Caspers Wilderness Park and Santa Rosa Plateau

Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve
By Jerry Schad

The Santa Rosa Plateau, on a southeastern spur of the Santa Ana Mountains, rises over the rapidly expanding suburban communities of southwest Riverside County like a Shangri-La in the sky. In the early '80s hardly anyone knew of its existence or its ecological significance. Starting with a nucleus of 3100 acres purchased by The Nature Conservancy from a housing development company in 1983, the current ecological reserve on the plateau now includes more than 8000 acres — some 13 square miles. Several public agencies have joined The Nature Conservancy in managing today's reserve, including (strangely enough) the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Though the area lies far from any significant source of water, the MWD's purchase and management of lands added to the preserve are offsetting natural habitat losses due to MWD's construction of the giant Domenigoni Reservoir 20 miles away.

A circle, 100 miles in radius, centered on the reserve, encompasses a megalopolis of some 20 million people. File this fact away in your mind, and then try to fathom its truth while walking amid the green and golden hills of this exquisitely beautiful place. Here is a classic California landscape of wind-rippled grasses, swaying poppies, statuesque oak trees, trickling streams, vernal pools, and a dazzling assortment of native plants (469 at last count) and animals. You will be struck by the reserve's timelessness and insularity, and you will quickly realize how important it was to save it.

Most of the newly purchased sections of the reserve are closed to visitors, though the older (west) halo of the reserve is laced with newer trails as well as old ranch roads open to hiking. Horseback riding and mountain biking are restricted, though tours featuring these modes of travel are occasionally offered. A multi-use trail running along the perimeter of the reserve and into suburban Murrieta in the valley below is being planned. In addition, the 1996 purchase of an adjacent ranch to the west (Sylvan Meadows) has opened up the possibility of constructing user facilities — such as an interpretive center, picnic areas, and mountain bike trails — on lands less sensitive than those in the main reserve.

From most parts of Orange County, the reserve can be reached in just over an hour by taking Highway 91 east to Interstate 15 in Corona, and I-15 southeast to the Clinton Keith Road exit in Murrieta. Turn right and head south on Clinton Keith Road 6 miles to a sharp rightward bend in the road. A locked gate with a pedestrian entry is here. This is where the following two trips originate.

Every Southern Californian should have at least one chance to see the Santa Rosa Plateau reserve at its stunning best during March and April, following a wet winter. The blooming of wildflowers, including California poppies, can be fantastic. Make a note in your calendar now to pay a visit during the next spring season.


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