San Dieguito River Park
Updated: Mar 13
Getting outside in nature is a big part of what I do. Capturing images of nature, wildlife and some of the amazing outdoor recreational sports we have. I love that through this I get to inspire people to get outdoors, have an adventure and explore our natural world. I wanted to have a better platform than the brief snippets I leave on my social media posts. Somewhere I could talk in depth about the places I visit and to discuss some of the important issues we face in outdoor recreation. Promoting sustainable and responsible outdoor habits as a way to encourage not only getting out to make a difference, but to enjoy nature in it’s truest form. For the first article in this series, I’m going to start with an amazing hike local to the San Diego area! Located just south of Escondido, San Dieguito River Park has some beautiful trails, great views and plenty of opportunities to view wildlife.
On January 22nd I went out to the park for the first time in a while with a friend. Parking at the trailhead we walked down to the David Krieitzer Lake Hodges Bicycle Pedestrian Bridge. After this bridge we took the left [west] onto the Coast-to-Crest trail making our way toward Bernardo Mountain. Roughly 10 meters into the trail we spotted mountain lion tracks! An amazing start to the day, we immediately began looking for more signs. After following the tracks further down the trail I spotted a peculiar pile of dirt. As we approached it, I saw a second set of prints left in the dirt.
These prints were not nearly as big as the tracks we had been following. The adult mountain lion was in fact a female with at least one cub in tow! With a closer look I noticed these smaller cub tracks did in fact follow mamma along her way down the Coast-to-Crest trail. The signs were fresh enough, I believe we missed the big cats by just a few hours.
Although I have yet to see the secretive mountain lions, my pursuit lead me to discovering some other cool local wildlife and explore some beautiful trails in San Dieguito River Park. After leaving a camera set up by a water crossing I found that there were playful coyotes and raccoons that also found the trail system useful for their nighttime travels. Over the next few days I would go out every morning to check on the camera and also visit my friends who enjoy grazing in the morning sun. Like clockwork, a herd of whitetail deer would emerge with he rising sun. Getting their breakfast on the Eastside of Bernardo Mountain, you can get some amazing views all along the base via Coast-to-Crest trail.
One morning after going out for my checks, I decided to go to the top of Bernardo Mountain. Turning off onto Bernardo Mountain Summit trail is a clearly marked, easy to find trail. As you make your way around to the West side, you will find yourself with plenty of shade in the morning hours. Great on hot days, but do be mindful of colder days and maybe even pack an extra light layer. At the top I found a great spot where I could sit and watch the deer from above. Aside from houses and traffic the views were great. Getting up there early enough to enjoy the sunrise makes the trip that much more worth it. You will find an ammunition can at the top filled with logs to record your day hike victories and all the amazing nature you got to see!
I returned to that camera location for a couple more days before deciding to move the setup to a new location. Wanting to keep it in the same local area, I did a quick look on gaiagps.com and found a location that seemed to be a pretty good area for some wildlife activity. I wanted to explore more of the area in person to get a better idea of the layout and look for physical signs of wildlife [tracks, scat, etc.]. I found a nice route that ended at an overlook of Lake Hodges. Taking Turtle Head Mountain trail all the way to the top is a fun and pretty hike! The route is roughly a 4.5 mile out and back. Going up there every morning was an amazing way to start my day. With Lake Hodges visible basically the whole way, the only part at the beginning you don’t see it hosts a small duck pond that is really fun to sit around and watch the local waterfowl.
I’ve spent some quality time with the ducks here photographing their little urban border oasis. After passing this pond you will make your way through a heavily vegetated corridor before it opens up into the watershed canyons around Lake Hodges. From here you will see thick bushes and other vegetation taking up the hillsides. The trail is fairly easy to follow with only a couple of quick switchbacks and unofficial [user created] trails. It is important that we avoid using unofficial trails. Making trails in a landscape like this can lead to extensive soil compaction, loss of vegetation and erosion. Make sure to follow a map, gps or any other navigation device to make sure you are only utilizing official trails. After you get past these relatively easy obstacles, the rest of the trail has one last little climb to get to the top where you can enjoy a panoramic views of Lake Hodges. In this area I was able to get some footage of a bobcat, a curious crow and a few hungry rabbits that happened to find eating in front of the camera exciting. One of the bigger finds in this area was getting to photograph an Osprey hanging out in a tree on the shoreline!
I would recommend San Dieguito River Park to anyone who is local or finds themselves in the San Diego area and looking for a fun day hike with the chance to view wildlife. When visiting the park it is very important that this natural area, like all, are protected from negative impacts.
These environments can have very fragile ecosystems so always practice good leave no trace practices wherever you find yourself at outdoors. At this area in particular I have picked up various articles of trash that would have been just as easy to pack out as it was to throw on the ground. Another good rule of thumb is, digging up the trail to make mountain bike jumps is generally bad for the area. Most trails are specifically constructed to maintain consistent impacts from use and to mitigate effects these impacts have on the surrounding environment. When you dig up the trail, you are ruining the integrity of it, causing additional soil compaction and potentially killing native vegetation species.
When we venture out to these places we have to remember that not only do other people use these areas to recreate, but wildlife, plants, entire ecosystems have their processes already in place and we are just visitors. Take only pictures leave only footprints. Together we can help our world become healthier for all living things and the future generations to come.
San Dieguito River Park Website | Volunteer at the Park! | 7 Principles of Leave No Trace