Mount Calavera


Lake Calavera Open Space Preserve is a very popular North County destination for hiking, biking, dog walking and trail running. There is an elaborate network of formal and use trails running throughout the preserve which makes it an excellent spot for exploration if you are so inclined. The route we followed is a fairly straightforward course that visits the area’s major features: Mount Calavera and Lake Calavera.

There are a number of trail heads one can use for accessing the preserve (see trail map for details), but only one has a formal parking lot, water, and restrooms: Oak Riparian Park in Oceanside. Starting here would also cause us to pass through some beautiful riparian oak woodland (the park is indeed appropriately named), so it seemed like a no-brainer.20160124DSC_6009Calavera

We found the start of our trail on the southern edge of the park, marked by a group of three palm trees.20160124DSC_6010Calavera

We followed the path into the darkness of the thick vegetation that surrounded the small creek. A series of wooden boards spanned the narrow waterway, providing an easy and dry crossing.20160124DSC_6013Calavera

Once across the creek, we turned right and followed a leaf-littered trail through the oaks.20160206DSC_6276Calavera

After only a few hundred feet, we came to what would be the first of many intersections. We continued straight.20160124DSC_6056Calavera

We soon came upon a boardwalk which would take us through one of the marshier sections of trail.20160124DSC_6073Calavera

Around .4 mile the boardwalk ended and we emerged from the dense foliage of the marsh. Ahead of us we could see our destination – the imposing form of Mount Calavera rising in the distance. It’s not actually a mountain, but a volcanic plug formed by the cooled and hardened lava that once flowed from the volcano’s opening.20160124DSC_6077Calavera

A short way ahead we came to another junction just beneath a row of power lines. A wide dirt path to the left followed the course of the power lines up the hill. Also towards our left was a narrower single track which continued towards Mount Calavera. To the right a wide dirt path headed towards the lake. We’d be returning on the right fork, but for now took the narrow path to the left towards Mount Calavera.20160206DSC_6293Calavera

We encountered a few more intersections but just kept going straight, aiming for the peak ahead of us. After crossing a small wooden footbridge, we climbed a small hill.20160206DSC_6299Calavera

We were now well away from the shady trees that lined the creek and found it to be quite warm amid the exposed chaparral and sage scrub. I was glad we hadn’t waited until summer to do this hike.20160206DSC_6301Calavera

Continuing on the main trail, we finally came to the base of the east side of Mount Calavera.20160206DSC_6304Calavara_orig

We could clearly see the route up the hillside from here, but as we would soon discover once we were among the tall brush the elaborate network of use trails would make navigation a bit tricky. We ended up hitting a dead end or two and having to backtrack. In an attempt to spare you, Dear Reader, the same frustration, here is a rough diagram of the route that successfully got us up the mountain:20160206DSC_6304Calavera

From the trail marker pictured above, we headed straight and then turned left at the first intersection. Just beyond that junction, we took the right hand fork going uphill. From there it was just a matter of choosing the most obvious route that went up. We quickly found ourselves on the wide, rocky path we had seen from the base of the mountain, and knew we were on the right track.20160206DSC_6307Calavera

From below, the trail had looked very steep and sketchy and I had been a little concerned about slipping. However once on the trail, my fears were allayed as I found that the rocks here were quite firmly embedded in the ground and provided solid footing. While it was indeed steep, the ground was firm and we were able to ascend quickly.20160206DSC_6309Calavera

At 1.1 miles we were past the worst of the upward climb. At the edge of a wire fence, we followed the trail to the right towards the summit.20160206DSC_6310Calavera

At the top we found a rocky clearing.20160206DSC_6311Calavera

To our left was a slight saddle and a greener hill top just beyond.20160206DSC_6317Calavera

We took a few minutes to enjoy the views. To the west we could see the Pacific Ocean and the communities of Carlsbad and Oceanside. Towards the northeast was Mount Palomar, and we could even see the snow-topped ridge of San Jacinto way in the distance.20160206DSC_6313Calavera

We spotted a couple possible routes down the mountain. On the northwest slope there was a precarious looking trail that led along the narrow edge of the cliffs down below.20160206DSC_6316Calavera

We chose to take the more conservative route from the saddle.20160206DSC_6319Calavera

Once again, there was a web of use trails crisscrossing the slope. We made our way towards the northwest edge of the ridge where we found a wide clearing.20160206DSC_6321CalaveraOn the right side of this clearing we found a steep and somewhat eroded path that would eventually converge with the path that traveled along the cliffs.20160206DSC_6324Calavera

We finally reached a well-maintained level road and headed right.20160206DSC_6325Calavera

Right after joining this trail we spotted a side trail that led to an apparent mine shaft. It didn’t look particularly stable so we snapped a picture and continued on our way.20160206DSC_6326Calavera

We soon came to the quarry area, and could see the silhouettes of hikers who had chosen the more exciting route. Dirt and rock from the quarry had been used to build the dam below that created Lake Calavera.20160206DSC_6331Calavera

We took a quick side trip through the brush here to find find some of the rock art that adorned the floor of the quarry. Among stacked cairns and other patterns laid out on the ground, we found the most impressive of the displays to be this labyrinth-like spiral design.20160206DSC_6339Calavera

We returned to the main trail and followed it downhill. There were of course more unlabeled junctions, but we stuck to the left, going downhill towards the dam.20160206DSC_6344Calavera

Crossing the dam, we were able to get a great view of the lake below. Numerous birds gathered along the shoreline and cruised through the water. We spotted Coots and Night Heron on the shore near us, and there were plenty of other birds far too away for us to identify.20160206DSC_6358Calavera

Once across the dam, we turned right onto a wide gravel path heading east.20160206DSC_6360Calavera

Up the hill on our left was a suburban housing development, but on our right was peaceful Lake Calavera.20160206DSC_6370Calavera

We spotted lots of smaller birds flitting through the brush alongside the trail, and perched high above us on one of the many utility poles we saw this handsome guy:20160206DSC_6379Calavera

At 2.3 miles the trail split. Both forks continued east, but the fork to the right traveled somewhat closer to the edge of the lake, so that’s the route we chose.20160206DSC_6382Calavera

The trail narrowed, and in some spots was covered in soft, chalk-like sand.20160206DSC_6395Calavera

On our right, the lake sparkled in the sunlight.20160206DSC_6397Calavera

There were a couple of trail branches off to the left that reconnected with the main trail, but we continued straight until we reached a major “T” junction. Here we turned right, following signs for the Creek Crossing.20160206DSC_6402Calavera

Another wooden boardwalk took us across the creek and through the dense tangle of willows and sycamore trees.20160206DSC_6405Calavera

Once across the creek, we turned left. We quickly met our original path and retraced our route back to the park.20160206DSC_6409Calavera

From Highway 78 take the Emerald Drive exit. Head south on Emerald Drive and continue as it turns into Sunset Drive. Approximately .6 mile after exiting the freeway, turn right onto Emerald Drive again. Turn left onto Lake Blvd, and the park will be on your right in about .3 mile. If the parking lot is full, you can find street parking in the nearby residential area. map

Total Distance: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: Easy – Moderate
Total Ascent: 459 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: Bathrooms and drinking fountain at park
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
City of Carlsbad – Lake Calavera
Pamphlet & Map
View route or download GPX in CalTopo

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