Established in 1973, Wilderness Gardens Preserve was San Diego County Parks and Recreation’s first nature preserve. Situated along the flood plain of the San Luis Rey River, the Preserve has a variety of scenic landscapes to enjoy, as well as historical artifacts of interest which illustrate its long history of human habitation. The park is closed on Wednesdays and, due to heat, for the entire month of August, so plan your trip accordingly.
There are multiple short trails in the preserve which can be combined in any number of ways. We did our best to plan a route that would incorporate the majority of the park into a single loop, and set of on our way. We started at the eastern edge of the Alice Fries Trail, just to the right of the information board/pay station on the edge of the parking lot. The trail loops around, ending about 200 feet to the left.
The path was smooth dirt, lined with rocks. We passed a few oak trees which overhung the trail.
The trees soon disappeared and we emerged in an exposed, arid landscape. To the north and east of us, Highway 76 ran atop the tall canyon wall.
In the southwest, Pala Mountain loomed in the distance.
The trail meandered through tall grasses and the occasional prickly pear cactus.
We found several benches which provided good spots to kick back and enjoy the day.
At just under .5 mile, we reached the end of the Alice Fries Trail and turned right on the Main Trail (seriously, that’s the name on the park map).
The trail crossed the course of the San Luis Rey River. The crossing today was completely dry, but during the rainy season one can expect to find some water here. After serious rains, the park may be closed for a couple of days until water levels recede.
We followed the wide, dirt road a short way to the first junction. The Upper Meadow Trail branched off to the left. Those who prefer to get their elevation gain done early in a hike would be advised to turn left and explore the park in a clockwise direction. We ended up going counter clockwise, and so stayed on the main path here. The elevation gain isn’t especially large, so it didn’t really make a difference to us in the long run.
The Main Trail wound its way through grasses, oaks, and the occasional patch of brightly colored flowers.
Around .75 mile we spotted a fenced off exhibit on the left side of the trail – a rock with smooth grinding holes ground into its surface.
We continued on, and around .85 miles found a small picnic area with table and port-a-potty on the right, followed by a large boulder with an embedded plaque dedicated to the Small Wilderness Area Preserves committee responsible for establishing the preserve.
Just shy of the 1 mile point we came upon another “Y” junction. We could see the Ranger Station on the left. We stayed to the right.
More grasses and oak trees awaited us as we headed towards the pond.
The road curved to the south, and at 1.2 miles we came upon a “T” junction. We turned right.
We immediately came upon another junction where the Pond Trail turned north, paralleling the road we were just on to loop around the pond.
There were many trees and brush along both sides of the trail, but a few clear spots allowed us glimpses of the pond. But we found this side to be completely overgrown with rushes, making views of the actual water impossible.
The trail continued around the backside of the pond.
We found a small use trail that extended out onto a little peninsula. We followed it out until it ended in a stand of brush.
Back on the main trail, we continued along the path as it looped around, and finally got to see some pond!
At 1.5 miles we reconnected with the main trail again, and turned right.
We soon came to the start of the Camella View Trail, which led around what used to be another pond. We turned left to begin the loop.
The path led through more grassy fields, all a beautiful, verdant green after an epicly wet winter. To the northeast, the Palomar Mountains loomed in the distance.
At 1.9 miles we came to a “T” junction, and turned right, towards the Parking Lot.
The road followed the course of the river on our left, and we spotted several Oleander bushes along the trail, remnants of the areas earlier days.
At 2.2 miles we reached another junction. The end of our loop lay along the path straight ahead, but we noticed a small spur trail branching off to the left and decided to explore.
The short spur was only a few hundred feet long. We found a picnic table in a serene and quiet spot, and a narrow use trail led north a short way to the edge of the dry river bed. The short detour was definitely worth checking out.
We retraced our route back to the last junction and turned left, leading back to the start of the Camella View Trail loop.
Once again we turned left, retracing our route back towards the Pond Trail.
We continued on the main road until we came to the western end of the Upper Meadow Trail on our right and turned onto it.
The trail began to gain some elevation, heading uphill through more tall grasses and tangled oaks.
The slope increased substantially, but it was a fairly short distance so we just plowed on.
After about .1 mile we came to a little spur trail branching off to the right. It was steep, but short, so we decided to check it out.
The trail climbed quickly up the hillside, giving us some great views of the valley below where we had just been.
We came upon a “Y” junction near the end of the trail and took the right fork. It’s a tiny little loop, so the direction you take isn’t really important.
The views continued to impress.
We also found plenty of wildflowers beginning to emerge on the sunny slope.
We completed the small loop and began heading back down. We were able to get some glimpses of the pond we had circled just a little while earlier.
We reconnected with the Upper Meadow Trail and turned right, following the sign pointing towards the parking lot. We came upon a small wooden footbridge spanning a small creek.
In the sunnier spots, we found more wildflowers adding color to the trail side.
The trail had leveled out, providing an easy and enjoyable stroll. Around 3.2 miles we came upon a large, grassy expanse with sign indicating the Upper Meadow.
A short distance beyond was a bench, overlooking the entire park below.
Just past the bench a very steep set of wooden stairs led down the hill.
The path led us the rest of the way to the valley floor.
Around 3.4 miles we reached the bottom and came to a “Y” junction. The left fork led back towards the Ranger Station we had passed earlier. We turned right, following signs for the parking lot.
This last stretch of trail led us through more boulder-strewn grass fields overhung by oaks.
Around 3.7 miles we reconnected with the Main Trail, where we turned right to retrace our path back to the parking lot.
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Take I-15 north to 76 east. Follow 76 for approximately 10 miles to the Wilderness Gardens Preserve entrance on your right (Bodie Blvd on Google Maps). Follow the road through the entrance gate and down the hill to the parking lot. Pay your day use fee at the self-registration kiosk in the parking lot. map
||Easy – Moderate
||Dogs not allowed
||Bikes not allowed
||Port-a-potties; No potable water
||$3 day use fee per vehicle
For more information, visit:
San Diego County Parks and Recreation: Wilderness Gardens Preserve
Park Brochure (includes trail map)
View route or download GPX from CalTopo