Also serving the communities of De Luz, Rainbow, Camp Pendleton, Pala and Pauma

Big skies, vernal pools and wildflowers at Santa Rosa Plateau

If you are dreaming of a place where you can escape for the day, a truly placid place is the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve. Nestled in the southern Santa Ana Mountains are the reserve’s 8,300 acres abundant with various habitats, including bunchgrass prairies and riparian wetlands. Also abundant are oak savannahs with two species of oaks, the live oak and the Engelmann oak.

Check in at the Visitor Center, pay the two-dollar fee and you will be given a map of the various trails and a list of the currently blooming wildflowers specific to each trail.

Debbie Taylor, who has been a docent at the reserve for more than twenty years, said that “peaceful” is the word that is most used to describe the reserve. For me, “tranquil” comes to mind. It is also a place to be still and observe nature in motion.

I chose the Vernal Pool Trail, which snaked around grey and brick-toned volcanic rocks encrusted with light green scales of lichen. No clouds were in sight, just a blue expanse of sky larger than anything I had seen in a long time.

A red-tailed hawk swooped down to a field but came up with nothing. A light breeze swished through the bunchgrass prairie, then quieted. I inhaled the delicious grassy scents punctuated by a generous helping of aromatic sage.

Two or three meadowlarks warbled from a distance, their calls echoing across the plain. In the uncluttered air the birdsongs were easily heard from afar. Crickets sang in the open fields; and snow-capped mountains were visible to the east.

I found that I needed to watch my step. Looking down to the trail I saw hordes of ants busy with some monumental project and an occasional lone caterpillar inching across the dusty path as if he knew the world would wait for him.

Butterflies betrayed the fact that there were still wildflowers to be seen. Various trails are host to different varieties, including the stunning chocolate lily. The Vernal Pool Trail was alive with yellow, white and lavender hues.

I saw the stout-leaved red maids (which seemed more lavender than red), the more elongated California golden violets, shooting stars, white popcorn flowers, buttercups and an occasional California poppy. Most prominent were the goldfields – small flowers that crowd together in a splash of yellow.

According to the brochure, various species of animals, such as mountain lions, make their home on the reserve. However, with the exception of some bobcat tracks in the dried trail mud, I didn’t see any evidence of them. I am sure they were well-hidden and maybe even watching me from the brush. Three species of rattlesnake are found on the grounds, but I was fortunate not to encounter any.

The vernal pools were still flush with water and life. A vernal pool is a pool with no water outlet that usually dries in the summer. These pools do not support fish but are host to fairy shrimp, which are fairly translucent and difficult to see. The life of a fairy shrimp is a curious phenomenon. Even though the pools dry up in the summer, the fairy shrimp survive year after year because their eggs can withstand the seasonal absence of water. They hatch when the pools refill.

No doubt the pools were named “vernal” because, in some areas with colder climates, they return to life about the time of the vernal equinox, which heralds the beginning of spring.

About a mile past the vernal pools stand two adobe houses that are said to be the oldest structures in Riverside County. According to, the Moreno Adobe was built in 1845 by Juan Moreno, who worked cattle on the land. In 1855, he sold the property to Augustin Machado, who then built another adobe to house the ranch hands. In 1878, a man named John Dear purchased the rancho and was living in a large Victorian-style home on the grounds. Docent Debbie Taylor mentioned that the Dear home was completely devastated by fire in the 1970s.

There are several ways to get to Santa Rosa Plateau from Fallbrook; however, the most direct is to take I-15 north to the Clinton Keith Road exit. Since I wanted a leisurely and picturesque drive, I took Sandia Creek Road to Rancho California, then drove I-15 from there. I was told that there is a way to get to the reserve by back roads through De Luz, but it involves a climb up an extremely steep grade.

The Santa Rosa Plateau is a perfect pairing of easy hiking and nature observation in a tranquil setting. In my opinion, it’s the perfect day-escape!

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Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve

39400 Clinton Keith Road


(951) 677-6951

Hours: Sunrise to sunset every day


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