Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve
Distance: 7.5 miles
Total elevation gain/loss: 650'/650'
Hiking time: 4 hours
Optional Map: USGS 7.5-min Wildomar
Best times: November through May
For a comprehensive look at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, try this half-day hike, which will introduce you to virtually every attractive feature characteristic of Southern California's foothills.
Start on the left branch of the Oak Tree self-guiding trail (Trip 1). It takes you through Engelmann oak woodland to the start of the Trans Preserve Trail, located at Post 11. Follow the Trans Preserve Trail for 1.7 miles over rolling and sometimes wooded terrain to the Vernal Pool Trail atop Mesa de Colorado. Head left (east) past one of the largest vernal pools in California (39 acres at maximum capacity). The hard-pan surface underneath vernal pools is generally impervious to water, so once filled during winter storms, the pools dry only by evaporation. Unusual and sometimes unique species of flowering plants have evolved around the perimeter of many vernal pools, including this one. As the pool's perimeter contracts during the steadily lengthening and warming days of spring, successive waves of annual wildflowers bloom along the pool's moist margin. By July or August, there's nothing to be seen but a desiccated depression, its barren surface glaring in the hot sun.
Continue east on the Vernal Pool Trail, and descend from Mesa de Colorado toward the two adobe buildings of the former Santa Rosa Ranch. If it's early in the morning, pause on the way down to scan (with binoculars, if you have them) the grassy slopes that lie below you in the north. One hiker told me that he has never seen so much wildlife (especially deer) in one place at one time as right here. Survey the skies, tool for patrolling raptors.
At the bottom of the grade, amidst the plentiful shade of live oaks, you'll find Riverside County's oldest known buildings about 150 years old. If you are tired or hot, you can"bail out" here by making a bee line back to the start via the Lomas Trail. Otherwise, continue on the 7.5-mile route by following the Punta Mesa Trail (a disused road) down across De Luz Creek and back uphill, heading north. At the next intersection, turn left, travel briefly west, and veer right on the aptly named Vista Grande Trail. Upon reaching the crest ahead (elevation 1940 feet), let your gaze take in hundreds of acres of wind-rippled grass, and admire the often snow-dusted peaks of the distant San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains, in the north and northeast, respectively.
When you reach the Tenaja Truck Trail, turn left and return to the starting point.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication