San Diego National Wildlife Refuge – Par 4 Trail


Although we’ve been frequent visitors to the western portion of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge in Rancho San Diego, we’d never managed to make it over to the eastern side. In fact, for many years we had no idea there was another part of the refuge, as the main trailhead to the area lies a the end of a remote suburban cul-de-sac.

The Par 4 trailhead leads to a nice little loop trail that runs along the Sweetwater River near the Cottonwood Golf Course and along the hills just north of Steele Canyon High School. There’s a network of use trails running through the area so you can do some exploring. We ended up doing something of a figure-8 loop that seemed to incorporate most of the highlights of the area.

We found ample parking along the street. The trail began on the left at the end of the cul-de-sac (the gate on the right with the “NO TRESPASSING” signs is a road that seems to lead to the golf course, don’t go that way).2016Par4DSC_6904

Once through the gate, we passed a kiosk with some information about the area, and almost at once had our first wildlife encounter of the day. Birds were busy flitting through the bushes around us, and we spotted a Mourning dove walking through the brush.2016Par4DSC_6907

We quickly came to a “Y” junction. The path to the left appeared to head uphill, while the right fork followed the wooden fence, staying mostly flat. As this was our first visit to the area, we picked a direction somewhat randomly, and stuck to the low-lying right fork.2016Par4DSC_6908The green belt of the Sweetwater River lay off to the right. The trail took us through an open expanse of mostly dry brush. We saw lots of buckwheat and Chapparal broom, along with brown grasses, dry from the summer’s heat.2016Par4DSC_6910

Around .5 mile we started to get glimpses of the golf course through the trees on our right. 2016Par4DSC_6921

The trail began to ascend gently as it bent slightly southward to avoid the golf course.2016Par4DSC_6922

Around .64 mile we passed a junction on the left that appeared to head back towards our starting point via a trail that ran higher up along the hillside. We surmised that this connected with the other end of the junction we’d noticed at the start. We continued west.2016Par4DSC_6923

Around .75 mile we passed the edge of the golf course, and came to another “Y” junction. The right fork went up a small hill, and we decided to climb it to check out the views and get the lay of the land. Another “Y” junction quickly followed, we took the left fork which led up the hill.2016Par4DSC_6926

A short tenth of a mile brought us to the top of the small promontory. We could see the wide, green band of trees surrounding the Sweetwater River spread out before us. On the other side was the suburban sprawl of Rancho San Diego.2016Par4DSC_6929

Towards the west, we recognized the hills above the other side of the Wildlife Refuge where we had previously hiked. That’s where we were aiming for today.2016Par4DSC_9306

After admiring the views, we headed back down the hill. As we made our way down, we spotted the top of Mount Miguel peeking over the ridgeline on our left.2016Par4DSC_6932

Once off the hill we found a set of parallel paths – a lower one that travelled close to the river and a higher one, running about halfway up the slope of the ridgeline to the south. We chose the more exposed route along the ridgeline, figuring we’d take the lower, shadier route on the way back.2016Par4DSC_6934

We came upon several connectors between the parallel tracks, so if you’re unhappy with your choice it would be a simple task to switch to the other path. We stuck to the high ground which had some narrow ups and downs – undoubtedly a popular choice with the mountain bikers.2016Par4DSC_6938

Just past the 1.5 mile mark, a wide dirt road split off to the left, which appeared to wrap around the southern flank of the ridgeline we’d been hugging and lead up to the water tanks. We continued straight though, as from here we could see the paved Campo Road ahead of us with the western portion of the Wildlife Refuge on the far side. We climbed down the hill to our turnaround point.2016Par4DSC_6951

We followed the trail as it bent to the right and then turned back eastward along the course of the river. Here the leafy canopies of oak trees shaded the trail and instead of sparse, dry sage scrub, the trail was lined with lush greenery.2016Par4DSC_6956

Views of the river were mostly obscured by the thick vegetation, but there were a few spots where we could see some patches of water in the riverbed. As usual in riparian habitats, our old friend Poison oak made an appearance. It was easily avoided.2016Par4DSC_6959

While we greatly enjoyed the dark coolness of the creekside trail, it ended all too quickly. Around the 2 mile point we passed under a couple beautiful, enormous oak trees, then emerged amid more arid surroundings.2016Par4DSC_6975

We climbed a short, rocky ascent, and at the top found a large pile of rocks with a memorial plaque.2016Par4DSC_6982

Beyond, we came upon a junction where we could once again choose the high road or the low road. We chose the high road, as it was the section we had not done on the way out.2016Par4DSC_6984

The trail climbed gently up and down along the hillside, with more burnt orange buckwheat flowers and green laurel sumac and chaparral broom surrounding us.2016Par4DSC_7008

The high road may have been a bit more work than the low road, but the views were more than worth the small effort.2016Par4DSC_7011

Before long the trail descended and turned north, leading back towards our starting point.2016Par4DSC_7017

We soon found ourselves at the kiosk, heading back towards our car.

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Take 94 East until it turns into Campo Road. Continue on Campo Road for approximately .9 miles, then turn right onto Willow Glen Drive. Follow Willow Glen Drive for approximately .8 miles, then turn right onto Steel Canyon Road. Follow Steel Canyon Road for approximately .4 miles. Take the 2nd right onto Par 4 Drive (there was no street sign when we visited). Drive to the end of Par 4 Drive and find the the trail head on the left at the end of the cul-de-sac. Find parking on the street, begin careful not to block any driveways. map

Total Distance: 3.3 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Total Ascent: 339 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed Dogs Allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes Allowed
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
US Fish & Wildlife Service – Par 4 Drive trailhead
View route or download GPX from CalTopo

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