Manchester Hidden Gem

Hike a hidden gem at Manchester Preserve in San Diego County

Small county nature preserves often sit in the shadow of our great national and state parks, but definitely deserve to be in the spotlight. There are many significant examples throughout San Diego County, but an often overlooked spot hidden between Encinitas neighborhoods should be at the top of your list. Enter Manchester Preserve, a 123-acre canyon gem that features a 4-mile winding trail network, best explored on a 2.25-mile perimeter loop with 375 feet of elevation gain.

A hiker walks past the sign for Manchester Preserve in North San Diego County

A hiker walks up to a heart shaped rock formation at Manchester Preserve in North San Diego County

A woman sits at a bench overlooking vast green scenery at Manchester Preserve in San Diego County

There are multiple entrances to this chaparral and riparian oasis, but we like starting at the southeast corner of the park (at a small dirt lot) off Manchester Avenue. Since there are tons of trails, we recommend downloading a map even though it’s hard to get lost in this little haven. Pass the welcoming sign on the Manchester Canyon Trail, but not before checking the board—you’ll find that this preserve is actually the only known California home to Orcutt’s hazardia (aka bristleweed), a flowering evergreen shrub that only otherwise exists in Baja California. Look for it on sandstone substrates, but of course, keep your distance.

A hiker crosses a bridge amid chaparral scenery at Manchester Preserve in North San Diego County

Continue north along the coastal sage scrub and classic chaparral flora and keep right at the junctions to keep on your perimeter loop. You’ll head for sandstone cliffs, which actually provide a bit of a rugged, steep climb that will get your legs working and provide a slight technical challenge for many. Fortunately, part of the ascent is via stairs. This trail is the aptly named Powerline Trail, as the electric structures are the only thing getting in the way of an otherwise perfect 360-degree view of the preserve and surrounding neighborhoods.

A hiker stands and surveys the scenery near a heart rock formation at Manchester Preserve in North San Diego County

Continue on the Sage Trail, which borders the northern part of the preserve and features some benches to rest on and enjoy the vistas. For further mileage take a spur trail to your right, which leads you to the northern entrance. Otherwise, the trail soon starts descending south along the western border of the park. Look for San Diego thornmint, a tiny funnel-shaped, light-violet flower, and listen for resident gnatcatchers as you dip into the canyon. You’ll soon take a charming wooden bridge over a dry, sandy wash as local riparian specimens such as willows start to appear as well. At the southwesternmost corner of the park, you will head left, back towards your starting point and car, where you’ll certainly reflect on how much awesome SoCal variety you saw in such a short trip. The preserve deserves it!

To get to the Manchester Ave. entrance to Manchester Preserve, take the I-5 to the Manchester Ave. exit and head east. After 2 miles (look to your right for the San Elijo Lagoon), take a right to stay on Manchester Ave. and after another mile, find the Preserve entrance and dirt lot on your left. Dog-friendly!

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