Way Up Trail/Lake Hodges Overlook (Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve)

The Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve is a popular North County hiking and mountain biking destination. The Reserve is home to the Olivenhain Reservoir and is owned and operated by the Olivenhain Municipal Water District. There are 11 miles of trail that pass through oak riparian, oak woodland, coastal sage scrub, and chaparral habitats providing a nice variety of scenery. The Escondido Creek flows year-round through the lower section of the Reserve, making a beautiful photo or picnic spot for those seeking a less challenging outing. For those who want to work up a little sweat, there is the Way Up Trail which leads to the upper section of the Reserve.

We were interested in the more challenging option, so on a cloudy post-storm Saturday we set out to hike the Way Up Trail and continue on to the Lake Hodges Overlook on the eastern side of the Reserve. We started at the large kiosk across from the bathrooms. A sign at the top directed us to the left for the Way Up Trail.20160312_DSC0638-EditElfinForest

In about 100 feet there was a 3-way junction. To the left was the Botanical Trail, which we would return on. For now, we continued straight, crossing a bridge that spanned the idyllic Escondido Creek.20160312_DSC0641-EditElfinForest

Once across the creek, the Way Up Trail did not disappoint, and immediately began to ascend. There was a charming metal trail marker on the side of the trail – the first in a series that would mark our progress as we made our way up.20160312_DSC0644-EditElfinForest

It was a beautiful day for hiking. There had been some rain the previous day, so the trail was damp and hard-packed. Everything was lush and green, and here and there we spotted a few wildflowers starting to bloom.20160312_DSC0645-EditElfinForest


In just a short distance, we had ascended to where we could see the parking area below.20160312_DSC0653-EditElfinForest

We also had beautiful views of the creek valley.20160312_DSC0657-EditElfinForest

At .35 mile we encountered the other end of the Botanical Trail to the left. For now, we continued to the right, climbing ever upward.20160312_DSC0660-EditElfinForest

To the northwest were beautiful views looking towards San Marcos.20160312_DSC0669-EditElfinForest

We started up a set of switchbacks that zigged and zagged up the hill side. Periodically, a light drizzle would fall upon us. It wasn’t enough to make us break out the rain gear but we did have to cover the cameras between shots.20160312_DSC0673-EditElfinForest

Just shy of the 1 mile mark we came to the Harmony Grove Overlook, where a covered bench offered hikers a spot to catch their breath and enjoy the view.20160312_DSC0692-EditElfinForest

The switchbacks came to an end and the trail headed east through the tall brush. The grade had lessened considerably, but we were still going uphill.20160312_DSC0694-EditElfinForest

At 1.23 miles we came to the start of the Off-Leash area where dogs under effective voice control are allowed off leash during weekdays.20160312_DSC0701ElfinForest

At 1.25 miles, the Me-Xal trail branched off to the right, and just a bit further beyond there was another junction for the Equine Incline Trail. We continued straight past both these turn-offs, but made note of the other trails for future exploration.20160312_DSC0706ElfinForest

At 1.4 miles, just as we passed under some power lines, we came to a large 4-way intersection. The path straight ahead led Ridgetop Picnic Area, where one can find port-a-potties and drinking water if needed.20160312_DSC0708Elfin Forest

We turned left and began climbing the steep, rocky service road towards the Lake Hodges Overlook Trail.20160312_DSC0709-EditElfin Forest

A short way up the narrow Quail Trail branched off to the left. This was an alternate, meandering route to the top of the hill, and we decided we’d explore it on the way down. For now we continued straight up the wide road.20160312_DSC0710ElfinForest

Upon reaching the top of the hill, we found another 4-way intersection. To the left was the other end of the Quail Trail, and straight ahead was the park boundary and a trail heading towards the Del Dios Highlands Preserve. The latter route went on the list for another day as we turned right.20160312_DSC0713-EditElfinForest

To the right we finally had some good views of the Olivenhain Reservoir. It was looking pretty full by California standards.20160312_DSC0715-EditElfinForest

We soon reached another sheltered rest area, the Escondido Overlook.20160312_DSC0717-EditElfinForest

From there the rocky road led downhill towards the reservoir.20160312_DSC0730-EditElfinForest

The road soon leveled out and turned east, following the water’s shoreline.20160312_DSC0737-EditElfinForest

At 2.17 miles we encountered another junction. Here, we turned right to head downhill towards the water, following the sign for Lake Hodges Overlook.20160312_DSC0742-EditElfinForest

A few switchbacks led us downhill.20160312_DSC0744-EditElfinForest

The trail quickly bottomed out, then began switchbacking up the next hill.20160312_DSC0751-EditElfinForest

At 2.67 miles we came to the start of the Lake Hodges Overlook Loop, where we could go either right or left. Left was the quickest route to the Overlook, so we decided to go right as weren’t quite ready for a break yet.20160312_DSC0760-EditElfinForest

The trail began to descend again, switchbacking its way towards the reservoir’s edge once more. The map refers to this section as the Witch Trail.20160312_DSC0765-EditElfinForest

Heading south now, we followed the contour of the shore.20160312_DSC0773-EditElfinForest

At 3 miles, there was an unmarked fork heading up to the left. From the trail map, it appeared this route bisected a longer loop, offering a direct route to the Overlook. We continued downhill to the right.20160312_DSC0774-EditElfinForest

There was some erosion on the downhill section here, but it was easily avoided.20160312_DSC0776-EditElfinForest

Soon, the trail turned upwards, and we began heading north towards the Overlook.20160312_DSC0790ElfinForest

The clouds continued to look ominous, but the drizzle had stopped and we were able to just enjoy the dramatic skies. Post rain hikes are awesome not just because of the skies, but the colors of the moistened earth and surrounding plants always seem more vibrant after a rain.20160312_DSC0798-EditElfinForest

Finally, we saw the Overlook in the distance.20160312_DSC0799-EditElfinForest

We reached the viewing area and found two covered benches, one facing each direction. To the west was the Olievnhain Reservoir, and to the east was Lake Hodges. We could make out the shapes of tiny little boats and fishermen on the water’s surface.20160312_DSC0808-EditElfinForest

We relaxed on one of the benches, eating some snacks and enjoying the views. A family with two young children occupied the other bench, and I was impressed that their small kids had made it up here. Once we’d finished our break, we set off again, continuing north.20160312_DSC0814-EditElfinForest

At a little over 4 miles, we reconnected with the start of the Lake Hodges Overlook Loop, and turned right to retrace our steps.20160312_DSC0822-EditElfinForest

We followed our original path back to where the Quail Trail met the main trail. We decided we’d take this short alternate path just to see what was there.20160312_DSC0855-EditElfinForest

This side trail was slightly narrower and a bit less steep, but just as rocky as the main trail.20160312_DSC0860-EditElfinForest

Looking northwest from here we could see the Way Up Trail leading back to the Harmony Grove Overlook.20160312_DSC0858-EditElfinForest

After a brief .15 mile we reconnected with the main trail and resumed backtracking on our original route. At 6.44 miles, we took another detour, turning right onto the Botanical Loop Trail.20160312_DSC0888ElfinForest

The trail did not disappoint, as there was a plethora of lush greenery to enjoy.20160312_DSC0895-EditElfinForest

Some gorgeous wildflowers were just starting to make their appearance as well.

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We got lucky and happened to notice a fat, fuzzy caterpillar making his way along a branch.20160312_DSC0928ElfinForest

The trail wound down the hillside and soon plunged into a thick covering of oak trees. We knew we must be getting close to water again.20160312_DSC0951-EditElfinForest

As we approached the creek, we found a nice little stone bench near the bank. A perfect spot for some peaceful contemplation.20160312_DSC0954-EditElfinForest

The trail made its way along the creek for a short way, and then it was time to cross. While there was a nice sturdy bridge at the start of the trail, here we had to do it the old fashioned way and hop across a series of rocks. While I have no issues with getting myself wet, we carry a rather embarrassing amount of expensive camera gear while hiking, so it was with great caution that we made our way over the rocks.20160312_DSC0956ElfinForest

We, and our gear, safely made it across the creek and continued on our way. On the far side of the creek, the trail made a sharp left.20160312_DSC0959ElfinForest

From here it was just a short stroll back to the parking lot.

View the full photo gallery

From I-15 take the Valley Parkway exit and go west on West Valley Parkway. Turn right onto Avenida Del Diablo and continue for approximately .6 mile. Turn right onto Citricado Parkway, which turns left and becomes Harmony Grove Village Parkway. Turn left onto Harmony Grove Road and continue for 2.2 miles to the Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve on your left. The parking lot is small, so you may need to park on the side of the road or in the overflow parking area. map

Total Distance: 7.1 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 1542 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed; certain areas are off-leash on weekdays
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed
Facilities: Port-a-potties and drinking fountain in parking area and at approximately 1.4 miles
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
Escondido Creek Conservancy: Elfin Forest Recreation Reserve
Olivenhain Municipal Water District: Elfin Forest Recreation Reserve
Trail Map
View route or download GPX in CalTopo

One thought on “Way Up Trail/Lake Hodges Overlook (Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve)

  1. Wow – amazing photos! They wonderfully illustrated to me how different the same trail can be when hiking in different seasons: my husband, son, dog, and I hiked Elfin Forest in late spring, and it was MISERABLE. Hardly any shade once you leave the riparian habitat – just sun scorching down on you and the brown shrubbery, and the lake glinting in the sun but no way to access it. We should have done more research before doing this hike on a day that was forecast the be in the 80s – with no shade, it was far too hot for our Lab. Even the ground was painfully hot to her paws, so we let her spend quite a while in the stream when we got back to it!