Kanaka Loop Trail (Santa Ysabel East Preserve)

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The Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve actually consists of two disconnected parcels of land in the Santa Ysabel and Julian areas. The two distinct sections are referred to as Santa Ysabel West and Santa Ysabel East. To further confuse the issue, Santa Ysabel East has two trailheads: The Highway 79 trailhead on the western side of the Preserve, and the Farmer Staging area on the east. This hike begins at the Farmer Staging area and explores the eastern end of the preserve.

The Preserve encompasses former ranchland, and cattle are still allowed to graze in the area. It can be a bit disconcerting at first to pass close to some of these large creatures, who apparently make it a habit of napping in the middle of the trail. But after spending several hours in their company, I am happy to report they’re quite docile and shouldn’t cause you any problems if you give them some space and respect.

The staging area was pretty easy to find, since it was just about a mile up the road from the Volcan Mountain entrance, which we had visited before. We passed through the gate at the southwest corner of the parking lot, and after examining the plethora of warning signs about how dangerous nature is, set off on our way.

The trail was a wide dirt path that appeared to have been a former ranch road. Almost immediately, we descended down to the trickling water of Santa Ysabel Creek. To the left of the trail, a small wooden footbridge spanned the waterway, but we just hopped across the small rivulet and continued on.
The raging waters of Santa Ysabel Creek

From here the trail wound along the base of some hills which were carpeted in green grass. Periodically a lone tree or patch of boulders interrupted the verdant expanse of grass. Down the slope on our left was the tree-lined course of the Santa Ysabel Creek.

It wasn’t long before we encountered our first group of cattle grazing on the hillside to our right. A couple of the animals eyed us warily as we passed, but mostly they ignored us and continued grazing on the grass. They were pretty far away from the trail so we didn’t worry about them too much. We saw one using one of the giant boulders to scratch her neck.

Around .75 miles the trail entered a shady grove of oaks. We heard some commotion behind us and saw a large cow being followed by two calves coming up behind us.

We paused for a few moments to snap some pictures of the oak trees, and turning around to shoot behind me I saw the large cow coming down the trail behind us. Photobombing bovine!

We emerged from the oaks and traveled a bit further along some more exposed grassland. We could hear the cow lowing plaintively somewhere behind us. Here the grass was growing thick enough to partially obscure the trail in some areas, but it was still easy enough to follow.

We passed through another thicket of oak trees, and then at 1.55 miles the trail made a sharp left turn down towards the creek.

A hairpin turn and short downhill slope brought us to a beautiful shady spot along the creek, complete with a couple of picnic tables. Once again we found a small wooden footbridge to assist with the creek crossing, but opted for the more direct route of just stepping over the small stream of water.

From here, the trail ascended somewhat steeply. Fortunately the dense growth of oak trees kept the trail shaded so it was rather pleasant as far as climbs go.

The trail wrapped around the hill as we ascended, and near the top we made a turn to find a large group of cows headed down the trail towards us.

The cows stopped and stared at us. We stopped and stared at the cows. An awkward moment passed while we all stared at each other. I realized the cows were waiting to see what we did, so I moved over to the opposite side of the path and slowly began moving uphill. The lead cow decided she didn’t want anything to do with us and took off into the bushes, down the side of the hill. The rest of the group followed, stomping loudly through the brush as they careened down the hillside. I felt bad for scaring them, but they ignored my lame apologies. We continued up the trail.

Around 2.2 miles we reached the top and paused for a moment to enjoy the views. Looking towards the northwest we could see Palomar mountain, complete with the observatory.

A little further beyond, we found some old rusted farming implements on the side of the trail.

The trail continued towards a large, flat expanse ahead of us. This was Kanaka Flat. At roughly 2.4 miles we came to a “T” junction where the loop portion of our hike began. We decided to turn right and hike the loop counter-clockwise as it seemed that this would mean a longer but gentler ascent up the hill, as opposed to a short steep climb.

So we turned right and followed the trail west through an open, grassy plain. At 2.7 miles we encountered another intersection where we turned left to stay on the Kanaka Loop Trail. The right fork was a section of the Coast to Crest Trail, which led to the other side of the Preserve (a hike for another day!)

We circled the open plain of Kanaka Flat, coming ever closer to a herd of grazing cattle. At one point we passed a large metal cattle pen. Beyond this point, a dry creek bed ran along the left side of the trail, and we spied a group of cows hanging out in the shade of some oak trees.

The trail was sloping gently uphill at this point. Around 3.3 miles we found another picnic table beneath a large tree, and decided this was an opportune time to take a break and have a snack. We were entertained by a pair of cows grazing across the trail and a Western Bluebird drinking from a nearby trough while we ate.

Back on the trail, we continued our gradual climb. We began to see numerous young pine trees along the trail. Maybe this was an area that had been replanted after the 2003 Cedar Fire, which according to some interpretive signs we had seen burned over 65% of the Preserve
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The hill climbed a bit more steeply as we made our way through the new trees. We came upon a very small area that appeared to have burned quite recently.

Just past the burned section, we reached the top of the hill and began a steep descent. We found a handful of large pine trees on this side of the hill.

At approximately 4 miles, we reached the bottom of the hill and turned westward along the valley floor. Once again, we were surrounded by open grassy fields, with the only trees lining the distant hilltops.

We crossed the floor of the small valley and began climbing the hill on the other side. At 4.5 miles we were at the top, and took a moment to enjoy the view.

From here it was just another half a mile down a steep hill until we reached the beginning of the loop.

Turning right, we retraced our route back to the staging area. Our return trip was mostly uneventful, but we did encounter several groups of cows lounging right on the trail.

After our previous experience with the cows who went charging down the hill away from us, I was a bit concerned about what these ladies would do when we tried to pass. My concern was unnecessary however, as these cows were completely indifferent to our presence.

We returned to the trailhead unmoooolested.

From downtown Julian, head north on Main Street (towards the fire station and cemetery). Main Street turns into Farmer Road. Continue on Farmer Road approximately 2 miles, then turn right on Wynola Road. In a few hundred feet, turn left on to Farmer Road again. The entrance to Santa Ysabel Preserve is approximately 1.3 miles up the road on the left. map

Total Distance: 7.4 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 1050 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: Port-a-potty at trailhead, no water
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
County of San Diego Parks and Recreation – Santa Ysabel Preserves
Trail Map

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