Santa Ysabel

Hike at Santa Ysabel among two preserves and enjoy Julian pies

Julian is a haven for hikers, and the nearby surroundings are equally fulfilling, with top hikes … and pie! Just 7 miles west of Julian, Santa Ysabel has two beautiful preserves to explore, with oak woodlands and grasslands dominating its 4,600-acre landscape. Choose your adventure (or do both) via a 5.5-mile loop through the west preserve or a 4-mile loop starting at the east preserve’s visitor center. Then go eat a pie!

Park at the dirt lot just off the CA-78 to start your west preserve offering. This 5.5-mile loop nets you nearly 1200 feet in elevation gain, but the setting is tranquil throughout. Look for giant boulders and epic oaks standing prominently amid the grasslands and for cows resting peacefully in their shade as you pass a pond under a prominent hill. You’ll do some climbing to grassy knolls with great views and you’ll also descend sharply to babbling Santa Ysabel Creek.

Just up the road, the east preserve boasts multiple trails, but a great starting point is the pristine visitor center, which has some incredible interpretive displays, including one that teaches about Julian schist, the oldest known type of rock in San Diego County. Head north across from the parking lot, find the trailhead. The loop meanders gently for the first 1.5 miles through meadows and under oaks, before 600 feet of climbing through rolling hills and above the secluded canyon. Great views of the surrounding preserve and resident bovines are constant on this loop, with opportunities to extend the trip throughout (otherwise follow signs for the visitor center to return to your car).

TIP: If you’re looking for a shorter trek, we recommend the nearby Inaja Trail. Located just a few minutes east of Santa Ysabel, this half-mile loop may be short, but it packs quite the punch—look for gorgeous large granites and towering pines on hillsides and epic views of the Cleveland National Forest and the Santa Ysabel preserve below.

BONUS: After the hike(s) and on the way into town, stop in Wynola for the best pre-Julian eats. The California Mountain Bakery serves up apple pie and crumbles (and more!) that might even be better than the legendary Julian offerings, while Julian Station next door is the perfect post-hike relaxation spot. There, you’ll find boutique shops, live music, and Julian Hard Cider to try those delicious apples in liquid libation form (every offering is good, but we recommend a tasting flight)! Just don’t forget to make it to Julian by evening!

To get to Santa Ysabel West Preserve, take the CA-78 east from the I-15 in Escondido for 31 miles, passing through Ramona on the way. Find the dirt parking lot and trailhead on your left, just a mile before the town of Santa Ysabel. Santa Ysabel East Preserve’s nature center is a short drive north up the CA-79 from the junction with the CA-78. The Inaja Trail is 1 mile east of Santa Ysabel on the CA-78, and Julian Station is an additional 2 miles east. Dog-friendly!

Story and photos by Matt Pawlik, @mattitudehikes

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