20160424DSC_7717DenkMtn

At 1.15 miles, we came to a 4-way junction with the Mule Deer Trail. We made note of the crossing since we’d be returning on that trail, but for now we went straight, following the sign for “Switchbacks.”20160424DSC_7719DenkMtn

We continued climbing, zig-zagging up the hillside. We caught a glimpse of the nearby water tank through the brush on the northwest side of the preserve.20160424DSC_7732DenkMtn

At 1.5 miles we came to another junction. To the left, a short spur trail led to a fire road which traversed the mountain’s ridgeline. We turned right, to continue up the Switchbacks.20160424DSC_7734DenkMtn

At the 2 mile point we came upon a 4-way junction, with a wooden bench on the left. From here, we could see some structures at the top of the hill where the viewpoint was. We were almost there.20160424DSC_7752DenkMtn

We took the fire road to the right, aiming for the viewpoint. Almost near the top, we noted the Mule Deer Trail branching off to the side. We made a note of the junction as we’d be descending along that trail, but for now continued up the hill until we reached the top. The viewpoint consisted of a wide open area that allowed views in all directions. There was a kiosk with a trail map and other information, and a shaded picnic table on the north side.20160424DSC_7763DenkMtn

The day was a bit hazy, but looking east we could make out the silhouettes of Cuyamaca and Mt. Woodson.20160424DSC_7761DenkMtn

And of course Batiquitos Lagoon and the ocean to the west.20160424DSC_7758DenkMtn

We took a short break to admire the views and have a snack, then retraced our path down the hill to the Mule Deer Trail we had noticed earlier, and turned left.20160424DSC_7754DenkMtn

This trail didn’t mess around with any gently graded curves winding leisurely along the hillside the way the Switchbacks Trail had. This trail cut diagonally down the flank of the mountain, descending quite efficiently. But although it was noticeably steeper than the Switchbacks had been, it really wasn’t all that bad – we dropped about 200 feet over the next .5 mile or so.20160424DSC_7769DenkMtn

Around 2.6 miles, we found ourselves at the junction we had noticed on our way up where the Switchbacks and Mule Deer Trails crossed. You can take a left and follow the Switchbacks back to the start, but we were still in exploration mode and continued straight along the Mule Deer Trail.20160424DSC_7772DenkMtn

We continued to descend towards the field of houses that marked the edge of the Preserve.20160424DSC_7776DenkMtn

We spotted a small butterfly feeding on some blossoms on the edge of the trail, and had just enough time to grab a single quick shot before a trail runner heading uphill scared it off.20160424DSC_7777DenkMtn

At 2.9 miles we came to another junction where we turned left, heading back towards the start of the Switchbacks Trail.20160424DSC_7778DenkMtn

Here we found more Buckwheat and Mustard blooms to brighten up the surroundings.20160424DSC_7786DenkMtn

There were also some impressive Prickly Pear Cactus specimens to admire.20160424DSC_7791DenkMtn

Around 3.2 miles we once again connected with the Switchbacks Trail, and this time we turned right to retrace our route back to the trailhead.20160424DSC_7792DenkMtn

Take 5 North to the the La Costa Ave exit. Turn right onto La Costa Ave and continue for 4 miles. Turn left onto Rancho Santa Fe Road. After .8 miles, turn right onto Camino Junipero, then in approximately .2 miles turn left onto Corte Romero. Park along the street and find the trail head at the beginning of Corte Romero. map

Total Distance: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 690 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
City of Carlsbad – Rancho La Costa Preserve & Villages of La Costa Trail Guide
Center for Natural Lands Management – Rancho La Costa Preserve
Trail Map
View route or download GPX in CalTopo

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