San Diego National Wildlife Refuge – Sweetwater River Trail

The San Diego National Wildlife RefugeAcross the road from a sprawling strip mall in Rancho San Diego lies a hidden gem of San Diego Hiking. The San Diego National Wildlife Refuge encompasses the majority of San Miguel Mountain (aka Mount Miguel, Mount San Miguel, etc)  and surrounding areas. The Sweetwater River runs along the northwestern edge of the Refuge which provides riparian as well as coastal scrub habitat for a number of threatened and endangered species. This is a short, easy hike that provides a surprising amount of quiet solitude considering how close it is to civilization.

Sweetwater River bridge at San Diego National Wildlife RefugeThe hike begins at the historic Sweetwater River Bridge. Cross the bridge, and just beyond, look to the right for the trail which is marked by two large boulders near the first power pole.


20140611SDNWR9393We stepped between the two boulders marking the start of the trail and strolled through the dried grass. Specimens of some of the refuge’s more common yet distinctive plants could be seen within the first couple of hundred feet of our hike, including Jimson Weed and Coyote Melon. We passed an informational kiosk  and proceeded through some trees,  crossing a dry creek before the trail opened up again. We paused at an interpretive exhibit describing the endangered San Diego Ambrosia plant, however we weren’t able to identify any ambrosia among the large expanse of buckwheat.

By now the sound of traffic had all but disappeared. We came to an intersection and turned right to follow the course of the Sweetwater River.Trail along the Sweetwater River at San Diego National Wildlife Refuge

To the left was a wide open field of dried grass and flowering buckwheat, with the occasional large boulder or bush. In the distance, the distinctive form of San Miguel Mountain with its many antennae could be seen.View of Mount Miguel from San Diego National Wildlife Refuge

The refuge is home to a number of threatened and endangered species, including least Bell’s Vireo, California gnatcatcher, Southwestern Willow flycatcher, Quino checkerspot butterfly, arroyo toad, and California red-legged frog. Destruction of habitat, both by increasing development and the 2003 and 2007 wildfires has placed pressure on a number of local species. We have also spotted a number of more common critters there, including coyotes, rabbits, road runners, and hawks.

We continued along the trail, and at approximately .9 miles encountered a “Y” intersection in the trail. Note this junction as we’ll return along the left branch. For now we continued along the river on the right fork of the path.

Trail along the Sweetwater River at San Diego National Wildlife RefugeThe trail soon came up against the base of a hill and narrowed as passed close to the river and the brush began to thicken. Large clumps of poison oak could be seen along the river side of the trail.

We encountered more than a few areas marked off as under restoration. The USFWS appears to be doing considerable work here to restore and protect the sensitive habitats of the refuge.There are numerous areas being restored at the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge

At 1.1 miles, we came to another intersection. You can continue straight ahead at this point, climbing up over the large hill before you. The trail eventually connects with the Sweetwater Reservoir, however we haven’t traveled the entire length so I can’t guarantee what you’ll find.

The right fork, which we chose, leads to a quaint wooden footbridge which spans the river and provides a shady spot to hang out and admire the water below.Wooden footbridge crossing the Sweetwater River at San Diego National Wildlife Refuge

Or, you can go down around the side of the bridge to the water’s edge and cool your paws.The Sweetwater River at San Diego National Wildlife Refuge

From the bridge, you can continue across the river and turn right to form a loop back to the parking area. The far side of the river isn’t quite as scenic however, passing by a water treatment plant. We decided to turn back the way we came and take another trail branch back.

We retraced our steps back to the “Y” junction noted earlier, and this time took the fork leading away from the river.Fork in the trail at San Diego National Wildlife Refuge

Hiking trail at San Diego National Wildlife RefugeWe traveled slightly uphill and enjoyed the vantage showing the wide field of scrub brush and grasses between us and the river. Above us, large boulders perched atop the hillside.

Following the trail we came to a section of some small but dramatic rises – obviously a favorite spot for the mountain bikers. The trail then turned back towards the river, and we continued straight through the next two intersections to return to the ambrosia interpretive exhibit we saw on our way in. We turned left to pass back across the dry creek and head back to the parking area.20140611SDNWR9443

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Take 94 East until it turns into Campo Road. Turn right onto CA-94 E/Campo Road (You’ll see TGI Friday’s across the street). Turn right onto Singer Lane. The parking area is immediately on your left. map

Total Distance: 2.3 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Change: Negligible
Best Time of Year: Year Round
Dog Friendly: Leashed Dogs are allowed
Bikes Allowed? Yes
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information visit:
US Fish & Wildlife Service: San Diego National Wildlife Refuge

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